Documentary Photography – Quotes

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In preparation for my Oral Presentation, I posted some quotes that I have found inspiring over the years.

After writing about my practice, I thought I would post some further quotes particulary on documentary photography, which illustrate the way I aspire to do my work.

Whilst I am including several photographers, I am going to pick one as an exemplar. Adam Clark Vroman was a rather typical white, well-to-do photographer at the end of the 19th Century. Like many others, he set out to document the lives of Native American Indians. Unlike others, though, he was not romantic or sentimental in his work. He tried to be as objective as he possibly could be, making sure he thoroughly researched what he found, and was most respectful to his subjects in the portraits he took.

Adam Clark Vroman. c. 1901. Hopi Maiden.

Perhaps, in fact, Vroman was the very first ‘dead pan’ documentarian, not in the sense of today’s universally banal aesthetic, but in the sense of trying to think first of the subject, and keep himself ‘out’ of the picture as well as provide an objective view for his audience.

This might seem an impossible task, though I think Vroman got closer to objectivity than any other photographer I have studied.

Reading his diaries, Vroman naturally uses the language of his time – talking of strategies to ‘ingratiate himself’ with the Native Indians (showing his camera and explaining it first, for example). But his intentions, to properly understand, respect and accurately report, are crystal clear.

My first thought was to see [the dance] again and know more about it, why it was, and how it is planned. I felt I could spend a year right there, be one of them and learn their ways and beliefs‘.

Adam Clark Vroman. Personal Diary, Volume 14.

Also at https://www.andrewsmithgallery.com/exhibitions/adamclarkvroman/Vroman_catalog.pdf. (Accessed 17.11.2017).

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The Purpose:

Photography can light up darkness and expose ignorance

Lewis Hine.

Walther, Peter. 2018. Lewis W. Hine: America at Work. Cologne: Taschen.

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A Single Image:

‘Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes’

Henri Cartier-Bresson. 1952. The Decisive Moment. 2014 Ed. Göttingen: Steidl.

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You are IN your photographs:

‘Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures’.

Don McCullin. 1994.  Sleeping With Ghosts : A Life’s Work in Photography. London: Jonathan Cape.

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Photographs Freeze Time:

‘Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images – one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past’.

Susan Sontag.  1970. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books.

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On Capturing a Story:

‘a photographer … gets right inside the story, gets accepted as part of it, stands in the right place at the right time, and presses the shutter’.

Bill Hurn 

Jay, Bill & Hurn, David. 1996. On Being a Photographer. Available at: http://www.greenacre.info/Photography/On%20Being%20a%20Photographer.pdf. (Accessed 2/09/2018).

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Documentary is Useful, not Art:

‘Documentary: That’s a sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. The term should be documentary style, You see a document has use, whereas art is really useless’.

Walker Evans. 1971. Art in America, March-April 1971.

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Objectivity:

‘The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda’.

Robert Capa. 1937. Interview with New York World Telegram, about the ‘Falling Soldier’

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Stories with Meaning:

‘A documentary photograph is not a factual photograph per se. It is a photograph which carries the full meaning of the episode’.

Dorothea Lange.

1960-61, published 1968. Interview with Suzanne Riess. The Making of a Documentary Photographer. University of California Bancroft Library. Available at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/narrators/lange_dorothea.html.(Accessed 11.11.2018).

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So far, rather positive and inspirational quotes.

But here are a couple from Martha Rosler that suggest serious ‘watch-outs’ for a documentary photographer.

Manipulation Everywhere:

‘Any familiarity with photographic history shows that manipulation is integral to photography‘.

Martha Rosler. 2004. Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Boston: MIT Press.

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Photographic Imperialism:

Are we asserting the easy dominion of our civilization over all times and all places, as signs that we casually absorb as a form of loot?

Martha Rosler. 2004. Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Boston: MIT Press.

Week Eleven Reflections – Professional Location of Practice

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For this week’s reflections, I want to discuss my Practice, and where it is going.

Following on from the ‘Let’s Talk Business‘ and ‘Back to the Beginning – My Photographic DNA‘ work, I developed a new Artist’s Statement.

I aim to delight and challenge my audiences with engaging and creative story-telling. Having travelled and worked all over the world, my photography is informed by my view that we are all more the same than we are different – yet those differences reveal unique stories. The details matter.

I consider my work ‘Unfinished Stories’. Whilst life is always in motion, every moment creates a sense of place or personality. My craft includes both narration (the story) and curation (the moment in which the image is taken). I aim for intimacy in my work, showing rapport with and understanding of the subject, whilst asking questions about who people are, what they’re doing, what they’re concerned about, and why they are pictured. I always deliver my work to the best standard that I know how – technically, artistically, respectfully and ethically.

Stepping back from this, I locate my practice fairly clearly in ‘documentary story telling’. I do a few professional assignments, most often in the events and reportage category, with an infrequent portrait shoot. I have commented on such shoots before – Andrew Mlangeni, for example.

