Reflections on my Photographic Practice

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Robert Frank said, “Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference”.

I provided  a reasonably thorough review of my photography in my last Oral Presentation, which started with this quote from Frank. I see my work as engaged documentary, and I have been influenced by photographers such as Frank and W. Eugene Smith for some time. More recently Moises Saman, Hiroji Kubota, Daido Moriyama and others have provided inspiration.

I have been a photographer since my teenage years, and still have all of my negatives and slides. Historically, I was focused on travel photography, having been lucky enough to work across the world, and travel to over 75 countries. I am also very much interested in the cultural context of photography, a subject so far not really dealt with in depth in this program.

More recently, my photography has encompassed events, portrait, reportage, street and formal documentary work. Frankly, I like most forms of photography, including abstract work, reflecting my years as a painter.

Given my interest in Moriyama, and having lived in Japan, I am studying the work and writing of other Japanese photographers, such as Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012).

Tomatsu rejected the notion that there was a clear distinction between ‘art’ photography and documentary, following the ideas of Nobuo Ina (1898-1978), who wrote Return to Photography in 1932. This work was influenced by the Bauhaus, and pre-dated Walter Benjamin’s essay on mechanical reproduction

Ina noted that photography was inherently linked with its mechanical production, yet the social and cultural context of the photographer always directs the machine’s eye.


Shomei Tomatsu. 1959. Untitled, from series Chewing Gum and Chocolate, Yokosuka.

Japanese photographers, and particularly Tomatsu, combined these ideas in ‘subjective documentary’ as they explored national identity in the wake of the atomic bomb and US Occupation, which continued in the form of bases on Japanese soil.

There is a straight line in philosophy, here, to Vilém Flusser (and his apparatus) and Joan Fontcuberta’s views on ‘the crisis of photographic history’. And in imagery, a clear link to Provoke and artists such as Moriyama.

This fusion of philosophical ideas, ‘subjective & engaged’  documentary and image-making is particularly thought provoking as I develop the Cambodian work.

I will focus the rest of this post around that project, rather than a general view of my photographic practice. (Links that cover my historical practice and background are at the end).

My family and I have had a relationship with Cambodia and its people since 1994, and in particular invested heavily in a primary education program in the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation areas, from 1999. Whilst I had documented the program. the current project is in many ways completing that story, for us and our Cambodian colleagues and friends. It is ‘telling’ the previously undocumented stories of people who survived the Khmer Rouge Genocide (1975-1979), in a deeper and more culturally appropriate way.

A major difference with the Japanese work referenced above is that people in that country largely did come to terms with what happened – that is yet to fully happen in Cambodia. And from an executional viewpoint, Tomatsu et al were recording in real time – whereas I need to develop aftermath work.

In the first year of the MA, it became clear that it is all too easy to fall into the traps of both ‘dark tourism‘ and ‘the colonial gaze’ which does not do justice to the ‘local’ culture. Historically, the work of Adam Clark Vroman perhaps came closest to a properly ‘objective’ documentary. His images do not suffer from the romantic and imperialist aesthetic prevalent at the time in documenting the American indigenous population. Even Martha Rosler approved of his work (pg 182). However, much as I admire Vroman, I do feel that my project is deeply personal.

The Cambodian education program has always been important to my family. Whilst I realise that, for the MA, the latest project needs to be somewhat ‘stand alone’, with new work each module, in this past year I have felt that my role as a photographer has merged with my ‘historic’ role as an educator. I can’t just observe – I am ‘in’ my project – yet I also want any finished book and installation to do full justice to my Cambodian friends.

Three books which particularly influence my views are David Ayres’ Anatomy of a Crisis. Education, Development and the State in Cambodia, Michelle Caswell’s Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia, and Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance.

Ayres shows the long-term impact of the prevailing culture in Cambodian education of using it to create social order, rather than innovative practices. Caswell makes clear that the camera used for the Tuol Sleng mug-shots was literally an instrument of execution. And Linfield points out that portraying atrocities is not just ‘right’ but necessary, taking on Sontag’s views. I have been directly in touch with both Caswell and Linfield in 2018.

To try to pull these threads together, I have been researching Artist’s Statements. Whilst such work can be helpful in elucidating work, it is often written ‘after the fact’ – and not all photographers bother with such statements. In my case, I think it is helpful to pin down up front, as I explore my future photographic direction and audiences:

My work is ‘Unfinished Stories’. Life is always in motion, every moment creates a sense of place or personality. Having travelled and worked all over the world, my photography is informed by my view that we are more the same than we are different – yet differences reveal stories. Details matter.

I seek intimacy, rapport with and understanding of the subject, whilst asking questions about who people are, what they’re doing, and what concerns them. I deliver to the best standard that I know how: technically, artistically, respectfully, ethically.

The aim is to delight and challenge audiences with engaging and creative story-telling.

There are two audiences for my Cambodian work. First, in Cambodia, I want to contribute to further opening up the discussion about this painful subject, which is often hidden. And, secondly, internationally, I want to reach an audience who may have forgotten (or not even know) about the lessons of the Genocide.

I have decided to publish in Cambodia, first, using local printers. Although this will limit creative possibilities, this will help better reach a Cambodian audience, and support  local industry. In this, I am indebted to conversations with Lukas Birk.

Moises Saman. 2011. Zawiyah, Libya. A Qaddafi supporter holds a portrait of the Libyan leader during a celebration staged for
a group of visiting foreign journalists after regime forces re-took the city from rebels.

