Thursday, 12 March 2009
How not to Photograph: The Vacation Slide Show
picture: Colin Pantall (from the series, What People Don't Understand About Komodo Is... )
Next up in the series on How not to Photograph is The Vacation Slide Show - where, to paraphrase Howard and Mittelmark, the photographer substitutes location for story.
Yes, it's all about location, location, location. Something that is new to you the photographer, that is unfamiliar and full of surprises, by extension has to be of interest to your viewers. But if all you are doing is substituting the more colourful street detritus of Tirichirupalli for that of Trowbridge or Totterdown, then your pictures will inevitably fall flat.
Just because you can go somewhere doesn't mean you should. A lack of familiarity with an environment, culture and people is unlikely to provide new visual revelations to wow your audience.
As Howard and Mittelmark put it: "There was a time when a book could be sold purely because its author had been to distant climes and had returned to tell of the exotic sights he had seen. That author was Marco Polo, and the time was the thirteenth century."
With pictures, the photographer was Francis Frith and the time was the nineteenth century.
Closely related to the Vacation Slide Show is the Pointless Travelogue. I used to love nothing better than to travel the back of beyond of darkest Indonesia. I'd hang out in places like Sibulusalaam, the poison capital of northern Sumatra, and wonder at the miracles of the wildlife of Komodo. And when I got home I would start conversations with finger-clicking gambits like, "The thing about Aceh is..." or "What people don't understand about Aceh is..."
And then the pictures would come up and the glazed over eyes of my audience would droop and fade into unconsciousness.
So just because you can go there doesn't mean that you should, or that your pictures will be interesting. This applies to undergraduate documentary photography students in particular. Photography is not a competition to see who can go to the most obscure destination, even if you are minted and have a trust fund. No, on second thoughts, if you are minted with a trust fund, loads of stuff still happening if you get off the beaten track in Helmand and Somalia - get out of here.