I remember the first time seeing Sandra Hoyn’s The Longings of Others, photographs of the lives of young women and girls in a Bangladeshi brothel. They gave me a discomforting feeling and I wondered why. Was it the subject matter, which is discomforting in the first place, the way the project had been executed or the images themselves? Even if I felt like this, would that meant that I did not appreciate the work or saw its value? What kind of reasoning and which values formed the base Hoyn’s work and my feelings? Was I being too judgemental about the photographs and why?
The Longings of Others has been received very well in the photo community, having won several prestigious prizes in the past year. There is obviously a wide appreciation for this type of work and subject matter. I wonder why.
A few weeks later I read the following post and discussion on Duckrabbit. I was triggered by their alternative view and clear ideas on the ethics of this kind of documentary photography. It triggered more questions:
What explains the popularity of showing sex workers in a documentary context?
Where do you draw a line between being a documentary maker or accomplice?
What is the effect of these images, regarding the subjects and the viewers?
Will it have the desired effect that the photographer has in mind?
What would I have done if I had been in the photographer’s shoes?
Based on all these questions, I started doing research for my 2000-word essay. I’ve read Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’, done online research about this particular case and similar projects ( posted a question on the OCA forum for ideas for research and got a lot of good ideas:
You should look at Errol Morris book of Essay “Believing is seeing” and especially about the section about the Abu Grahib photos.
There is also some really good essays in “Picturing Atrocities: Photography in Crisis”, especially toward the end – the one by Fred Richin should be of interest.
These books bring the ideology of looking and reading an image to the forefront, they reminds us than ethics is not only about the moral aspect of it.
Try The Cruel Radiance by Susie Linfield.
John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation may not deal directly with this but is nevertheless worth the effort to give you some basis for forming your own moral stance on representation in general, not just those suffering.
It might also be worth thinking about who is doing the representation, read Primo Levi The Drowned and the Saved and maybe even Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth
It is not difficult to be looking too close to the particular case in this sort of research. Theories of the gaze, Feminist critique and a post-colonial perspective may seem wide of your topic but all feed into a full understanding of the whys and wherefores and can lead to a more reasoned argument.
I have started reading and commenting more on the OCA Forum. I wish I had started doing that earlier, it helps me to stay connected, informed and motivated. Now I just need to reply a bit more to other students’ questions, although I don’t always know what to say!
Over the summer I visited an exhibition of the work of Gordon Parks: ‘I am You’ – Selected Works. This exhibition showcased a wide selection of the work of Parks, centered around different themes and times in his life. It was set up in such a way that the viewer was somehow ‘cornered’ in different themes, which really helped at focusing on the style and message of particular moments in Park’s career. Parks calls his camera his ‘weapon of choice’ against racism, injustice and poverty, but doesn’t use it in an aggressive way. On the contrary, his images retrieve their power from their subtlety and composition. The multilayered photographs slowly raise an awareness through adding elements after a very strong first impression.
A good example of this is the image Ondria Tanner and her Grandmother Window Shopping
At first I see a young girl looking at a dress that she might want to have. She is looking and pointing her finger at one that she likes. Her grandmother however, is looking down and her expression is very different. Instead of an eagerness to want something, she has reconciled with the impossibility to buy what she would like. Her protective gesture shows as if she wants to shield her grand daughter from wanting to dream beyond her possibilities.
Next I notice that all the dolls in the shop are white, accentuating the separateness of black and white, the superiority of the one and impossibility of the other to reach it. What I love about it though is that, happy and beautiful the dolls may seem, they are fake and Ondria and her grandmother real. Their humanity and worth is what remains.
Subtle as the message of this image may be, it is exemplary of the deep divisions in society that Parks photographs. Because of Parks’ ability to show the humanity of all, without becoming stereotypical, racial or victimizing, his photographs are a very effective weapon indeed. We see his subjects as human beings, we are all the same.
I just got back from a holiday in The Netherlands. I had a great time, which was made even better with a few visits to museums and the Naarden Photo Festival. I met up with fellow student Maurice, which was fun and a great opportunity to talk about our course work, study practices and photography in general.
I’ll write a few more posts about the exhibitions I visited, but wanted to kick off with a some reflections on the work of a few photographers that I saw at the Naarden Photo Festival. This yearly festival attracts thousands of visitors every year and has fantastic photography on display all throughout the quaint old town of Naarden. It was very inspiring to see so many different styles and genres and interesting to see how photographers approach the same subjects in different ways. Below I will point out a few of the highlights of the festival:
In his series of street photographs, Losekoot portrays strangers in such a way that we recognize them. By a using the ambient light in a very sophisticated way (reflections of light from buildings and concrete) and focal lengths the images have a cinematograpic feel, which draws the viewer into the images, holding still at the personality of the complete strangers that we see. The compression that the use of the the long focal lengths bring about connects elements in the frames that are otherwise disconnected and also connect the viewer in scenes that are completely unknown. I am intrigued at the way Losekoot is able to bring out the personality of these people, it requires a certain focus and contemplation amidst the business of the metropolis he is in.
In this fun and colourful series of photographs Chris de Bode shows a wonderful cooperation between his subject and himself as the photographer. He lets children play out their dreams in their own environment. I wonder how he set up the shots, whether the kids brought their own props and how he interacted with them. It is obvious that Chris is able to establish a bond of trust in which the children felt free to dream and play. In interesting composition, using the ambient light in really creative ways, I feel drawn into the dreams of these kids, even though the photos are set in the often dire situations the children live in. An other exposition of Meredith Hutchinson showed a similar subject and approach, but comparing them, I really enjoy de Bode’s work most. It seems that both photographers have given the children the freedom to direct their photographs, but de Bode’s creative skills are much stronger, which is very clear in the result of their work.
