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Can Social Documentary Photography ever be considered Art?

I am going to start on and off series of blogs going forward talking about whether social documentary photography itself is art and can be seen as such.  I am sure my own perceptions will evolve as well and it will be interesting to see how and why they do so.

I think it is safe to say that whether photography can be considered an art form was resolved an age ago if the museum and gallery photog collections and thriving auction sales of this world are anything to go by.  As far back as the mid-70’s Susan Sontag – in her seminal work ‘On Photography’ was discussing the well-established merits of photography as an art form finding acceptance in museum collections (even back then the arguments had pretty much been settled).  But social documentary photography on the other hand has until only recently began to be seen as art and with limited (if not significantly growing) volumes of work being seen at exhibitions, galleries and museums.

The current deep recession might have something to do with renewed interest in social documentary photography – as it cyclically does – as people become more reflective on social ills and global problems that mirror their own economic distress – as it did in the early 80’s.  But there is also a growing long-term trend of seeing social documentary photography in galleries and being more readily accepted as art.  One has only to see the amazing success of photographers like Pieter Hugo whose 30×40 can go for US$ 30,000 and whose subject matter – while more conceptual certainly touches on social documentary themes, to understand that rather than a passing interest, social documentary photography has set down its stall in the art world and is here to stay.

But there is certainly a contradiction between the two worlds that will probably take time to adjust and settle.  The largely humanistic approach (notwithstanding photographers such as Martin Parr) of social documentary photography sits uncomfortably with the values that the art world holds dear, namely concept, the abstract and composition that together contribute to the essential timelessness of a piece.  There is the danger of trivialising the grave subject matter which many social documentary photographers tackle in its commodification by print sizes and limited edition offerings that borders on the exploitative.

I think approach and execution of subject is always key in understanding which social documentary photography is right for the walls and which is better off in editorial format in a magazine or on an NGO poster campaign.  As social documentary photographers fine tune their approaches (as many have done highly successfully) away from actual subject matter and towards the conceptual, using subtle color patterns and composition rather than subject to express their chosen themes, then social documentary photography will increasingly start finding a successful home in the art world now that the traditional line of income from media outlets is all but extinguished.

 

 

Writing a short artist statement

‘Art is not something one does, it is what one is. An artist is made up of all that she or he has ever done, felt, experienced or been. And the art that the artist creates—if she or he is true to self—is an expression of all that has been done, experienced, felt or been.’  Paul Donohoe (social documentary street photographer).

 

It has become increasingly clear recently that I had to sit down and come up with a short statement that defines the vision and focus of my socio-documentary art photog.  It is often a requirement when submitting work and it is an essential part of putting forward what drives and motivates me as a photographer in my work.  While I have a clear idea in my head, putting it all down on paper is a trickier business than it looks!  I spent a good hour going over my pics and reading all the synopses to try and define it all in a few sentences.

But it was also a great personal exercise.  Getting away from the ‘who, what, why, where and when’s’ of documentary or more precisely news photog and being given the freedom to express some sort of humble vision is emancipating and brings me closer to my own work in ways that I didn’t feel before.

Having to be more introspective has helped me to understand myself in ways I didn’t really appreciate too – the fact I am always seeking out the absurd and abstract in life at the frontiers of modern life is a reflection of my own desire to always stay on the outside – be the observer – maybe even voyeur but never truly engaging.  Photography was almost a match made in heaven in this respect.  It has allowed me to seek out the weird and wonderful but by being able to put a large camera body up to my face – it has preserved the distance and disengagement which I guess really mirrors my own way of life in many ways.

While I am excited to be finally presenting my projects soon (it has been a long time coming!)  Whatever the outcome I know I have become a better photographer because of them.

Artist Statement:

My work seeks out the spaces where clash creates the wonderful and surreal at the frontiers of homogenised Western society – Be it in wide open deserts or in densely packed urban spaces. Where contradiction creates upheaval and change. Where the chaotic and abstract evolve. Where the end of one cycle gives birth to something transformative that is always innately beautiful. I am driven to capture the process of renewal that on a larger scale are reflected in the rhythms of nature and life.

