Imaginary Documents

Wandering around Deptford for my upcoming Assignment 3, I realised I wasn’t going to have a story suddenly jump out at me from the blue; I had to make the story arise. This was due to the apparent bleakness of much of Deptford apart from the high street. It was what my eyes showed me and was obvious too in the snapshots I was producing. This bleak appearance was however, a blessing in disguise as it made me start actively thinking for the first time what stories I could begin to put together and therefore what imaginary set of documents I could construe.

At first I was a bit tentative about creating an at least partly fictional story as most of what I had learnt about documentary photography so far seemed to veer towards the factual. I decided actually, after all, a lot of documentary is constructed on the most basic level of selection and framing anyway. Therefore, how much of what is selected and framed by the photographer is objective, factual documentary and how much of it is subjective?

Having said all of this, I selected a story which very much had its roots in the notion of this bleakness in Deptford which in my mind was quite factual. I thought I would contrast this with the hubbub of the market on Deptford High Street on a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday.

As I was having the realisation that most documents are on some level subjective and so pulling a story from it was acceptable, I came across some text in my course. This text effectively mirrored what I was thinking but was written more eloquently. Here Jose Navarro, the course author, wrote:

Traditional thinking documentary photography supports the idea that the photographic document is evidence of something that happened out there, something that occurred without being choreographed or prompted by the photographer. Which is precisely what Mohamed Bourouissa doesn’t do. – Navarro (2012)

'la main' - périphérique - Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)
‘la main’ – périphérique – Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)

Bourouissa’s work intrigued me because it featured a style where a story was ‘pulled’ from reality but was done in such a way that it was difficult to tell whether the scenes had been staged. The work I looked at was: périphérique (2005-2009) and in particular la main (the hand) and la rencontre (the encounter); a couple of a series of edgy, unrestful images where the viewer was unsure of the authenticity of the scenes. I looked at these for a while and I’m still not sure whether they were staged or not. This was because it was hard to imagine the photographs being taken without being staged but the actor’s faces were so convincing and the snapshot framing was so dysfunctional that the scenes were believable.

I envisaged a landscape/documentary approach for photographing Deptford, which would mainly rely on found scenes. This would function quite differently as the scenes wouldn’t be staged but as a set I would be creating a narrative within which these found scenes fit in.

'la rencontre' - périphérique - Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)
‘la rencontre’ – périphérique – Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)

One other realisation about tendencies for my own documentary practice was that I invariably seemed to want to try to create single-image narratives. Whether this was down to Assignment 2 – Documentary where I was asked to try to produce single-image narratives I was not sure. Either way I realised I was attempting to complete the assignments in single shots rather than thinking about how multiple photographs could relate to one another.

One possible solution I could foresee would be to focus on creating numerous images which, while quite possibly not depicting single-image narratives, when edited down and then put together produce a more telling narrative than singularly. Bourouissa’s series: périphérique (2005-2009) certainly worked as single-image narratives and together as a series, proving that both approaches could exist in tandem. However, I wanted to concentrate on looking at how multiple photographs could relate to one another in a series.

References:

Bourouissa, M. (2005-2009). périphérique [online] mohamedbourouissa.com Available at: http://www.mohamedbourouissa.com/peripherique/ [Accessed 17 Aug. 2017]

Navarro, J. (2012). OCA Documentary Course.

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Reflections on Simon Roberts’ Project: We English

Simon Roberts strikes me as a photographer first, and a bit of a shrewd business man second. I saw nothing wrong with this – images are for sharing; if he didn’t commit to the business side of things his photographs would be shared less so it is just a means to an end (while at the same time providing himself and his family wth an income). He applies his business sense by marketing and publicising his upcoming project/book arduously; thereby increasing the chances it will sell well. He also employs clever strategies like creating a dedicated, dynamic website for the project which changes and is added to according to how the project is panning out a the time. Besides the (80%) business side of things, I have come across Roberts’ work before and I feel his (20%) photographic work is very technically sound and still creates a message.

