Documentary as a paradox

Let me start off with a quote from the reader that I love:

“A documentary (photograph, film) takes an audience to an existing or past reality and is so compelling that they can emphasise with mind, emotion and imagination. In that sense documentary is an ambitious , creative and critical enterprise.” (de Jong, Knudsen & Rothwell, 2011, p.23)

I have tried to find the article in Eight Magazine that is mentioned in the course, but unfortunately it is not online available. I am quite intrigued by the question whether photographs can efficiently document a process, since it ‘cannot explain, analyse or make a prognosis’ and concluding that despite its limitations it “can perform brilliantly: it can in influence human emotions” (Ph2 documentary 260313, no date).

Caution is always necessary when such grand statements are made. Looking at Krassowski’s work, I see that the main chunk of it is done on the streets. They do not seem to focus on a process, or a specific in-depth topic in the first place. Images taken on its own can indeed not show what happened before or after the photo was taken, but when in a series, or when information is added to the image by means of text and sound, I believe that they surely can document a process, explain issues or tell a story. By eliminating the portrayal of progression of time Krassowski points out that the human emotion is what is left and that is powerful enough. However, I don’t think it ends with that and it is not one thing or the other, an image can show a process and next to emotions.

Below are a few examples of photographs that I took last week in the center of Delhi. I was drawn by the expressions on the men’s faces. It is true that the images don’t tell about how and why the people ended up where they were, but they do trigger more than just an emotion. Because of the placement of the man in the frame you wonder how he ended there all on his own, why are the shutters closed and what is he doing there? All these questions don’t only trigger an emotion but also draws the viewer to ponder on the process of waiting and anticipation.

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In the image below we see a man standing still in a busy alley. The movement itself already triggers a sense of time and progression, not just the emotions that are triggered when being still in a place where everybody else is moving.

documentary paradox-1

Maybe it also goes back to the question of what is reality, a process or story? How do we perceive it, which other senses and parts of our understanding do we have to employ in order to grasp it fully, if we could do that at all anyway. And who is capable of deciding when we have been exposed to enough information to define what we see or understand?

Interesting, interesting!

Ph2 documentary 260313 (no date) Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/course-pdfs/ph2_documentary_260313.pdf (Accessed: 19 August 2016).

Krassowski, W. (no date) Home. Available at: http://www.witoldkrassowski.com/index.html (Accessed: 19 August 2016).

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Robbie Cooper – Alter Ego

Robbie Cooper (1969) is a British photographer and multi media artist whose work questions identity and its appearance in different realities. In his project ‘Alter Ego’ Cooper photographs gamers all over the world and portrays them next to their self created avatar. Added to that is personal information about the gamer and they tell what gaming and their existence in a virtual world means for them.

What strikes me about this project are the different layers of seeing and interpreting that take place. First I look at the portraits Cooper made. We see a variety of people that are photographed in different settings and poses. It is clear that some subjects had their avatar in mind when the portrait was taken, showing a clear resemblance in stance, clothing or even facial expression, while other subjects are striking opposites.  Seeing these portraits next to their self created image raise questions of how they look at themselves. What does it mean if the avatar is completely different or almost exactly the same? What is the function of gaming and being in an other reality in regards to their identity? Is it an escape, a dream or affirmation of who they are? What makes an experience ‘real’ in the first place?

I found the image of Jason Rowe especially strong and moving. At first glance we see a severely disabled boy, whose face is almost completely covered by an oxygen mask, making his blue eyes stand out, but hiding any facial expressions. I realize how freeing it must be for him to be able to walk around in a virtual reality, not be constrained by his disability and not stand out. However, of all Avatars that I looked at online, his is the only one that doesn’t have a recognizable face, but also the only one that actively waves his arm. What does this say about him and his dreams? Does his idea of what he wants to look like stop at being able to move? Can we learn from this that ability is much more important than appearance?

I read on and realize that he was born in the same year as I was. This boy turns out to be a man my age and instead of wondering what will become of him I wonder about his history and what his life might have been up till now. My thoughts get stuck in his disabilities and appearance and how they must have influenced his life.

