Crisis photography: the conversation

March 13, 2010 at 4:37 am Leave a comment


Last week I wrote about war photography, and cited an interesting essay written by Hans Durrer called Photographic Collaboration, published in the journal Soundscapes. With his permission, I am reposting a large portion of his essay here. He writes:

“In times when (some) photographers hold celebrity status, it is useful to be reminded that a good photograph does not solely depend on the photographer’s ability to choose the right subject, location and light, but also on the chemistry and the collaboration, between photographer and subject.

“A good illustration of this is One Step Beyond, the multimedia project about landmines and their victims by the German photographer Lukas Einsele. Because Einsele makes his pictures with a large-format camera, staging is unavoidable because, as he wrote to me in an e-mail: ‘The camera is visible, the photo — its exposition — lasts such a long time that a certain acquiescence has to exist between photographer and subject. Sure, there are exceptions, but actually I’m looking for these common productions by which the subjects become co-authors of an image-reality.’

“When looking at works of photography, viewers often don’t know whether such types of collaboration as those mentioned above have taken place. Sometimes viewers learn about it, more often they don’t. Photographs invite us to ask questions: What do my eyes show me? How did the photo come to be? What doesn’t it show? And so on.

“Walker Evans, while working for the Resettlement Administration in the 1930s, took photos of sharecroppers in Alabama. He portrayed them in their daily lives, at times with worn-out clothes, dirty feet, uncombed hair and unshaven faces, because he wanted to document the circumstances they were living in. That, however, seems not have been to their liking, for there exists one photo — one that Evans did not use in his publications — that shows the family clean and combed and in their Sunday best. One can safely assume that it was taken at the request of the family.

“Despite my deep sympathy for socially inclined photographers, when the people portrayed feel ashamed of their portraits, there clearly is something wrong with this kind of photography.”

This statement, among others, has provoked meaningful responses and arguments on a number of platforms, including this blog. Photographic Collaboration was reposted on the photography forum ZoneZero, where it spurred a lengthy debate between ZoneZero’s Pedro Meyer and Mr. Durrer.

On his own blog, Across Cultures, Mr. Durrer made a similar point to my own last week, that the viewer feels shame looking at certain pictures. In a discussion of Susan Meiselas’ book Nicaragua, published in 1981, he writes, A very famous photograph shows a young woman running on a road with a near-naked little boy hanging from one arm and a bag slung over her shoulder. The caption explains: Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí, Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.
“Years later, in a documentary about her work in Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas comments: ‘That photograph is taken by at least five different photographers, at different points during her journey. She is literally vultured by us. No one is thinking to help her, including myself.’

The war photographer and the ones who simply look at these pictures share the same dilemma: both know that these photos should not exist and both are glad that they do.”

I’d love to hear your reactions to these ideas.

I’m also looking for more conversations like this. I know there’s a lot of great posting happening on Lightstalkers, as journalists talk to each other about these issues. Where else? Please send me recommendations of what to read, or post links in the comments on this blog.

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War photographer: a dangerous idolatry

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"In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level." --Charles Schultz on Mikhael Subotzky

PhotoPhilanthropy’s blog is written by Eliza Gregory

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