Amerta Movement Workshop, Avebury Henge, Wiltshire, 2nd June 2008 - We English - Simon Roberts
Amerta Movement Workshop, Avebury Henge, Wiltshire, 2nd June 2008 – We English – Simon Roberts

In We English for example, he utilises a predominantly high viewpoint and concepts like: ‘he decided people should occupy no more than one third of the frame’ – (Houghton, 2009), presumably to aid narrative in his work where: ‘Such an image announces itself as a tableau, a site where a compressed narrative can bloom across the frame’ – (Houghton, 2009). This approach works in my opinion because it is almost as if the viewer has to make the narrative up for themselves from the people in the third of the frame and their relationship with the surrounding landscape.

One possible narrative Roberts might be trying to suggest in at least some of his photographs for We English is that the idealised, romantic picturesque of the past views has remained for the most part. The views might be changing (largely because of the influx of people evident in the photographs Roberts takes) but they are still ‘good enough’ to attract the tourists to their countryside in large numbers. This influx paradoxically makes the views less attractive, while on the other hand displays the views popularity.

Lingmell Fell, Wasdale Valley, Cumbria, 22nd August 2008 - We English - Simon Roberts
Lingmell Fell, Wasdale Valley, Cumbria, 22nd August 2008 – We English – Simon Roberts

One point Stephen Daniels eloquently highlights in his companion essay for We English: The English Outdoors – (Daniels, 2010) is:

While the presence of other excursionists in these pictures is often only implied or at any rate discreet, some artists addressed the popular encounter with landscape, in crowded scenes, sometimes expressly theatrical ones, in which the landscape is an arena of performance and narrative.

Roberts with We English, according to my observations certainly doesn’t back away from photographing people when he sees them in the English countryside and in fact even makes a feature of them, similar to Daniels’ aforementioned quote from The English Outdoors. I would say he goes a step further when he photographs people at famous tourist sites in Switzerland with Sight Sacralization: (Re)framing Switzerland – (Roberts, 2016). Here he definitely concentrates on the relationship between land and people and makes a fairly strong argument I feel that the act of tourists visiting popular tourist sites is a performance in itself and takes almost more significance than the landscape which is the cause for their activities such as selfies. I found this work very absorbing and clever in making a tourist site (which nowadays is often not aesthetically-pleasing) something quite beautiful at times and with a powerful narrative holding the project together.

References:

Daniels, S. (2010). The English Outdoors. [online] Simoncroberts.com. Available at: http://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/We_English-Stephen_Daniels_Essay.pdf [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

Houghton, M. (2009). Foto8 Issue 25. [online] issuu. Available at: https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/issue25 [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

Roberts, S. (2008). We English. [online] Simoncroberts.com. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/we-english/#PHOTO_0 [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

Roberts, S. (2016). Sight Sacralization. [online] Simoncroberts.com. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/sight-sacralization/#PHOTO_0 [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

8 Ways to Change the World

After having read through an article titled ‘Seeing and Believing’ written by Max Houghton (2005) I feel I have procured a better idea of the challenges facing non-governmental organisations in changing the way they raise awareness about the people they aid.

Houghton calls for an inward revolution for the way NGOs manage those more fortunate’s perceptions of those less fortunate – those less fortunate being the people non-governmental organisations aid. One way Paul Lowe, lecturer at LCC, suggests this can be done is for NGOs concentrate at least some of their efforts on local photographers who know their own country and inhabitants better: ‘It’s most significant to use indigenous photographers to represent their own country when there is no local voice at all, so all we ever get is a western point of view.’ – (Lowe, n.d.). However, there is a danger, Shahidul Alam of Drik agency in Bangladesh fears, where by teaching the local people photography’s (documentary) language, the local photographers will become just another occidental photographer since the style of documentary or reportage was founded in the first half of the 20th century by westerners. ‘The danger therefore, is of becoming a sheep in wolf’s clothing, and eventually of becoming a wolf.’ – Alam ominously concludes. This is backed up by Adrian Evans, director of Panos Pictures in London, who states: ‘You can’t simply work with indigenous photographers because it’s ethically sound if they are not skilled up enough to do the work’ – (Evans, n.d.). Joseph Cabon concedes he prefers woking with people he has already met or in other words: is ‘more cautious about using people he hasn’t met face-to-face’. While I understand this reservation especially as Cabon is also looking for projects: ‘that would really inspire and challenge the photographers, rather than having them come back with yet another set that could have been taken four or five years ago’ – (Cabon, n.d.), I would say indigenous photographers could do something similar also.

