Response to Martha Rosler’s ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts’

My kids’ school library has a lovely selection of photography books and, as I found out today, a few interesting books on photography as well! I’ve just finished reading an essay by David Levi Strauss from his book ‘Words not spent today buy smaller images tomorrow’, in which he discusses the work of Susan Meiselas in light of Rosler’s idea that documentary photography is exploitative of character and leads to moral indifference. (Rosler, 1992)

First of all, it was very encouraging that reading Rosler’s work paid off, even though it was such a tough one! Discovering how her thoughts are perceived by other photographers and writers deepens my own way of thinking about the ethics of documentary photography and will hopefully also reflect in my own photographic practice.

Meiselas first objection to Rosler’s critique on documentary is that her thoughts are ‘largely based on a set of assumptions about how this kind of work is actually received and used by the public‘, the idea that informing and storytelling are incompatible, causing art to push news offstage and creating an antirealist effect. Although Meiselas realises that these assumptions are legitimate and valuable questions, they are not based on research.

Her own practice of juxtaposing photographs with straightforward testimonies from the subjects make her stories clear, forceful and memorable. Meiselas assumes that by reciprocating the stories she sees and hears she can communicate the experiences of others that can lead to greater understanding, leading to reform rather than a revolution. A downside of these liberal beliefs is that they emphasize the individual understanding over that of the community or state, which could lead to the moral indifference Rosler warns us for.

However, Meiselas is aware of that and therefor a guardian of the context in which she photographs. “It is important to me – in fact, it is central to my work – that I do what I can to respect the individuality of the people I photograph, all of whom exist in specific times and places.”  Meiselas goes back to the people she has photographed and sheds new lights on the context in which the photographs were taken.

This essay has been very inspiring and so has been looking at some of Meiselas work and thinking about her photographic practice. It drives me to be more aware of the way I want to tell the stories of people and places I photograph. Which information does justice to my subjects? In which ways do I influence the way my photographs and captions are perceived?

‘More information does not necessarily increase realism. Information can ibe indigestible in its raw form, and must be prepared differently in order to be effective, to be of use. Masses of data are not memorable. images are memorable. Stories are memorable. As we move headlong into a world in which the delivery of information, in images and words, becomes more fluent and more rapid every day, the task of the storyteller is becoming more necessary, and more endangered.’ (Strauss, 2014)

Rosler, M. (1992) The Contest of meaning. Bolton: MIT Press.
Strauss, D.L. (2014) Words not spent today buy smaller images tomorrow: Essays on the present and future of photography. Washington, DC, United States: Aperture.
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Book Project


While working on my course I have been really busy putting a photobook together with a group of 21 foreigners living in New Delhi. The idea is to photograph New Delhi, put the images in a book, sell the book and give the proceeds to charity. It was very interesting to see how everybody has a different way of looking at the city. I helped with the editing of the images and now the book is about to be printed! Here’s a PDF of the book.

delhi-book

 

Assignment 1 – My Community

Life on an Embassy Compound

I live on an embassy compound in New Delhi. It’s a privileged life I never thought I would live. Our house is spacious and we have a lush garden right in the middle of a city of over 18 million people. We have staff who does everything for us, they cook, clean, do the laundry… we don’t even have to drive ourselves.

Even though we spend our days on the compound together, there is a world of difference between the local staff and the expats. The staff calls us mam and sir, I don’t even know all their names. The difference in our struggles and theirs is confrontational and guilt tripping.

This assignment asks to show my engagement with the lives, experiences and histories of my local community. Through the photographs and captions I hope to communicate the divide between the local staff and me, how I experience this and also the way I am perceived by the community. I have tried to reveal the differences in interaction and relationships through the images themselves, while keeping the captions very concise, with basic information about my knowledge of the subjects in the images.

The idea is that the total of the images and words will show the ambiguity of life in such a surreal community, and the distance and intimacy between people that were complete strangers to me a year ago.

 

assignment-1-sanneke

technical-staff

bart

kishan-store

gardener

julian-guus

patrick-pushpa

adri-en-yvo

dutch-school

assignment-1-guard

Reflection

Demonstration of technical and visual skills – materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.

Realising that what is on the blog is not yet the final product; I am going to print out the images and glue them on paper, or maybe put them in a small album for assessment, for now I think that the photographs demonstrate my current photography skills. I have tried to bring variety in the photographs without loosing sight of the theme and I think this has worked quite well. I want to be more creative in the way I present my work, because now the presentation looks a lot like the presentation of my work that I did for Context and Narrative.

Quality of outcome – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.

I am happy with the way the captions and photographs work together and that the images together convey an added meaning to how I look at and interact with my community. I have tried to be respectful to the people I have photographed while still staying true to how I look at my community. The research that I’ve done throughout the first chapter have shaped the way I have worked on this assignment. Especially Robbie Cooper’s work on the alter ego made me think about the different roles we have in our lives, how we look at ourselves and how to translate that visually.

Demonstration of creativity – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice.

I see a development of my personal voice, but I certainly feel there is a lot more room to expand my creativity and work outside of my comfort zone. Not only do I feel hindered by lack of technical knowledge, I really want to become more skilled, not only in post processing, but also in taking photographs, lighting and design. I notice that I am not good at thinking things through from beginning till end, but that I just have to start and let the ideas develop while I’m working. I do have to be careful not wanting to rush and take the time to be inspired.

Context – reection, research, critical thinking (learning logs, critical reviews and essays).

