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Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Stephen Mayes on the Romance of Photojournalism

Stephen Mayes looked at 470,214 images as chair of World Press Photo - images that he says are a reflection of the world's media, not the world's photography.

As he states on the blog, Notes From Nowhere:

Every year, the jury is astonished by the repetition of subjects and the lack of variety in the coverage. From the infinity of human experience the list of subjects covered by the entrants would fill a single page, and (excluding sports as a specialist area) could be reduced even to three lines:

- The disposed and the powerless
- The exotic
- Anywhere but home (the American election would be one of the exceptions to this rule….)

This is the general view, the blurred impression of 470,214 images and of course there are many exceptions. But meanwhile hospitals and the sick (and especially mental hospitals), the afflicted, the poor, the injured are photographed way in excess of their actual numbers. And I have a feeling that there are as many photographers as drug users in the Kabul’s Russian House. As one juror said this year, “90% of the pictures are about 10% of the world.”

- Over represented: commercial sex, suffering black folk, Muslim women in veils, same sex couples kissing, holding hands

- Under represented: middle class, affluent drug users, real sex, personal sex, black culture and expanded vision of black life outside Africa.


[It is] important to take innovative risk as well as physical risk. Capa’s famous dictum that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” could be applied in this new context to describe an emotional closeness to ones subjects. By that I do not mean a sentimental display of warmth, but at least a real interest in the subject. The adherence to formulaic representation suggests a lack of connection with what’s truly meaningful to oneself and the impression is that many photojournalists photograph what they think they ought to photograph rather than what actually intrigues them.

“Heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized” defines photojournalism as represented by the vast majority of the entries. Where is the intimate, the personal and the real?

A full recording of Stephen Mayes speech on chairing the World Press Photo is here.


mark page said...

I agree, thing is the same thing can be said of most genre's of photography from "fine Art" to "weddings" Mayes has I think pointed out the flaw in photography in general, not only photojournalism. It could be argued though that Mr Mayes has on this occasion alone viewed 47 trillion million willion images he is bound to come across similarities and that work should be produced to be viewed by Joe public not Mr Mayes or other pro image viewers, although if we are honest most of us can't help but make work for other photographers/experts.

Frank Evers said...

This may be news to Stephen and WPP, but many in the photo world reached these and many other conclusions a long time ago (see Jorg Colberg’s blog about Nachtwey and Martin Parr’s public comments last summer)...this is why I brought Jon Levy into NYPH'09's ("Home for Good" including Tim Hetherington's seminal piece "Soldier's Sleeping") and created the "New Documentations" Special Screening and panels at NYPH'09, showcasing powerful (personal) works by Dawoud Bey, Jodie Bieber, Edward Burtynsky, Elinor Carucci, Lauren Greenfield, Robert Hornstra, Pieter Hugo, Ed Kashi, Gerd Ludwig, Joshua Lutz, Jehad Nga, Eugene Richards, Paul Shambroom, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Mikhael Subotsky, Donald Weber and Danny Wilcox-Frazier....when Stephen says "Where is the intimate, the personal and the real?", I say, "right in front and all around you. Where have you been?"

colin pantall said...

Hi Mark and Frank - I think the interesting thing Mayes bring to the debate (which dates back to the eighties and beyond) is his intimate knowledge of photojournalism and his coherent and impassioned pleas on its behalf - I also think his comments extend beyond photojournalism into other genres (though generic slippage is making all these genres increasingly meaningless) where the same ideas equally apply - how to make work that is different and shows passion, depth and feeling. You have an impressive list of photographers there Frank, many of whom I love and admire, but the same comments could equally apply to many of them I feel. What is interesting about what Mayes says about photojournalism is that it applies in other areas of photography - people making work for the audience, the self-replicating nature or it, the lack of originality of it, the repeated themes that are touched on... That sounds awfully familiar to me.

Ian Aleksander Adams said...

"generic slippage" is an interesting phrase. I think I get what you're talking about, but I'd love to see elaborations on it.

colin pantall said...

Hi Ian - Generic slippage is the slipping of genres, so photojournalism slipping into documentary into art into commercial and so on. It's interesting because it's accelerating - in writing people don't mix up copywriting and novels, but in photography they do. It's all part of a journey towards a visual discourse analysis which is something we don't really have - or do we? I don't know.

Ian Aleksander Adams said...

It's so hard to tell. I wish had a broader base of expertise - maybe the cutting edge writing is just as crazy and mixed up as photography.