Friday, 2 May 2014

Documentary Photography and the Dinosaurs

all pictures by from Will theySing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty by Max Pinckers

I enjoyed reading Clementine Schneidermann's interview with Peter van Atgmael on Ideas Tap. Van Atgmael talks about various things; education, cameras and working approach.

My favourite part is when he snaps back at photographers with a conceptual bent; Broomberg and Chanarin, Cristina de Middel and Mishka Henner are named in the question.

These conceptual photographers are trying to kill the traditions, but they’ve been informed by them; the institutions they’re criticising aren’t going away. It’s good that they push its limits, but documentary photography is always going to exist. Even if it can sometimes be clich├ęd, there’s always a core of it that is going to be great. 

I have a certain sympathy with that idea of conceptual photography riding on the back of documentary - mainly because it does (and I'm not sure anyone says that it doesn't). I also have a sympathy for his bite back - in fact I think it's a good thing. It adds to the debate and is perhaps a response to the repeated announcements of the death of this or that kind of photography. 

(And in fact, immediately after the article appeared van Atgmael tweeted Not sure why I said that. I like a lot of conceptual photography. I think I was just grumpy that Chris Killip didn't win the deutsche borse prize as I cherish his work. It was a dumb thing to say. David Campbell alerted me to this  after I knocked this post out, but hey, this paragraph aside, we'll let it all stand because it's relevant. )

And there's lots to debate, most of it very reasonable. This is what Mishka Henner said in an interview he did with me a few years back

 “I found that I could discover something new by pointing a camera, but the more proficient I became with the language of photography, the more frustrated I was with it. I wanted to find new ways of communicating but the Photography World with a capital P can be quite conservative. I needed to go beyond it, I needed to get my work seen by people outside photography. One of the things that frustrates me is how photography is often taught according to a set agenda of what is good; and looking at photography in this way can be restrained and narrow. We’re surrounded by cameras  and from a basic point of view that changes the way we function. We don’t need to carry a camera around with us all the time anymore because everything is being photographed in any case.”
It’s a manifesto opposed to the idea of the purity of photography, opposed to the idea that there is any one right way of doing things. “An example of this,” explains Henner, “is a student who came in and told me she hadn’t taken any pictures all week and had nothing to show me. I asked her if she had uploaded anything to Facebook and she said yes, of course, loads of pictures. But she couldn’t see that the Facebook pictures were just as valid and maybe even more interesting than what she saw as the ‘Proper Photographs’.”

Which is all very reasonable and I agree with it all. It's about opening up photography to new ideas and new ways of working. 

And this is what Broomberg and Chanarin say about it in this post, Unconcerned but not Indifferent. This is about judging the World Press Photo, the surfeit of images and they reliance that war photography has on war. 

 Do we even need to be producing these images any more? Do we need to be looking at them? We have enough of an image archive within our heads to be able to conjure up a representation of any manner of pleasure or horror. Does the photographic image even have a role to play any more? Video footage, downloaded from the internet, conveys the sounds and textures of war like photographs never could. High Definition video cameras create high-resolution images twenty-four photographs a second, eliminating the need to click the shutter. But since we do still demand illustrations to our news then there is a chance to make images that challenge our preconceptions, rather than regurgitate old cliche?

Again, I agree with all that. But I agree with the response that Tim Hetherington (who never identified himself as a war photographer and was open to all forms of visual representation - "I wish people would stop wittering on about photography" was his view) gave in his essay By Any Means Necessary (thanks Lucas Pernin for the link). 

"Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin begin their critique of contemporary photojournalism by referring to a quote by Bertolt Brecht in which he claims, without providing any basis, that photojournalism contributes almost nothing to our understanding of the world. In fact, he goes further, claiming that photographs are actually a 'weapon against truth'. Let us ignore, for a moment, the fact that photographs have been used as evidence in every war crimes trial since Nuremberg. Let us ignore the fact that photography has infiltrated almost every aspect of popular culture and private life – what Brecht dismisses as the 'bourgouisie'. If photographs do not reflect something of an objective truth, then nothing does, and we are left with an endlessly subjective, nihilistic understanding of the world."

"I’m not interested in playing the ‘concerned’ moral crusader by ramming violent images in people’s faces," he concludes, "but that doesn’t mean the world shouldn’t have access to them. Images don’t need ‘intelligent’ aesthetics to convey their message - again, think of the Falling Man – but they can benefit from them. Like advertising, visual journalism employs many strategies to communicate. In Yemen, I recently saw fly-posters of what appear to be dead Palestinian children. It’s the sort of thing that would be distasteful on streets of the UK and yet they are manifestly accepted in Yemen. These images highlight the plight of Palestine and inculcate anti-western sentiments. Similarly, images of starving Ethiopians were instrumental in focusing world attention, gathering funds and mobilising the international relief effort there in the 1980s. The fact is, images of pain and suffering make people uncomfortable and sometimes inspire them to action. We try to ignore them and we fail. And then we secretly look at them on the internet."

I sometimes get the feeling that there's this strange opposition between two imaginary sides that secretly agree with each other. I sometimes feel it is about how things are said, about taking an artificial stand for or against something, about being a gobshite for the sake of it. It's like the Life of Brian where the anti-Roman factions hate each other more than the supposed target of their hatred. That kind of factionalism gives things a label (conceptual, documentary, fashion, conceptual documentary etc etc...) but on the balance is probably a bad thing. But at the same time, the idea that something  ' always going to exist'  does strike me as a tad of complacent. I bet the dinosaurs thought they were always going to exist and look what happened to them.

It exists until it dies and if it doesn't get new ideas and new blood, it will die. The days of misery-mongering photo-essays that just repeat the stereotypes of war, poverty and injustice (and rely on it - there's always that strange symbiosis going on there) are numbered. 

That's something van Atgmael recognises. It's also something that people like Jim Goldberg recognises. I like his response to all the Google Street View work made of people from a distance - something Goldberg has responded to very directlyon occasions by sitting  on top of the Magnum RV taking pictures and engaging directly with the subjects on occasions. It's a kind of fuck-you both to Google  and GSV projects. Not that Postcards from America doesn't have all kinds of ethical whatnots you could get into if you are that way inclined. 

So round and round we go. Conceptual is informed by documentary and documentary is informed by conceptual. Throw in some politics, some art, some film, some justice, some science.... the more photography reaches outside itself the better. If it stays locked in some little ghetto it becomes impoverished and, no matter what the tradition, it will die. 

And that's being recognised by photographers. So we'll end the week by saying congratulations to both Max Pinckers for winning the Photographic Museum of Humanity Grant 2014 for  Will they Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty  and to Lorenzo Vitturi for winning the Hyeres Photography Award 2014 for his Dalston Anatomy. 

Both of these recognise and are part of a documentary tradition and deal with very serious documentary subjects, but deal with them in new and unexpected ways. And thank God for that.

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