 

Viewing long-term projects on LensCulture

My 2 long-term projects are available to view on LensCulture website:

‘The Other Side – Portrait of a Colored Community in South Africa’:

https://www.lensculture.com/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=sharing&utm_campaign=anonymous&modal=project-284185-the-other-side-portrait-of-a

‘Karoo – A Changing Landscape’:

https://www.lensculture.com/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=sharing&utm_campaign=anonymous&modal=project-276845-karoo-a-changing-landscape

A Selection of Images from my final trip for my long-term project in the Karoo ‘A Changing Landscape’

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The current online edit of ‘Karoo: A Changing Landscape’ is up at: http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/karoo/

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Finding a Visual Narrative in the Karoo

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Just spent a good while in the Karoo (semi-arid region North of Cape Town) finishing up 1 of my long term photographic projects ‘Karoo:  A Changing Landscape‘, along with continuing a bit more time lapse out there.  Unless I see a gap in the work in my final edit, this was my last trip out for it.  I certainly hope it will not be my last time out to the Karoo though – a place I have repeatedly said is amazing to visit and spend time in.  I was initially intrigued by the serene and timeless landscape but I def ended up going again and again for all the eccentric and amazing people there as well.   I do still have a time lapse show reel to finish up at some point so further visits are almost certainly to come.

I usually put the unprocessed images from a long-term project to one side to give me a chance to detach myself from it.  This always helps later on with the editing process but I  decided this time to put together a small edit to see if I was on the right path in general with the overall look and feel of the piece.  The visual narrative of the work has built up throughout the time I have spent on it but certainly on my latest trip I think I dug deep into the very essence of the story and the way I initially foresaw how I might tell it.

Since leaving the world of more instant news, pic library and NGO type photography I have always known that the key to any decent work would always be finding my own visual voice and signature.  I have found it interesting to see how my work has developed relatively rapidly through earlier projects such as ‘Hangberg – The Other Side‘: http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/hangberg/ .

I believe it is in this work though that a stronger visual signature has developed – especially on the portrait side of things.  From sex workers in Beaufort West, to sheep farmers, to city types flocking to the Karoo for the annual Afrika Burn event out there, there is a visual consistency throughout the portraits which speaks of the inherent beauty of the Karoo but also of the impending uncertainty that coming change might bring.

It is interesting how I have began to see and notice things differently than what I used to as well.  A case in point is the following pic I took while speeding back to Cape Town on the final leg of my recent journey:

Karoo_Landscape001

I saw the above scene on the side of the road as I whizzed past it at around 100km/h just north of a small town called Laingsburg.  I instantly recognised in it an earlier photo I had taken over a year ago that was very similar in nature and thought how it may fit well when placed next to each other.

Karoo_Landscape002

I didn’t stop though at the time… but it played on my mind for nearly an hour.  It was more than 60km after passing it that the feeling of an opportunity missed overwhelmed me and I turned around and went back (yep – that’s over 120km round trip to take a pic of a damn cactus in front of a railway power station).  I am not sure if I’ll even use either pic (the latter isn’t even in my first edit at the mo), but having the option there was important enough for me to turn back.  This might be more of a study of one man’s OCD rather than anything photography related but the fact I could instantly recognise the image there, is a sign of how much the way I perceive an image these days has moved forward from past work.

The next stage, once the dust has settled and I’ve done my own edit, will be to seek out a professional edit and layout before starting the challenge of marketing the project.  After all the time worked on it, I look forward (for once) to the marketing side of things and getting it out there in general!

A short, current edit of the project ‘Karoo:  A Changing Landscape’  can be seen at:

http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/karoo/

More Images from the Karoo

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I recently finished editing the bulk of images from my last trip to the Karoo.  The ongoing project, Karoo – A Changing Landscape can be viewed on my website at:  http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/karoo/

That Day in Naivasha Revisited – January 27th 2008

Post-Election Upheaval in Kenya.  January & February 2008.

Grace Mungai is shot through the neck and killed by a stray bullet fired by police during tribal clashes in Kenya as her distraught 15 month old baby son Brian looks on.

I was wading through some news articles a few days ago when I came across one about simmering political tensions in the Rift Valley in Kenya (Rifts in the Rift – 23rd January 2016 – The Economist).  It talked about the tribal divisions that are still rife in politics in the country and showed how such tensions might boil over in elections around mid-2017, especially in multi-tribal towns like Naivasha.

I immediately felt some discomfort when reading the article especially when suddenly realising that by some dark twist of fate I was reading it the very day 8 years ago I had been in Naivasha itself covering the violence. On a whim, I decided to revisit that time briefly to see upon reflection what the images – and in particular the one image above of a recently deceased Grace Mungai and her traumatised baby Brian – that caught the media’s attention ever so briefly – means to me today.  It has taken a few days to be even able to sit down and do this… I hardly revisit or talk about anything from that time – In fact, I don’t really even ever look through my old photojournalistic website at all – let alone write a blog about it.  I find it really hard.  I still get edgy and very nervous thinking about anything from time spent in conflict situations in general.

