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Friday, 13 March 2015
That's a Real Damaged Life in There! And a Photo Book. And...
Lisa, the night I met her through law enforcement. I followed up with her about a month later, beginning a journalistic relationship that continues today.
A few weeks back, The Eichmann Show aired in the UK. It was a drama about the filming of the Eichmann Trial in 1961, and was the first globally screened documentary.
During the drama there was a great line in there which encapsulates whether serious drama, documentary or anything should have an entertainment element in it. It's the part where a witness collapses during the trial and the producer Milton asks the director if he got the shot.
Milton: Did you get it?
Leo: We got almost everything but I think we missed the collapse.
Milton: Missed the collapse. Jesus, Leo.
Leo: We got a couple of seconds of it, but it's impossible to anticipate something like that.
Milton: That was a stand-out moment, Leo, like someone crying out in the auditorium. Talking points. Human drama.
Leo: That's a real damaged life in there, not a fucking TV show.
Milton: And a fucking TV show. AND. AND.
It's a refutation in some ways of the old Adorno idea that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, that anything that reeked of the culture (be it high, be it low, but especially be it popular) from which the Holocaust arose was to blame for that holocaust. And if you like, it's a position in which there is a coldness, a calculation, and a displaced sense of one's own self-delusion that is even more in common with the foundations upon which the holocaust ( or other horrors of war) was built.
Keep on with the poetry, the drama, the entertainment and the TV shows in other words. I'll take them over Adorno any day of the week (and please, if you are really into Adorno or the rest of the Frankfurt school and I've made fundamental errors in this post, please fuck off and weave yourself a hair shirt!)
Lots of people like that photograph-and-feel-the-pain stance. There's a Stafford Cripps kind of mentality prevalent in photography that you should suffer for your work and so should the people who look at it. And it'll do you good. And you'll like it. Same way you like wheat grass juice or quinoa or salad without dressing (my wife calls it English Salad) or thrashing yourself across the back with stripped birch.
I wondered about this week as I read through Laia Abril's brilliant Epilogue. The Epilogue is a book that deals with a really difficult subject through the heartache of a family, through missed opportunity and an ever present sense of regret. It's a difficult thing to do, to make a book like that. You have to be brutal. You have to tell the story and you have to make people want to read the story. You're designing pages around real people's lives, you are literally laying out their emotions on the page. The temptations to ease your foot off the gas a little must come up again and again. That's what makes it difficult. there is real anguish and pain that is still present in the lives of the people who surrounded Cammy and must be made apparent in the pages of the book.
That's a real damaged life in there. And a photo book. And...
There's also an obsessiveness in there to follow the story to its dark heart. And that same obsessiveness is apparent in Tim Matsui's much shared article on winning a World Press Multimedia Prize for his work on sex trafficking.
The title of the story is I Just Won a World Press Photo Award and a POYi, But I’m Not Celebrating . Again, there are real damaged lives in there, but there is also a story to tell and Matsui tells that story beautifully in the post (which I've read) and I'm sure he does in the film as well (which I haven't seen - but here's the trailer).
It's heartbreaking just to read and see the pictures and it's done with a purpose in mind, to use documentary storytelling to engage and more importantly to change attitudes towards sex trafficking - to make it visible and to understand what lies on the surface and beneath the surface and how we collude in it much more than we realise. There's also a huge journalistic interest in how sex trafficking is represented and managed at a police, community and legal level. It's ridiculously complex and Matsui isn't holding back in the scale of his ambition.
It's a bit terrifying to be honest, and it demonstrates a level of commitment that really answers the question of why Matsui writes, films and photographs. He doesn't do it for photography's sake but for a wider purpose. He's committed to his belief in a way that few of us are and that is so very admirable. It's also a bit of a lesson for those of us who would like to think photography can change things, because he might be an example of somebody who is making that absurd proposition a little bit real. If you want to change things through photography, look at Matsui - this is one example of what you need to do. It's not just taking pictures anymore. It never was.
I don't know if the post was entertaining, but it was certainly engaging and was written to draw the reader into what Matsui is doing. He ended the post with some general thoughts on photography which are worth repeating. And not just for people who are making this kind of committed work. But for anybody making any kind of work. You can't sit back and be lazy. You have to be doing things, constantly. Non-stop. Never-ending. It's exhausting just thinking about it. But it's easier than ever if you have a mind for it. And remember that it's a story that you're telling.
For now, let’s just say, we’re in a new era. If you want to make stories, you have to think about publishing and distribution by yourself. These things requires nimbleness, ingenuity, and willingness to go where the audience is. You can get to those places more easily then an entire publication can!
Photographers looking for validation through awards and publishing limit us to the traditional model. Think bigger. If you say you want to make a difference, then be proactive. Don’t rely on traditional distribution models.
Engagement is not necessarily a photographer’s core competency, but engagement is essential. That’s what partners are for. Find them and build something custom. If it is reflexive and good and novel, the traditional distributors will take notice. Change in the industry can occur.
Finally, we’re not just content providers, we’re journalists turning a critical eye on the world and giving voice to the voiceless.
Always remember that.