All the talk from the US about building a wall reminded me that in November it is 30 years since the Berlin wall came down. I was working as a freelance and spent a week in Berlin. This pic was at the border crossing at Rudow. The man was chain smoking, pacing up and down and looking at everybody that crossed. He told me he was waiting for his daughter. I asked how long since he had last seen her. He stopped, looked at me and said 26 years. If I had been a good photojournalist I would have waited and taken shots of him and his daughter, it would have made a good story. I did not do that, preferring to leave him to enjoy the moment in private.
You have ideas, thoughts about what to do, what to say but doubts creep in. Then out of the blue you read something, see something, hear something and everything slots into place. Today it was a passage in “The Wild Places” by Robert Macfarlane. His piece about the world of John Baker who tracked falcons and hawks in Essex for decades.
In the 1950s Baker was convinced they would die out because of agricultural pesticides and intensive farming. He was right of course. Baker was a man who some would say was obsessed by the plight of these birds. Obsession is a dirty word these days but we need people who are obsessed about ‘nature’ in all its forms. We need people with the passion to follow their vision, to do what they need to do without thinking of the rewards.
Often, I feel that we, as a society, as humans are on the edge of a precipice. Now is the time for the passions to surface, now is the time to follow gut feelings and do what you need to do. Follow that passion.
Thank you, Robert Macfarlane.
The latest edition of the RPS journal is a travel special. There is a feature about Salgado and a quote on the front page “after the human species disappears the planet will rebuild itself”. This is a relatively common belief but it is flawed. The biggest issue is the artificial distinction between planet and humans. It suggests that we live in a separate world superimposed on the planet. But we are part of the Earth, not separate or above it but part of it. We come from it, live on it and return to it when we die. There is nowhere else for us.
We evolved to become the highest species although some would argue with that; as such we are related to every other living thing. If we die out everything else is likely to die too. It is not just us and them, we are them.
Steven Hawkins recently said that if we do not stop runway climate change there is a huge risk that the whole structure that supports life, all life, will disappear from the Earth. The remains would be another very hot sterile lump of rock like some of our neighbours.
It is time that people with influence stopped spouting stuff about the Earth healing itself when we are gone and got down to doing something positive. We can, repeat can, stop the worst of climate change if we act very quickly. We can turn around our destruction of the Earth if we have the will to do it.
It is also time that photographers took responsibility for their actions and stopped jetting off around the world to exotic locations just to take pics. There is no justification for it. We need a group of photographers who lead by example and fight climate change instead of contributing to it – Photographers Against Climate Change – PACC! Interested?
There is shock and horror on the net after World Press Photo announced a new contest with the provisional title of ‘creative documentary’. Evidently it would “not have rules limiting how images are produced.”
There has been a lot of controversy about manipulation of images. Steve McCurry was at the centre of much debate after it became clear that he had cleaned up some of his images. (See Petapixel) He responded to the criticism in an interview with Time.
“I’ve always let my pictures do the talking, but now I understand that people want me to describe the category into which I would put myself, and so I would say that today I am a visual storyteller,” (From: Time.com)
McCurry now says that he is a visual storyteller and not a photojournalist. I am not sure that gives him more freedom. There is the myth that persists into the 21st century, that photography is truthful and that no manipulation of images is allowed. In other words, we are stuck with a 19th century notion that photography is the objective representation of reality.
The manipulation of images is nothing new. In the Soviet Union it was common to remove people from photographs. There will be other examples of such pratices for propaganda or political ‘spin’. Even the selection of images considered to promote a more positive view of a person or product is, in effect, manipulation.I am not saying that any level of manipulation is acceptable. Personally I limit post production to changing density, colour balance and burning and dodging that could be done with silver prints. I also remove distracting details like branches in the edge of the frame or, recently, the wing mirror of a truck in the edge of a pic.
What nobody talks about how a photographer selects, frames and decides when to press the shutter. These are the biggest decisions in the process yet they are not questioned. In the days of film there was a debate was about cropping with a fad to print the edges of the film to show that you had not cropped. The idea being that it made the image somehow more truthful. It also implies that the photographer’s view of reality is fixed when the shutter is pressed and nothing should be allowed to interfere with ‘the truth’ in the image.
Any discussion about manipulation should recognise that all documentary photography is subjective and that there is no such thing as truth. Then we might be able to move on to more interesting debates about what motivates a photographer to choose the subject, frame it and decide when to press the shutter. Or is that all too difficult?
My current exhibition, “Quarried”, has no captions or text apart from a brief artist’s statement. It was a deliberate part of the design. It seems that some visitors do not like it and there have been comments about not knowing where the pics were taken and that a location alongside each image would help.
I was asked why I was being so secretive about the quarries in the exhibition. My explanation is that it is irrelevant where they are, all you need to know is contained in the photography and the artist’s statement. Obviously it is not enough for some people. In a way I am pleased because they will leave remembering something even if it is only an awkward photographer who will not play the game and answer all their questions.
The design of the exhibition is based around making the images accessible. That means no frames, the prints are mounted on Diabond which is an aluminium substrate that has no visible signs of fixing and appears to float off the wall. There is nothing between the print and the viewer.
Last year I found Jaques Aumont’s book “The Image” where he talks about ‘frames’. For still images that means the way the images was framed, what the photographer chooses to include and what to leave out. It is also about the societal and political influences that deem what is and is not acceptable. That can range from the lawful to what is considered to be good for a photographic club competition.
Physical frames contain and restrain meaning. Put a photograph behind glass in a frame and it becomes a precious object, a museum piece. And if is destined to be displayed on a wall it has to have a title or a caption. It has to be anchored in a frame of reference that limits and dictates the possible meanings. Why? Is it not possible to engage with an image without being told what to see? Or is it just a convention, an expectation that can and should be challenged?
The reason I do not like captions goes back to an exhibition of Don McCullin’s work on the Biafran famine at the Serpentine Gallery in the mid-1980s. I went to see it partly because I respect McCullin’s work and partly because I was researching the way people look at images. It was tough with heart wrenching images of people starving.
It was a Saturday morning and very busy, there was a continual stream of people walking round in an orderly fashion. I stood in the middle of the room and watched how they were looking at the prints. I say ‘looking’ rather than ‘seeing’. There was a pattern, a quick glance at the image, 5-10 seconds then down to the left corner to read the caption and then back to the pic for maybe another 5 seconds and then move on to the next. I called them ‘noddies’ because of their head movement.
I wanted to scream “look at the pictures and feel something.” After a while I became aware of a man standing to my left. He was motionless and had tears streaming down his face, the images meant something to him and produced a profound reaction. He was seeing the suffering without the need to read the captions. A that was needed was to engage with the image however painful that might have been.
From that day I stopped using captions or titles for my work. If I have to include text then it is minimal and does not explain what is in each image nor tell people what to see. I want people to look at my photographs with an open mind and to see for themselves what is there. To explore and then decide, or not, what it means to them.