I took a photo that day – very much the right place and time type – of a horrific scenario that spread round the media campfire through Reuters and initially via the New York Times and came to be very much a brief talking point.  Of course, I had no idea at the time.  The photo itself is not well composed, very graphic, intrusive and just pure overwhelming content.

It was pure luck I had made my way to Naivasha anyway.  I was actually en route to Nakuru further along the Rift Valley where violence was also apparently in full swing when news of clashes in Naivasha broke on the BBC World Service.  I made the decision to divert into the very scenic town more out of curiosity, still planning to move on down the road later on. Surely this beautiful flower producing tourist centre couldn’t have been so affected?  I was so wrong.  I’ll let myself take up the story as I wrote it 8 years ago:

As soon as I arrived in Naivasha town it was clear that events were unraveling fast, with fires burning in several locations and the increasingly familiar smell of tear gas sweeping the entire town. The crack of live rounds from the GSU (General Service Unit – the Kenyan riot police) could be heard in the distance. I found a GSU patrol, left the car and followed them into an area of shanty dwelling where rioters were still battling with police.

Suddenly the sound of screaming women and children filled the air. Drawn to the noise, I found a group of people wailing outside a small corrugated iron dwelling. Everyone was in a frantic state and a lady had began removing all her clothes seemingly so overcome that she was unaware of what she was doing. When I looked inside the house, the sight that greeted me was so gripping that I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of dread. Before me lay a dead mother, shot through the neck, with her crying baby sitting on a chair behind. The dwelling seemed to have been ransacked. I took a few pictures, but then realised the frenzy of the crowd had begun turning its attentions to me. They were asking that perennial question that is asked of many journalists in similar situations. ‘Why don’t you help us?

A few days later, after the photo was printed page 3 of the NY Times, people had started writing in and asking a similar question as those that had surrounded the terrible scene that day – What had I done for the baby?  Radu Sigheti – Reuters Africa Chief Photographer between ’03-’09 phoned me a few days later to get my side as a swell of readers had began asking that very question – maybe fearing a Kevin Carter style backlash in the heat of the media frenzy over his infamous vulture and baby shot.  Upon reflection it is unreasonable to ask such things.  I came to understand the role of photojournalist that day as being a concept that had become very mixed up in the general public’s perception.  The drive to always be perceived as a humanist, a compassionate witness responsible for far more than the narrow remit of reporting news but rather fulfilling the altruistic dreams of what many would perceive themselves as having done from their armchairs a million miles away.

I had very much by chance ticked most of their boxes that day.  I responded to the horrific scene and the restless crowd by seeking out an ambulance from the local hospital.  It had taken time to find one and when I did, the crew were fearful – being from a different tribe on the opposing side of the clashes – that they themselves would be set upon by the crowd.  The fact that news had got to me too that the baby’s dad was also on the scene  by then and that I had to continue doing my freelance duty put an end to the futile effort.

It was in fact my assistant that day who turned to me and said – ‘what are you doing?!’.  I had a job to do and here I was spending a disproportionate amount of time organising ambulances.  To be honest I felt ashamed by having been overwhelmed by emotion, by being driven by a misplaced sense of duty and it all felt very unprofessional.  It is this paradox – between reality and general perceptions of being a conflict photographer that has always left me bemused and something that has made me critical of this type of photography in the past (all covered extensively to the point of annoying in previous blogs so I won’t say much more about it here!).

What I haven’t said much about that day is that a bit later on I was set upon and nearly killed by a machete-wielding gang of youths.  I had been innocuously asked ‘Are you CNN?’ while walking back to the car preparing to travel to Nairobi to file the pics somewhere.  CNN were perceived then as having been biased against the majority tribe in Naivasha who were reportedly instigating the violence that day.  It was claimed in later years at the ICC that the violence was calculated and organised that day.  I remember clearly how a short young man watched on impassively as he directed the youths to attack me when I brushed their question aside.  They used the butt of their machetes to try and put me on the ground for what seemed like an age but must of been about a minute.  I knew I was in serious trouble as they didn’t even try and steal my cameras.  Had I gone to ground I feel I would have been in real trouble.  I think they were hesitant to really attack but – like all power games – the weaker one gets in a fight – the more it drives an uncontrollable lust for victory over the vanquished.