My proposal would be to allow the indigenous photographers to work in there own styles but with an emphasis (perhaps on behalf of the people who eventually publish their work) on representing the people they photograph as people with hope and ‘evoke not pity but understanding’ and in creative ways, as was the case with Chris de Bode’s work for VSO in the exhibition ‘8 Ways to Change the World’ curated by Adrian Evans.

 

Ethiopia, Chimbiri, Nr. Debre Birhan, Highlands 1 - 8 Ways to Change the World - Chris de Bode
Ethiopia, Chimbiri, Nr. Debre Birhan, Highlands 1 – 8 Ways to Change the World – Chris de Bode

I also looked at the colour documentary photographers work for the ‘8 Ways to Change the World’ exhibition curated by Adrian Evans and three colour documentary photographers work stood out for me which I have tried to compare.

Ethiopia, Chimbiri, Nr. Debre Birhan, Highlands 2 - 8 Ways to Change the World - Chris de Bode
Ethiopia, Chimbiri, Nr. Debre Birhan, Highlands 2 – 8 Ways to Change the World – Chris de Bode

With extra information comes extra complications I have found when looking at the ‘8 Ways to Change the World’ exhibition by Panos Pictures. From this I mean that the extra information colour brings (which might be why it is the more prevalent medium in today’s documentary photography) also adds confusion for the viewer as they have more to take in. Not only is there composition and light to take in but now colour as well. Zed Nelson somewhat mitigates this fact by employing a shallow depth of field in some of his portraits so the viewer is clear what is the main subject of the photograph. In trying to work out why I felt Chris de Bode’s photographs work better (as they are) in colour than they might have been in black and white I could see that it was less the use of colour relationships as I was expecting the answer to be. Instead it was more the placement of the main subject compositionally in the frame (usually the centre), the amount of information present but which was reduced by isolating the subject from the rest of the frame and finally the interesting subject matter.

Action Aid Commission - 8 Ways to Change the World - Adam Hinton
Action Aid Commission – 8 Ways to Change the World – Adam Hinton

In contrast to the two aforementioned photographers, Adam Hinton, uses a much darker aperture (presumably to get the whole frame in focus) and almost a snapshot aesthetic which is objective in style and rich in information. I felt he carefully placed his subjects in the frame or filled his frame by paying attention to detail. This elevated his work out of the snapshot photograph. However it was less reactive and subjective than Chris de Bode’s and more factual and formal. In my opinion Zed Nelson’s work sits somewhere in between by employing similar strategies to de Bode’s and Hinton’s photography. However I liked de Bode’s way of seeing best as it seemed slightly more human, especially with regards to the ‘reactive’, unformulated poses and aesthetically-pleasing compositions.

References:

de Bode, C. (2005). Eight Ways to Change the World. [online] Chris de Bode. Available at: http://www.chrisdebode.com/stories#/eight-ways/ [Accessed 20 Jun. 2017].

Hinton, A. (2005). Adam Hinton. [online] Adamhinton.net. Available at: http://www.adamhinton.net/commission#project [Accessed 20 Jun. 2017].

Houghton, M. (2005). Volume 4 Number 3. [online] issuu. Available at: https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/vol4no3 [Accessed 20 Jun. 2017], pp. 34-37.