In a series of beautiful, painterly landscapes, Boelsums shows how the typical skies and clouds that we know from the Dutch Masters have been changing because of climate change. Boelsum’s use of colour, high contrast and reflections remind us of the Masters, but they all have a threatening feel to them, mainly because of the dark skies and deep colours. I was mainly struck by the beauty of the images and recognition of the landscapes of my home country. Maurice and I both made our own iphone version of a landscape in the style of Boelsums. It turned out a bit heavy on the editing side, but it was interesting to experiment with the contrasts and colours in order to give the image a painterly effect.
In a series of photographs of white bears in captivity in zoos all over the world, Sheng-Wen-Lo touches on our ideas of how we define ‘nature’, the control of humans over nature and the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. I found it interesting that through the use of repeating subjects the themes of the photographs became stronger. I realized that even though some zoos are more pathetic than the others, all animals are kept in captivity for the enjoyment of us, or nowadays also for the protection of the species. The photographs question what is natural, not only concerning the natural environment the animals are supposed to live in, but also the environment we have built for ourselves to live in. These photographs show how disconnected we are with nature, by forcing nature into captivity, and recreating a natural world for ourselves that is very superficial.
In these series Stacii Samidin has photographed different communities worldwide in order to break stereotypes. However, I find that the elements that he photographs only confirm and enforce the stereotypes that these communities have; black, poor and violent. The photographs are a bit sensational and don’t let me in on the personalities or deeper layers of the communities. I think this is a pity and was really put off by the photographs. However, the photographs did trigger me to think about how you can break stereotypes in the first place. A visit to a Gordon Parks exhibition two weeks later gave an answer to that. More on Gordon Parks in my next blog…
I absolutely loved this work. Through the use of layering photographs of the same tree taken in different seasons, Clement is able to focus on the special character and timelessness of trees. They remain throughout the seasons and stand through history. Just love this experimental approach and am eager to do something similar.
Although I agree with the fact that we have to be aware of the traps when photographing people we don’t know; primitive typologies, detachment of subjects, romanticism and infantilism, I think the reader is quite negative about some of the photographers mentioned in the reader. I looked at David Bruces work and was actually really surprised by the strength and character each of his subjects show in his photographs. Even though we don’t see a lot of the natural surroundings of the people, they are depicted with animals that they have just hunted, they look proud and familiar with the photographer.
For me the expressions make a huge difference in the way I judge a photographer’s work. Echeverria’s work does seem to sexualise the girls he photographs and they seem to not feel at ease and look as if they are taken advantage of, completely out of context.
Intentions do make all the difference, even though even when they are good, you never know how viewers will look at the photographs you take.
I also believe that what happens with the photographs is very important. I had a look at Jimmy Nelson’s Before They Pass Away and was very impressed with his photographs, but even more with all the information he adds in his captions and his efforts to support the communities he photographs. He is able to put his subjects in a positive light and actively show and give support to the communities that are struggling.
Having travelled and photographed people in Africa, I find it really interesting to go through the images in ‘Tribal Portraits‘. The organisers of the exhibition really went through great lengths to collect the photographs and albums and come up with a very wide range of images from people and places.
The reader said that looking at similar photographs, we feel a nostalgia for a certain primitivism that we in the West seem to have lost forever. I get the point, but don’t really agree with it. I think it is more the unfamiliarity that makes us decide on behavior to be primitive. I notice that when I see a place and people after a long time, I get a nostalgic feeling of recognition as well and automatically start to think of their behaviour as being old fashioned or primitive, because my own behaviour and experiences have been very different in the meantime.
But nevertheless, the images display a way of living that has been replaced by other practices, fashions and traditions and they do show scenes that are harder to find in this age of urbanisation and globalisation. Looking at the images now puts us in the same position as the people from the West seeing the images back then, people and places that are far away from our own reality.
However, I feel that there is more beneath the surface where we can recognize the practice of the photographer and the humanity of the people in the images. There is a distinct difference in the portraits of nudes, which in my opinion don’t stand out as typical African, the same type of nudes were made in studios in the West, and I recognize the female passive gaze that we are familiar with. The fact that these women would otherwise not wear many clothes doesn’t mean they are not being sexualized. There is a striking image with the expressions of the topless women in other images, where they are proud and confident.
Another aspect that I found interesting is the way people are dressed (or not), with some photographs standing out for the traditional clothing and others for portraying Africans in European (very uncomfortable!) clothes. As a viewer I am either intrigued by the differences in how and what people wear, but also the fact that we adapt our dresses according to the culture we want to belong to or have adapted to.
Maybe the most important point that I’m getting out of this exercise is that I become more and more aware of my initial reaction to photographs. I notice how I am drawn visually in an image, how I recognise elements from work I have seen before and how I respond on a personal level, judging or not, feeling resentment or awe, frustration or respect towards the person who has taken the photograph. Most of all, I notice that I am imagining what it must have been like to take the photograph, how the photographer established a relationship with the subjects, how he or she was looked on by the people themselves, the clash of technology with old traditions, culture and beliefs. It all somehow comes to the surface, which makes photography so fascinating.
A few weeks ago I was asked to document Project Why, an NGO in New Delhi that provides after school care to underprivileged children. Most children come from poor families, live in slums and go to schools where they are beaten and quality of education is very low.
Project Why looks after over a thousand children in different centres, spread over the city. Some centres also offer vocational courses to women and daycare to mentally disabled people.
Whenever I photograph children who live under completely different circumstances than my own kids, I am struck by the similarities they have. All are curious, want to learn, talk and be loved. All have dreams and talents, different personalities and a need for a safe environment in which they can be themselves and thrive. Project Why reaches out in a caring way and is able to make a substantial difference in these people’s lives.
If you would like to support Project Why, check their website. I can assure you it is money well spent!