My assistant thankfully stepped in and gave me a few seconds breathing space to make a run for it.  I remember rugby sized rocks whizzing inches from my head.  I ran – carrying 2 DSLR’s as fast as I could down the middle of a wide road, lined on either side by drunken locals who had been whipped into a frenzy and were aiming projectiles at me as I ran.  It was a miracle I escaped that day.  I was bundled into the back of the car and we drove out as fast as we could back to Nairobi.

 

Looking at all the pics on my old website I think I am truly proud of only one from conflict zones and that is of a missile fired by SPLA soldiers on the frontline of fighting with rebel soldiers north of Bor in South Sudan. Another coincidence but it is also nearly the anniversary of this pic, taken 2 years ago on 26th Jan.

News_spot002

I like it mainly because there isn’t any direct graphic content and only alludes to it.  I feel it is much more powerful because of it.  Taking it was difficult too – the scream and overpowering noise of the missiles is just unbelievable to the uninitiated.  I have never heard anything like it – completely possessing your body and shaking you to your foundations.  Concentrating on pic-taking with the noise and a fast moving body is hard to say the least, let alone trying to compose a decent picture.  I had to take video for Reuters as well that day and you can clearly hear me say very unprofessionally ‘Fucking Hell!’ after the first rocket was fired (much to the annoyance of the video editor later on.. Thankfully there was a lot more footage to select from)… I remember later on being a bit too eager and getting too close to one particular cartouche rocket being fired out the back of a jeep trying to get that perfect shot and the sound and energy literally knocked me on my back in slow-motion like in some cartoon (to the wild amusement of the SPLA soldiers and their usually very dark and brooding General).

Such moments of levity are few and far between.  I am writing this as fast as possible hoping to end the blog as soon as I can.  For all that I really remember is the unbelievable level of violence, darkness and evil that surrounds you in conflict.  And it stays with you – however brief you might have been there as an observer or ‘witness’ – it clings to the sub-conscience like a parasite.  A few months after I came back from South Sudan I travelled into the Karoo desert north of Cape Town with a friend.  I remember him joking about all the shapes he could see in the hills in the landscape around us… I recollect being very quiet not responding and not saying much – all I could see were the outlines of faceless dead people – rotten carcasses, and specifically those of women and children.

work on my journalistic website is at www.geojournalism.com

 

 

Few pics out of the Karoo

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Just came back from a week’s trip in the Karoo – as a continuation of a long-term photo project I am currently undertaking out there (Karoo – A Changing Landscape:  http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/karoo/ ).  I was determined to undertake the challenging off-road journey out there- even if I have been distracted with things back in CT recently… Looking over past work in preparation for the trip, I realised I had to focus more on its wonderfully eccentric peoples to balance the opening part of the project (that has focused more on abstract and landscape images).  In the short space of time out there, I managed to start fulfilling that goal (although of course I also shot a wide range of appropriate landscape shots – it is so hard to resist the temptation in the idiosyncratic Karoo!).

Even in the short space of time out there on this occasion – the wonderfully warm and friendly peoples of the Karoo – from all walks of life – helped make my pic-taking job easier.  In many ways it is a hark back to a vanishing and more idyllic and simple existence – A way of being that I believed had been swallowed up by everyday modern urban life long ago. Will be making a 3 week trip in the next few months again… really looking forward to getting back out there too…

 

Building a Studio in Cape Town. Welcome to the Roeland Street Photo Studio

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I’ve decided recently to bite the bullet and set up a studio space in Cape Town.  Choosing a space from the stock of commercial property that was available was a slow decision-making process in itself but eventually settled on a 125 sq metre space in central CBD.  I knew the space would need quite a bit of work – basically being an open-plan industrial space.  But the location was great – within a 2 minute walking distance of the two largest photographic equipment sales and hire shops in CT and located in a building that is home to quite a few media, film & casting companies making it a bit of a hub and an ideal spot to inhabit.

The chance to fashion my own space and build a studio from scratch was also an exciting prospect- and an opportunity to make it my own.  Being an industrial space it came with a three-phase electrical system – essential to carry the lighting load on a multi-lighting set and ensure no cut-outs.  Apart from re-coating the floors with epoxy (to take the heavy load of lighting equipment without marking too much), I had to also fit specially made blinds to ensure total blackout.  Again, the location worked very much to my advantage in that there is no direct sunlight on it.  I went for white blinds – in keeping with the floors and walls (except on the shooting side which is brick), but more importantly – the blockout was more than enough to achieve the required blackout when shooting.