I want to highlight Saman’s book Discorordia in particular, as it combines black and white images of the Arab Spring, with colour work, and personal stories of the participants. It is a good model for what I am trying to do.

My work in progress for Surfaces and Strategies told Sarath’s story, as a young teenager, walking through the jungle in 1978, evading the Khmer Rouge, to check that his Mother was still alive. I employed ‘traces’, implications of the journey, which owes much to the work of Sophie Ristelhueber and other aftermath photographers.

To avoid the cliché’s of ‘Dark Tourism’, in Sustainable Prospects I explored an even more experimental approach. I used ‘digital negatives’ – designed to both provoke the audience and create a need for active participation in the deciphering of the imagery. This (sometimes controversial) work combined the ‘traces’ documentary style, with ‘digital negatives’ – putting humanity into those images with a sense of place and story.

I am intrigued by Judy Glickman Lauder‘s work, Beyond the Shadows: The Holocaust and the Danish Exception. From the artist statement on her website:

My most intense and life-changing photographic experience has been the years I spent delving into the actual sites of the Holocaust period of history. Witnessing the enormous evidence of man’s capacity for evil was earthshaking. I felt at one with the suffering and the loss. I also felt the need to record these experiences photographically and to share my feelings with others. We live in a dangerous world, and our ability to destroy has only grown manyfold since World War II. We cannot allow hatred and injustice, power and greed to gain a foothold—anywhere or towards anyone.

And

My images are meaningful to me. They all tell a story. I have tried to be open and intuitive in my work, using simple equipment and allowing myself to be guided by what presents itself—a momentary reflection, a shaft of light appearing mysteriously. To this end, I use only natural or available light. At times, I use film that also records the infrared rays of light existent in our atmosphere.

There is significant resonance here, for me. Beyond the Shadows tells the story of the so-called Danish Exception to the holocaust, by combining different kinds of images – black and white, negatives and infrared – with personal stories and portraits, in the same book. I love the eclecticism and the resultant power to engage the viewer.


Judy Glickman Lauder. Railroad, Warsaw to Treblinka.

So, where to, now? There are many things to work on in 2019.

  • Whilst I believe my portrait work is starting to show more intimacy, I do not yet have a consistent way of ‘seeing’ and working inside the documentary. I will continue to do ‘mini’ portrait and storyline projects to develop my skills.
  • My ‘digital negatives’, whilst generally well received, can also be considered ‘digitally contrived’ and perhaps a little sterile. Thus, I plan to experiment with film and infrared in 2019.
  • I need to practically make the Cambodian project happen. That is a lot of work, starting with a book to be produced in Cambodia, and identifying installation venues.
  • On my next visit, I will be meeting with Cambodian photographers to see how we can best collaborate on the project, with their gaze and personal / cultural / social insight.

I have no intention of becoming a full time ‘professional’ photographer, although I do want to approach the assignments that I take on a professional basis. I also want to be ‘seen’ as someone who delivers high quality work.

As I increasingly find myself giving classes and public talks about photography, reflecting my deeper engagement with the art form, so I am using this CRJ both as a requirement for the MA, and a personal reference asset. I enjoy teaching, and always strive to give simpler, decipherable comments to aid learning.

Earlier posts on Professional Location of My Practice and My Photographic History & DNA are still relevant.

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Bibliography

AYRES, David M. 2000 (2003 Ed.). Anatomy of a Crisis. Education, Development and the State in Cambodia, 1953-1998. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

BIRK, Lukas. 2018. One Year in Yangon 1978. Lukas Birk: Austria.

CASWELL, Michelle. 2014. Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Madison: University Wisconsin.

FONTCUBERTA, Joan. 2014. Pandora’s Camera: photogr@phy after photography. London: Mack.

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983 (Trans. 2000). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Books.

GLICKMAN LAUDER, Judy. 2018. Beyond the Shadows: The Holocaust and the Danish Exception. New York: Aperture.

GREENOUGH, Sarah. 2009. Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. Washington: National Gallery of Art/Steidl.

INA, Nobuo. 1932. Return to Photography. In Pearson, Mark. 2010. Japanese Photography of the 1930s. Tokyo: Zen Folio Gallery.

KUBOTA, Hiroji. 2015. Hiroji Kubota Photographer. New York: Aperture.

LINFIELD, Susie. 2010. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MORIYAMA, Daido. 2017. Record. London: Thames & Hudson.

RISTELHUEBER, Sophie & MAYER, Marc & LADD, Jeffrey. 2009. Sophie Ristelhueber: Fait (Books on Books). New York: Errata.

ROSLER, Martha. 2004. Decoys and Disruptions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

SAMAN, Moises. 2016. Discordia. Treviso: Grafiche Antiga.

SHARPLEY, Richard & STONE, Philip R. (Eds.). 2009. The Darker Side of Travel. Bristol: Channel View Publications.

SMITH, W. Eugene & SMITH, A.M. 1975. Minamata. New York: Alskog-Sensorium.

SONTAG, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

WATTS, Jennifer & SMITH, Andrew. 2004. Adam Clark Vroman: Platinum Prints. Santa Fe: Andrew Smith Gallery. Available at: https://www.andrewsmithgallery.com/exhibitions/adamclarkvroman/Vroman_catalog.pdf (accessed 17/09/2017).