This can be better, I am very aware of that. I still do much more reading and researching than I blog about and I need to change that in order to give a proper reflection of my learning curve. I feel that I am good at finding meaning in images and am able to reflect on what I see and read, but still lack the vocabulary to put it on paper. It’s all a matter of practice and just doing it, I guess!

Assignment 1 – Context

When photographing my own community I want to focus on the details that I noticed when I had just moved to New Delhi last year. We live on an embassy compound and I feel like I’ve fallen in a way of living that is colonial and quite exploitative. We have help for everything, live in a beautiful, well kept place, in a diplomatic area right in the middle of a city where the majority of its inhabitants live on or below poverty line.

For every task there seems to be a person to do the job. I feel obliged to hire their services, because otherwise, there wouldn’t be a job for them. In the meantime, we expats live as in a holiday resort, having all the time to do what we enjoy. I don’t feel guilty for living the life that I live, but I do realise how surreal it is and how it deep down clashes with my beliefs of equal opportunities for all, etc.

I’ve been thinking on how to reflect these elements in my photographs. First of all, I want to show some of the people who work on our premises, other partners of people who work at the embassy and activities that take place, to give an overall view of what it looks like and how we spend our days.

In order to emphasise my engagement, I have decided to write the names of the people I know in the caption, if I don’t know their names, just a description of what they do and what I do know about them. In this way, it shows my connection with them and emphasises the sort of ‘downstairs – upstairs’ dynamic that is taking place.

I also like to show the differences in how they respond to me and the invisible wall of politeness and humbleness that I feel. I hope to show the layers of understanding, the huge gap between the circumstances we live under, my empathy or maybe indifference, or both.

Assignment 1 – Research Nan Goldin

Nan Golding had a difficult childhood. Besides all the arguments between her parents and siblings, her sister Barbara, who was her example and to whom she looked up to, was placed in a mental institution and committed suicide at the age of 19. Nan was only 11 years old. At the age of 13, Nan was kicked out of school and left home to live in a drag community, which she started photographed. From there her journey as a photographer started. ‘I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again’.

In a snapshot style Nan recorded her life and that of her friends. She believed in the ‘narrative of the self, the private and public exhibition we call being’. Her images show much of her community and give an intense insight in the dynamics between the people, their emotions and struggles. Nan called the drag community she lived in ‘her chosen family’. Her images reflect a life whose intimacy comes as close as a family life may be, showing a longing for what she had missed in her own childhood.

As personal and up and close Goldin’s work may be, the overall effect of her work gives you a more general, almost anthropological view on the communities she photographed and even her own life. As Arbus put it: ‘The more specific you are, the more general it will be’. It’s the details that accentuate the overall effect, showing that you can bring across a bigger story than just a snapshot of your own daily life.

 

Assignment 1 – Brief

Here’s a list of my first response and ideas to the brief, referring to the steps that were given in Short’s Creative Photography: Context and Narrative

  1. Context of the final output
    This assignment is done as part of my course and the final output is primarily made for my tutors and assessors in order for them to get an idea of the quality of my work and way of thinking about photography. Besides that, the work is going to be looked at by other students and probably the subjects in the photographs.
  2. Relevant information regarding conceptual approach
    The brief
    – produce 10 images
    Technical requirements
    – Taken with same camera and focal length
    Concepts:
    – Demonstration of my engagement with the lives, experiences and history of my local community and people
    – Single theme, topic or activity
  3. Learning Aims
    – Become aware of how my embedding in the situation and position in the spaces that I photograph are reflected in my work.
    – Produce images that have a strong visual language, but where the idea is the strongest element in the photograph.
    – Be able to look at my own community from a photographer’s perspective and learn how to visually translate my perspective into images that show my insider’s view.
    – Work in an organized, well planned manner.
    – Push myself to only be satisfied with the best I can do.
  4. Time Schedule
    – Research and contacting community: 2 – 3 days
    – Experimenting: 1 day
    – Processing, taking the actual photographs: 3 – 5 days
    – Post Processing and writing short commentary: 1 – 2 days
    – Printing: 1 day
    – Final Presentation: 1 day
  5. Ideas verbalized
    – Community: Parents of the international school my children go to in New Delhi. Anders from Sweden, Alan from the United States, Fifi from Congo, Jin from Korea and Carla from Germany. This would focus more on the diversity of the community and expat life itself.
    – Activity: Diwali celebration or Fall Fiesta at school, photograph the parents and children to get in the position of showing how they respond to me being part of the community and my role in it. Besides that, it will show how people interact with each other and how local holidays are celebrated by expats and the upper class (the parties are always quite over the top!) After having the images printed, I could ask the people in the images to write something about themselves and what they feel about being part of this community.
    – Coffee at the Tiger’s Den. Every morning parents and teachers of the International School have coffee in a cafe on the school ground. It’s here where you can hear about 10 different languages within 10 minutes and see people from all nationalities talking to each other. I would like to photograph the interaction between them, but also the interaction with the staff of the cafe.
    – Photographs from my compound. I live on a compound that belongs to The Netherlands Embassy, together with 4 other families. We live in beautiful homes, with lush, big gardens, a swimming pool and a gym. In total there are about 30 people working on the compound to cook for us, clean, maintain the homes and garden and drive us. This is my 7th post as a diplomat’s wife, but I have never lived in such a colonial setting before. It would be interesting to photograph the people who live and work here, and show the ambiguity of our strange life.

In my former posts I already mentioned that I want to research Jim Goldberg and Nan Golding, but I feel that I should find some more photographers who have photographed in their own communities to get some more ideas. I’ve read some other students’ post on a William Eggleston exhibition, called Eggleston’s portraits that have been very inspiring.