I have installed a post-production suite as well, with an excellent Eizo 24″ monitor that will allow clients to live view shoots.  In terms of client orientated comfort I have placed a lounging area with couch (No need to tell me! I know the couch is too close to the shooting area at the mo in the pics – we will re-arrange everything shortly!) as well as a shelving unit to accommodate the international photo mags and books from a range of photogs from all walks of the business. Hopefully this will be enough to keep everyone entertained during the more tedious periods of a photo shoot (though I might be forced to add some more gossipy magazines or even a TV at some stage!).

One small prob is that there is a small sectioned off kitchen area that will also have to double up as a dedicated make-up dresser area.  Fitting everything together and make it work was a headache but seem to have found a solution that works fine.  I had the make-up dresser specially built after speaking to a couple of well-established make-up artists in the business here.  Both seemed to prefer the cold nature of florescent lighting (rather than the warmer tones of the tungsten lighting associated with traditional theater dressers).

Overall, I’m happy with how the studio is coming along, but there is still much to do before it will be possible to launch.  I still have to put in stuff like infinity curves (the backdrops I have now are only for the standard white, black and grey so will play with more ambitious colours here) and of course a reservoir of decent clothes for shoots (looking forward to doing some second-hand clothes shopping soon!).

I have also just started on the marketing side of things (logo, website, postcards, leaflets etc).  I decided early on to split the studio business away from my own freelance photography business.  While the studio will be my base and will be used for my own commercial work (as well as a discreet gallery space to display my some of my socio-documentary art work as well), I came up with a business plan that focuses on multiple revenue streams, including studio hire, commercial, model and family portrait shoots as well as a teaching space.  To achieve this, I thought it best to keep myself and my own business separate from that of the studio’s.  I think the marketing side will be greatly spurred along by the potential choice of studio manager too.  While being a great photographer herself (focusing mainly on the stock side and being part-owner of a stock site) she comes historically from an extensive internationally-based web and social media background.  This will certainly help in marketing and pushing the studio online and to potential clients in future (as well as being friendly and fun to be around as well!).

Dealing with the insurance side of all this was a bit tricky and actually took about 2 and a half weeks of careful negotiations.  At the moment I still insure my equipment worldwide through UK insurers that provide worldwide coverage (as I travel back to the UK at least once a year) as it has proven far cheaper than insuring in South Africa where I am sure higher crime rates here make premiums a lot more pricey.  Now that I have some studio-based items as part of a local business, I could no longer insure certain items through the UK.  Splitting my equipment list between freelance gear that would remain covered in the UK and studio items that would have to be covered locally took some effort.   Then having to set maximum value limits for gear that would regularly leave the studio (at any 1 time) was quite a task but greatly reduced the premium at both ends.  The devil really is in the detail and care had to be taken to make sure that in the worst case scenario I wouldn’t be left high and dry…. But I managed to more than half the total cost from what it would have been had I been insured just in SA.  Honestly, if you are a photographer who takes equipment out a lot, I would definitely recommend Aaduki Multimedia Insurance in the UK (not exactly the friendliest of peeps but great at getting specialised photography insurance cover at decent rates) and the Hereford Group if you are these sides.  The Hereford Group especially really pushed my case and gave great advice in the protracted and complicated process.

I’m in the Karoo (the desert expanse north of Cape Town) at the mo continuing with one of my photo book projects.  I have decided – despite the perfect conditions for time lapse (at a time when the moon is at the beginning of its cycle) – not to indulge myself and to focus on one thing out here (I have blogged earlier this year about having spread myself too thin on the personal project side!)… I love the Karoo – there is a serenity and peaceful aura about it that helps to re-energise and renew myself for life back in the city – even if the pic-taking itself can be hard work – walking around and driving distances in extreme heat and cold nights (which is why I took the afternoon lull in everyday life here where temps can hit 40C+ to write this blog!).  It is as far from the idea of Africa as many of us imagine it as you can get – more akin to the Andean plateau of Bolivia and Peru than any jungle or Savannah plain that is more typical elsewhere on the Continent.  And if meeting wonderfully eccentric folk with amazing stories to tell is your thing generally – then I def advise a visit here!

Quick bit of news!

Portrait of a colored community in South Africa

Portrait of a colored community in South Africa

Hey all… have a bit of exicting news wanted to share… As part of the 5th Annual Exposure Photography Awards run by the See Me photographic collective, the image above made it through the first round and will appear in  an exhibition in the Documentary Collection at the reception area of the Louvre Museum premiering on July 13th and in the subsequent print and online photography exhibition for the Awards. My full Exposure Awards entry is at:

https://gphilipas.see.me/exposure2015

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