Tag Archives: photography

No need to travel round the world to find subjects

One thing about photography I cannot understand is the need to fly half-way around the world to make pics. For many landscape photographers, there is an all-encompassing need to get the best shot to win the next prize and for that you need to travel to certain ‘approved’ destinations. Top of the list are Iceland, Greenland and the Arctic.

The photographs are often accompanied by lyrical titles and comments about the magnificence of the landscape. What is not mentioned are the dire effects of climate change on the very areas being photographed. Of no concern is the contribution to greenhouse gases made by long haul flights. There appears to be no connection made between travel and the effects on the very landscape being photographed.

I have long argued that good photographers find subjects close to them eliminating the need for long distance travel. Stephen Shore summed this up perfectly when he said:

“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that is what interests me.”

As photographers, we should have some awareness of the effects of our actions. To jet across the world to take pics because we want to shows no respect for the landscape or subjects being photographed. All our actions have an impact on the world in which we live and long haul flights contribute to climate change and ultimately the destruction of the very subject we want capture.

If you need convincing that climate change is happening now and ice is melting at an ever-increasing rate which will have profound effects on sea levels, see “Glacier Exit” https://vimeo.com/198306286 and the work of the Extreme Ice Survey http://extremeicesurvey.org

James Balog Birthday Canyon – Extreme Ice Survey

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“Forces of nature”

I watched Brian Cox presenting “Forces of Nature” on BBC1 last night. As ever it was a totally captivating explanation of science from a charismatic ‘expert’. Towards the end of the programme he went to Iceland where a guy had found a hot water vent in the sea. It was not in very deep water and he was able to dive to it and take a water sample. Cox used the sample to demonstrate a theory of how life on Earth began. The vent emits alkaline fresh water into the sea. Cox showed that by using seawater and the fresh water from the vent that electricity could be generated. He explained that it was due to proton exchange between the different chemical compositions of fresh and sea water. His theory is that that is life on Earth began.

The programme can be seen here for the next 29 days

One his final remarks sums up reason for my work; “we are of the Earth.” We rely on it for everything that we need to live. What we do leaves marks, sometime subtle sometimes brutal. That is what drives my photography – a fascination with human interaction with the land, the Earth and life.

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Nature – just a place to visit?

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” Gary Snyder.

That sums up exactly what I have been feeling for a long time. What does it mean about the way we think about and treat nature and ‘wilderness’? As photographers we can either see nature as out there, somewhere to be visited and photographed, as separate from life, distant, with no relevance other than to provide the perfect view, the perfect ‘masterpiece’.

The alternative is to explore our relationship with the land, the Earth. That might sound too abstract, too ‘touchy feely’ to some but it has a profound effect on the images produced. Look at photographers like Thomas Joshua Cooper, Jem Southam, John Blakemore, Alex Boyd and others who clearly relate to the land they photograph and are not just out to produce a technically perfect print to score points or win prizes.

For me photography is about expressing thoughts and feelings. I am not looking for any accolades it is just something I have to do. Over the years I have become more connected to the land and the consequences of how we treat it. To me it is crazy not to have a relationship with the very thing on which we depend on for our very survival.

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How photography has changed pt. 1

I have been a documentary photographer for around 35 years and have also worked as a freelance photojournalist. The difference between the two ways of working have become blurred over time and in recent years the terms have become conflated. For me documentary photography is about long form documentations of local communities. Photojournalism concerns working to a brief from an editor of a specific publication.

It is over 20 years since I completed a personal project. During that time I continued to freelance for specialist magazines shooting on 35mm colour transparency film. It was often difficult getting images to editors and one batch sent to Australia was lost for several weeks.

In early 2013 I decided it was time to switch to full fame digital for my new project “Another View“. There are many positives to using digital cameras but also some uncertainties. In photojournalism everything is now digital at both the production and consumption stage. Mobile devices allowing constant access to online content is killing printed media. Combined with the huge increase in camera phones, and ‘citizen journalism’, it is clear there are massive changes in how photographs are produced and circulated.

There are two ways to see the rise of digital photojournalism; either as a threat to the medium or as a challenge. If you really want to work for newspapers, magazines and online publications there really is no alternative to embracing digital technology.

In long form documentary there are still two camps; some stick rigidly to film and see that as proof of being a ‘real’ photographer (more of that in pt. 2.) Others use digital for the versatility of being able to produce output for different media.

I do not want to get into the arguments about which is best, it is a personal choice. What interests me more is how some documentary photographers have reacted to new opportunities for selling their work while others are using new digital media to reach a wider audience.

One of the biggest changes is the market for print sales. In some ways this confirms that photography has finally been accepted as art by becoming part of the art collectors market. Whether this is a compliment to the medium is debatable. It could be argued that photography has become more inward looking, serving its new market rather than looking out towards new audiences.

What is appalling is to see images of war and suffering being sold as ‘art’. To me that smacks of exploitation and cynicism. It also serves to erode the collective trust that subjects have in documentary photography, and photojournalism, which inevitably makes both more difficult to pursue.

It also raises another a more crucial question – who are we photographing for? Is it to feed the thirst of collectors? Is it to gain recognition from our peers? Or is it to serve the communities we photograph? And, who is the subject of interest, the photographer or the photographed?

Susan Meiselas puts this very succinctly in “Aperture 214”, Spring 2014, p.29 Aperture, New York, ISSN 003-6420.

“Photographers often start with a passionate engagement with their subjects, but an audience can easily get focussed on the narrator, at the expense of the narrative.”

If you are a committed documentary photographer who engages with the communities you photograph then you make photographs to highlight their issues and bring them to the attention of a widest possible audience. By selling to our peers and collectors we fail to do this.

It is also obvious that there has been a big rise in the publication of ‘photo books’ over recent years. From what I have seen they are usually small, or very small, prints runs aimed at collectors who are often other photographers. There is nothing wrong with that for ‘art photography’ but for any sort of committed campaigning, or opinion changing projects, then I would suggest it does little to further a cause and again shifts attention to the photographer rather than the subject.

I accept that there may be occasions when presenting in book form is helpful such as communicating with opinion formers. There are online publishing servers that make that easy now but I would suggest that a short run photobook is not an adequate output for a long form documentary project.

It seems we have two choices: to produce pictures that appeal mainly to other photographers and collectors; or to engage with digital modes to make work that can be seen by the widest possible audience. That does not mean ditching the traditional photographic exhibition but it does mean using every means possible to get work seen.

My choice is to produce both digital media and prints on the wall. I want to exhibit in conventional spaces but also use unconventional venues to take work to the audience instead of relying on them coming to exhibitions. That is not a new idea as the rash of laminated exhibitions of the 1980s did just that.

22ePanel 22/24 “The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter”, 1983. 24, A2 laminated panels of photographs and text. Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, touring exhibition.

The other way to reach new and younger audiences is to use digital modes like photofilm and online interactive galleries. If there are a large body of users viewing photographs on mobile devices every day then why not try to reach them. There is ample evidence that old and established print titles are doing just that. See http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/the-jockey/

For a good example of an interactive web site see http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/03/27/world/climate-rising-seas.html

One of the complexities of using new media is that it is very doubtful that a lone photographer has all the skills required to produce professional looking outputs. Collaboration and team work are required and the results can be spectacularly powerful and engaging. See Maisie Crow’s “The Last Clinic” http://maisiecrow.com/

In the end I am left feeling that documentary photographers have no choice but to use new ways of telling our stories. How can we engage with the communities that allow us to photograph and do our best for them in terms of seeking the widest possible audience? For me, not to try to get maximum exposure would feel like failure and a betrayal of trust.

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