Then his blob:

“In the real world, people can be uncomfortable around me before they get to know me and realise that, apart from my outer appearance, I’m just like them. Online you get to know the person behind the keyboard before you know the physical person. The Internet eliminates how you look in real life, so you get to know a person by their mind and personality. In 2002 at the UO Fan Faire in Austin, I noticed that people were intrigued by me, but they acted just like I was one of them. They treated as an equal, like I wasn’t even the way that I am – not disabled, not in a wheelchair, you know. We were all just gamers.” (Nunweek, 2016)

For Jason, gaming is the way to get away from people who only see the first portrait. In the virtual world they take him for who he is, mysterious as it still may be.

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Nunweek, J. (2016) ‘Alter ego’, by Robbie Cooper. Available at: http://pantograph-punch.com/post/alter-ego-by-robbie-cooper (Accessed: 19 August 2016).

Miranda Gavin – Talking about Documentary

In the interview with Miranda Gavin from Hotshoe Magazine the definition and framework of documentary photography is discussed. The question Miranda asks is whether the terms and vocabulary that are being used to define documentary photography are still relevant. My first response was that they still are, since together they form the framework from which the concept is developed and challenged. With the shift from the printed press  and analog photography to digital images and publications on the web Gavin explains that the wider availability to work with the medium and access to what is being done have changed the topics of documentary photography and resulted into more women becoming photographers.

Gavin continues to talk about how the boundaries between art photography and documentary photography are merging and gives an example of work that is considered art as well as documentary photography, depending on who is looking at it. She gives the explanation that the categories are merging into each other. I think that photography can be both at the same time, defined by the elements that define documentary or art photography. For example, paintings are certainly perceived as art, but also function very well as a documentation of society or religious beliefs of a specific time and place. The final definition of what a work is really depends on the viewers, which perceptions they have when viewing it and on which elements they’re focused.

What is documentary photography? (2016) Available at: https://vimeo.com/29752787 (Accessed: 17 August 2016).

Robert Howlett – Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel – Robert Howlett (1857)

The portrait ‘Isambard Kingdom Brunel’ by Robert Howlett is considered to be one of the first environmental portraits in the history of photography. Brunel was the designer of the largest constructed steamship of that time and the ship was about to be launched.  This ship was supposed to be an example of the industrial revolution that took place in the Victorian times and Brunel’s appearance breathes this power and action, accentuated by his high head and muddy shoes.

Robert Howlett had just developed a new way of photographing, with collodium plates and was groundbreaking in using new techniques that made it able to print negatives on paper. He was out and about, photographing and discovering new techniques and eager to use them to their maximum potential. Robert and Isambard had a lot in common and both turned out to be at the height of their careers.

The vessel that Brunel had designed turned out to be a financial disaster and while launching the ship the cables in the back, torpedoed two men to their deaths. Howlett died soon after, presumably of typhoid.

However, the image itself doesn’t show that. By placing Brunel in front of the cables, the size of the ship and grandeur of Brunel is being accentuated. If you compare this image with another one from the series, it becomes clearer.

Howlett lets the environment accentuate the personality of Brunel through his composition. The effect is one of awe, although all perspective of size is lost and you could also perceive Brunel as a midget if you would put him in place of a regular sized chain. Was Howlett aware of this effect? If so, it adds a cynical undertone to the image, or the message of how men have invented machines that are too powerful to control, the machines take over.

Howlett, R. (1857) Isambard Kingdom Brunel [Photograph]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Howlett#/media/File:IKBrunelChains.jpg (Accessed: 16 August 2016).
Isambard kingdom Brunel – scientist of the day – Linda Hall library (2015) Scientist of the Day, 15 September. Available at: http://www.lindahall.org/isambard-kingdom-brunel/ (Accessed: 17 August 2016).
Jones, J. (2010) Isambard kingdom Brunel, Robert Howlett (1857). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2000/jun/17/art (Accessed: 16 August 2016).
White, D. (no date) The light shone and was spent: Robert Howlett and the power of photography. Available at: http://www.photohistories.com/Photo-Histories/51/robert-howlett-and-the-power-of-photography (Accessed: 16 August 2016).