‘… all good photographers have a deep commitment to, and involvement with, their subjects, and through photography they are communicating their understanding and passion to others.’
Bill Jay, Occam’s Razor, 1992, pg 18
I wrote a piece on ‘preciousness‘ in art and photography a couple of weeks ago. Now, I want to address something even more important to my future photographic journey – intimacy.
My starting point is that my work historically has tended towards the observational, indexical. Whilst this stands me in good stead in covering, for example, event or reportage assignments, it is not getting the intimacy in my images that I believe I need – particularly as I move the Unfinished Stories ideas along.
The movement towards ‘traces‘ in my contextual (and landscape) work is starting to nudge those images in an interesting direction. The combination of physical closeness, abstraction and focus on detail to engage the viewer shows promise. I am not just talking about the ‘digital negatives‘ in the Landings series, but about my overall intent to create images which go beyond reportage and instead pose questions of the audience.
Take these two examples. The first is a rather ‘traditional’ image of the women’s cells in Tuol Sleng.
The second is the same room, focused on a detail and a cell number.
I think this image begs questions – why that number, what does it represent, who was in that place etc. It is not just about taking close ups or abstractions. It is about considering the implications of the image, including how and in what context it might be viewed by an audience.
In a way, it’s a more mindful approach to photography than I have often practised.
But, intimacy in portrait work is of a different nature. Part of it is indeed physical closeness, perhaps paying less attention to the environmental framing.
Compare these two images:
Clearly the latter has greater impact, without reducing the environmental understanding. I believe it will also attract more attention from the viewer.
But intimacy is more than just physical position or cropping. It is the heightened sense of engagement between the photographer and the subject, the connection, that I am wanting to improve.
I am thus exploring some of the ideas inherent in ‘intimacy’. Within the various definitions above, I believe the ideas of rapport and understanding are where I need to focus.
Intimacy is not just an emotional connection – it’s a connection of understanding between two individuals.
Let me start with an extreme of what I do NOT mean. It is impossible to ignore this series of portraits by Bruce Gilden. Whilst they are all taken with permission, and they seem to reflect Gilden’s ‘acting out’ of his own fascinations from his childhood, they have little real affinity with or understanding of the subject. They beg questions from the viewer, but in a ‘freak show’ kind of way, rather in a sense of understanding of the individual.
The images, in my opinion, say more about Gilden than about his subjects. And they also say that being close isn’t everything!
By contrast, Abbie Trayler-Smith‘s image which took second prize in Taylor Wessing shows rapport with the subject, even without eye contact. The girl’s haunting (or haunted?) expression speaks volumes about what she has experienced, and poses questions about her story.
The portrait was made outside the Hasan Sham camp for internally displaced people in northern Iraq during an assignment for Oxfam. Whilst those details are not obvious from the image, there seems enough environmental information to also beg questions about the girl’s physical situation.
Interestingly, this image is reminiscent of Stanley Green‘s Zelina, in Grozny, 2001.
Green noted that, since the death of her child, Zelina often stares at something far away, elusive. She says she is already dead herself, if only time would hurry up.
This is clearly a powerful photograph. However, the context does not seem quite as strong as Trayler-Smith’s image. And, whilst the photograph is beautifully executed, Zelina seems ‘distant’ from the photographer. It’s not helped by one eye being ‘covered’.
Similar images appear in Nick Turpin‘s ‘Night Bus’ series (2017). But, again, whilst well constructed, the rapport between Turpin and his subject is lacking.
Partly that is the physical distance of the shot (using a zoom) but partly it reflects Turpin’s intent. He is an acute observer, in a ‘street photography’ style, but not seeking emotional connection with the man.
So, going back to my own work, here is an older example where I believe I am beginning to create images which build rapport, empathy and start the process of understanding.
Yer Youg, Village Chief of Beng Village, Cambodia, 2009.
Youg lived through Khmer Rouge times, and in fact was in one of the last areas under their control, until 1998. I had visited with him serval times. The shirt he is wearing is of the ruling CPP Party led by Hun Sen. Sadly, he died in March, 2018.
And I think this recent candid portrait, of an artist friend, Gabriel Stillwater, has some of the rapport that I am looking for – through lacks the environmental context that would more clearly say ‘artist’.
Jay, Bill. 1992. Occam’s Razor. Tucson: Nazerelli Press.
Turpin, Nick. 2017. On The Night Bus. London: Hoxton Mini Press.