Perhaps the best photojournalism fuses information and expression, document and symbol, in such a way as to create a metaphor: an image that retains the particularity of its referent but, at the same time, stands for a broader truth which transcends that immediate context.
In his article Sebasti o Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America, Mraz elaborates on how a photographer’s connection with the subject, use of captions, metaphors, symbols and personal involvement influences the overall perception of documentary photography. Through comparing the early and later work, Mraz shows how Salgado develops from creating distant photographs with a strong emphasis on metaphors and iconographic displays to images that are part of a context, with individuals in a specific context during a highly selected fraction of a second.
What strikes me in the article is how Mraz shows how Salgado develops from a photographer who creates work that represents the Latin America how the Western world likes to see it, with an estrangement that Salgado must have felt when he returned to his homeland after having been abroad for a long time, to an engaged photographer that clearly addresses the conditions and lives of the people he photographs.
“In this way, he could sell to the developed world the estrangement it knows so well, but with the interesting touch of dressing it in exotic clothing and setting it against picturesque backdrops… the alienation of individuals who embody an ‘Orientalist’ otherness is evidently a horse of a decidedly different colour.”
“Traditional photojournalism is more concerned with information; its images are documents which are predominantly limited to presenting particular situations. As such, they often lack the expressivity to transform themselves into statements which transcend the individual case. Conversely, fine are photojournalism such as Salgado’s leans more toward the expressive pole, and its images are often symbols that can fail to adequately present the particularity of specific situations, because they lack the information with which it could be constructed. Though conscious of the risks of such gross generalizations, we might say that, in general, fine art photojournalists make photos that tell us more about the photographers than the photographed, while the images of traditional photojournalists tell us more about what they are photographing than about those who have taken them.”
Mraz, J. (2002) ‘Sebastião Salgado: Ways of seeing Latin America’, Third Text, 16(1), pp. 15–30. doi: 10.1080/09528820110120687.
First of all, a few terms from the Semiotic models and terminology, taken from Context and Narrative, pg 122 – 124, to immerse myself a bit more in thinking in signs and symbols!
Signifier: The form which the sign takes
Signified: The concept it represents
Representamen: The form that the sign takes
Interpretant: not an interpreter, but rather the sense made of the sign
Object: To which the sign refers
Studium: The general enthusiasm or polite interest in the photograph
Punctum: That which arrests attention, dependent upon the individual; that ‘which pierces the viewer.’
Symbol: Something that represents something else, the relationship must be learnt. the signifier does not resemble the signified.
Icons: The signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified; similar in possessing some of its qualities, such as a portrait, a cartoon, a scale model, metaphors, sound effects and imitative gestures.
Indexical signifier: Physically or causally linked to the signified, for example storm, thunder, footprints.
My kids’ school has the most fantastic library, I just found out that they have The Americans on their shelves! It feels almost as sacred as the Bible and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and looking through it. The order of the images and the content emphasizes the themes and symbolism even more than having a look at the single images online.
In City Fathers the first thing I notice are the hats of the men and the expressions on their faces. These men are proud, distinguished and seem to take a special place on a decorated stage at some public celebration. The hat is a symbol that keeps on coming back in other images as well. The owners all seem to be representatives of the ruling class, that exists of white men in their 50s. What strikes me very much about this image are the expressions on the men’s faces, each representing a different aspect of dominion. The man on the right has a snobby look, vain and looking down on the crowds. The man next to him seems to be a visionary, with a strong, determined expression. The man in the middle looks a bit tired, but very comfortable being amid these men. The one on the left looks a bit older and has a weary expression, I wonder what kind of experiences he has had.
The same hat comes back in the following image:
The chairs lead the eye from the front desk to the banker in the back, with a hat on the table in front of him. The papers and pen in the front signify the importance of the job that is being done here, and the hat emphasises how the ruling class also rules over finances.
Through his images Frank focuses on the class differences in the United States, how wealth, opportunities and status is compartamentalized, but how each compartment have the American dream in common. All seem to be striving to get forward, but each in their individual way. There is hardly any communication between the people in Frank’s images, they are all staring ahead or are on their own way. Windows symbolise this compartmentalisation. The image above accentuates the pattern of the windows and the magazines, forcing the eye to look at the individual windows and covers. We see a big variety in titles and in the back a monotonous building. It reflects again how different people all are unified in the same building, the American dream which gives Life Insurance.
As I mentioned above, there is hardly any communication between the people in Frank’s images, leaving the viewer with an idea that American society is cold and individualistic. The image above is a striking example of that. Even though there are about 20 people in the image, everybody is going their own way, nobody is laughing and most people look stressed. I find that these expressions signify a disconnection between the Americans, which in other images, like the one below is shown through segregation of class and race as well.
Robert Frank shows that through the selection of the subjects and angles he has photographed he is able to communicate his impression and thoughts about the American people. In the total of the work, his decisions on which photographs to put in and in which order, the reader is presented a view on a society that is divided, distant and lonely and where the individual feelings and expressions don’t come out.
In his introduction Kerouac mentions a number of symbolic references as well, the jukebox, coffin, windows, flag, canes, hat, road, telephone poles and television. These are signs of advancement, life and death, communications and status. Kerouac reads the images like poetry:
Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers don’t like poetry, see?
Anybody don’t like poetry go home see television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.
With this strophe he joins Frank in his comments on the American culture, its superficiality, lack of empathy and individual isolation.
Frank, R. (1958) The Americans. Edited by Jack Kerouac. 4th edn. New York City: Aperture Inc.
Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.
* Friends, comrades, both on their way to play football (they are still very clean)
* Walking through a poor, dilipitated area, I assume that they live here themselves, but the image doesn’t make that clear
* The flats are empty and deserted, in decay.The boys are walking on the grass, next to a road.
* It’s a cloudy summer day.
* Even though you live in poverty, sports bring people together and build friendships
* Together you are much stronger than alone
* Together you can face decay and be able to put your mind on other things
* Every child has the right and need to play, this is universal and makes the viewer connect with the boys, even if they are from a different socio-economical background
I looked at other students’ websites and found quite a lot of other readings:
Two young friends from rival football teams
Walking through a rundown area
Possibly on their way back from playing a match
They are in the very front of the image’s depth, with the path ahead stretching out in front of them
overcast sky, stony ground, lack of other signs of life, ages of the boys, cleanliness of the kit (and so likelihood that they are in fact in the way to a match), possibility that it was posed
That there are prospects for peace in a place divided by sectarian tension [my guess was Glasgow from the striped kit]
That the journey to peace starts with this generation
That the path ahead might be long and difficult
working class (football is a working class sport), gloomy outlook (sky), obstacles on the way ahead (uneven ground)
The article for which this photograph was used was about the sell off of council houses in Glasgow and the effects it would have for the inhabitants. The article calls the area, one Britain’s worst slums. This does relate to my initial deconstruction of the image, but not entirely. The photograph has a very strong human element, which shows that dignity and humanity of the people living there and the contrast with the circumstances they live in.
The text changes my perception of the image in such a way that I look closer at the houses in the background. I think it is a very strong image, because it doesn’t show any negative connotations with the people who live in that area, strengthening the idea that they have a right to better housing, they are human beings like anybody else and should be treated like that as well.