In that post, I also detailed how I go about interacting with my subjects.

Usually, my portrait work is environmental, such as this shoot of Claire with Digital Camera Magazine.

Claire, 2015

Occasionally, I shoot more formally, such as for Ellie, an actress who wanted a new ‘head shot’ series.

Ellie, 2017

However, whilst I enjoy portrait work, I prefer to be shooting a story which includes portraits, whether that is an event, a workshop I am giving or a more formal documentary project.

For example, this, of Helen, from a workshop I gave recently on Street Portraits.

Helen, 2018

I noted my desire to improve my portrait work within the Cambodia project, as part of my recent Oral Presentation. I seem to be pathologically incurable of creating totally ‘deadpan’ images, as I think emotion is part of everyone’s story.

This, from the last Cambodia visit.

Kampong Thma, Cambodia, 2018

I would like to relate my Artist’s Statement to my ‘Professional Location of Practice’. In the statement, there are several key ideas which are particularly important to me.

In this post, I want to explore just one idea.

Respect

I have done quite a lot of street photography, and now do workshops on the subject. There is the inevitable debate about the ‘ethics’ of taking street portraits – ranging from ‘I love Bruce Gilden’s work’ to ‘I will never take a photograph which embarrasses someone’, and detours through ‘Don’t take pictures of homeless people’. Personally, I will not publish images which show people in a bad light, if I can avoid it.

This image was well-regarded online, winning a couple of prizes. There is a very direct connection between the subject and the photographer, which I believe adds to its power as an image. I also believe whilst fun, it is a respectful image – it shows the girl’s happiness, and is not making fun of her.

Bath, 2017

I am not aiming to be a journalist, nor a paparazzi, though when an opportunity arises, I try to take it – even then in a respectful manner.

During the UK Referendum campaign, I came across a UKIP parliamentary candidate who was a little the worse for wear after being at Ascot, and the image was offered to the press. But this is an exception to demonstrate my ‘rule’, and I thought the image ‘fair game’.

Richmond, 2016

Today, I want to tell stories, and any portrait or candid I shoot does not need to embarrass to tell the stories I want to tell. I have separately written on my pursuit of intimacy – defined as rapport with and understanding of my subjects, as in the artist’s statement above. I see this as a natural extension of respect.

I consider this one of my more successful recent portrait series. Arng Yon, Sarath’s mother, and Genocide survivor.

Arng Yon, 2018

As my photography developed, I have found a pretty decent, formal, compositional eye, which reflects my shooting with slide film. You only get one chance, and cropping after the fact is not easily executed.

China, 1979, Agfrachrome

That said, my compositions tend to be ‘formal’ and would benefit from more energy and tension. I do fear this may be cramping my spontaneity.

Today, when I am shooting, I am still conscious of formal composition.

When covering an event, I am mindfully following the sequence of things happening, to be sure I record for the client the critical moments. I also aim to create at least a few images which are out of the ordinary, which offers the viewer a perspective or a drama they might not otherwise get.

A couple of years ago, I was covering an opening night at The Printspace Gallery, for friend and colleague Gavin Mills. He is a professional photographer, but also a successful DJ (one half of ‘Defected’). I wanted to show the fun of the event, and Gavin’s ‘other’ job.

Gavin Mills, London, 2016

That said, did I really capture the photographer side of Gavin? I think not.

I have had Bath for Europe as a Client for a couple of years, and I cover a large number of their events. Like other photographers, I spend time with the client beforehand, to assess more exactly what they are looking for.

The brief always includes branding, capturing the key participants, the flow, audience reaction and so forth. I always include portraits where possible, for example in last year’s coverage of Owen Smith MP.

Owen Smith, 2018

This past week, I did another event shoot, for a group of South West MPs and MEPs, in a public forum on the state of the Brexit negotiations and possible outcomes. Here’s the Client Gallery.

Whilst there were four MPs / MEPs (Claire Moody, Wera Hobhouse, Molly Scott Cato and Julie Girling), I was particularly asked to include ‘action portraits’ of Wera, for social media and her website.

The light in the venue was pretty terrible, and the panel sat most of the time behind a large desk. Not really conducive to great images. And, whilst Wera is a striking figure, she does have a habit of always looking like she is in deep thought.

Bluntly, trying to create candid portraits was really hard work.

Wera Hobhouse MP, 2018

And in the local newspaper (despite their acknowledgement of my copyright – being pursued):

So, what lessons do I draw from all of this.

First, I believe I have captured what my photographic practice is and should be about, in the Artist’s statement. In particular, I think I am getting to grips with what I mean by ‘intimacy’ and ‘respect’. Thanks to this module (and my Cromarty buddies) for pushing me to do more.

Second, my technique is solid and improving. But I need to think about creating tension, and further exploring my own spontaneity.

Third, I need to be even more ‘interactive’ with my clients. For example, I should have insisted on changing the podium around (easy to say in retrospect), to meet their actual brief.

And, fourthly, I have offered to work directly with Wera.