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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.

 

 

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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.

 

Palm Springs Photo Festival, and the Good, Bad and Surprisingly Pleasant thing about Portfolio Reviews – Part 1

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Well, just spent a hectic but awesome week in Palm Springs, California at the 10th Annual Palm Springs Photo Festival.  I have now done 3 or so festivals (of which only another in New York in the US) and must say this was by far the most relaxed and enjoyable and inspiring on a personal level.  It was a complete whirlwind of a week, spending anything up to 15 hour days non-stop with workshops, reviews, networking, symposiums and presentations.  Apart from the workshops (which I’ll come back to in subsequent blogs) the highlight had to be the daily presentations by some of the biggest and historically-significant photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, William Albert Allard, Dan Winters, Jock Sturges and Frank Ockenfels.  Seeing Mary Ellen Mark’s presentation in particular made the largest impression even though I must say I had seen and heard a lot of the stories about her seminal work before.  Seeing her talking about it in person though was an experience of note.  Along with Don McCullin and Lee Miller she is one of three photographers who inspired me most to become a photojournalist and get into photography in the first place.  I have posted her talk on my fb page if anyone is interested.  At 75 years of age and looking painfully frail I imagine this might be the last time I would get to see her talk and just being there to witness it was an honour in itself.

Meeting my fellow photographers from all walks – all connected by their dedication to the cause and seeing their work was almost as important and inspiring as well.  Sometimes stuck out in a small village outside Cape Town I really miss contact with my fellow peers from around the world so just getting to hang and talk photography was such a great experience in itself.

On a professional level, the workshops and showing my new work was the main reason for flying all the way from Cape Town to attend.  I have done a few portfolio reviews and had general conversations about their worth with people who sit on the other side of the review table and had my doubts before as to what I would ultimately gain from them.  It is great that you have so many prominent members of the photog community that you might want to see in one place, but the fact that they are seeing anything up to 30 photographers in a day in small 20 minute segments doesn’t help you stand out and puts a photographer at an instant disadvantage.  I had been told by a reviewer that in general a photographer is lucky if he gets one good contact to begin building a positive relationship with from all the reviews he might do.

Going in therefore my expectations were already low.  But my experience after 10 reviews during the week was very positive.  I think having done them before and knowing exactly what I wanted from them really helped.  I was there to show a new style of work and artistic and conceptually-based long term projects, to get feedback and advice and to maybe start relationships to build on in the long-term with prominent members of the art and book world of photography – an area where I haven’t had much contact in the past.  Firstly the general consensus was that the pieces worked and were strong (the Karoo project as I clearly stated from the outset was early in development and needed a lot more work but had good foundations but the Hangberg work was perceived as ready to go).

On the downside, the socio-documentary based nature of the work and South African content means that avenues especially in the gallery world in the US are limited.  I knew that already but what came out of the reviews is that it is not necessarily impossible.  What I will need to do (and something I knew before) is to start by approaching local globally esteemed galleries in South Africa and use such representation to build up interest elsewhere.  As I said when this was brought up in the reviews, I essentially want both projects to be airtight and completely ready before approaching galleries in SA and I was more at Palm Springs to get the necessary feedback and use the general consensus to help in the development of the projects.  And on that level, the reviewers connected with this approach and helped enormously.

In terms of starting relationships though I was more than pleasantly surprised with quite a few giving me their details and asking me specifically to keep them informed on developments.  One really cool guy and also large and esteemed book publisher, who I thought would not develop into much, gave me his personal mobile phone contact details and allowed me to call him for advice as the projects progress.  I think a lot of that as well has to do with the way photographers connect with the reviewers.  I was particularly relaxed and often joked with them and just talked about all things even outside photography.  I even talked about growing olive trees with the book publisher I just mentioned which is his passion now for a good 3/4 minutes of my review.  When meeting Holly Hughes (PDN Editor-in-Chief – a highly respected and important mag for us photographers based out of NY – I advise all photographers who don’t already to read it regularly for advice, great work and keeping up with what is going on with all fields in photog- it is in fact my homepage) asked what I wanted out of the review I immediately joked back – well to publish all my work of course! I didn’t obviously knowing that is not what these reviews are about.  But breaking the ice in such ways is a good way to settle in and hope to build later on a serious working relationship.  One reviewer who I particularly wanted to see and who I found out later had told someone independently he thought mine was the best portfolio he had seen, ended our pleasant session by saying ‘Now get the hell away from my desk!’ – I responded with feigned puppy dog eyes ‘But I thought you liked my work?!’ to which he replied ‘Nah – not that much – now go!’.  We both laughed as I walked away.

Ironically where I had most success in actual direct leads for work was the editorial side of things which I wasn’t really at the festival to focus on.  I bumped into a couple of editors I had done jobs for before (and whom I had never met in person).  It is so important – even in the inter-connected digital age to do things the old fashion way and meet face to face.  Tracey Woods of Essence Mag in particular was great to bump into.  I had shot Michelle Obama as part of the press pack for her when she visited SA a few years ago.  Had a few long chats and even pitched one of my older stories I have done (the Life After Rape portrait series).  Not saying it will be published but the interest was there and it is now up to me to follow up.

I even had interest to publish one of my long-term projects in a US-wide magazine.  I didn’t really go for meeting mag editors at the reviews thinking that publishing such art-based projects might hurt my chances later to get them into the gallery and book publishing world.  That turns out to be a load of nonsense.  I should have therefore done more meetings with mag editors but have enough contacts anyway worldwide in that area to go back to SA and do that myself.

All in all, I came away very positive from the reviews and networking.  But this is well and truly just the beginning of a long journey.  The groundwork has been laid but it is wholly in my court how and where I take this and build on the positives that came out of the sunny desert of California in the awesome shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The fire on the mountain, World Press Photo Awards and Letting Photojournalism go as a Profession to save Photography

It is time to let photojournalism go as a profession and recognise it has and will become far more inclusive in nature. It is time to ring fence and protect photography’s exclusivity in the digital age and clearly define what is and what isn’t professional photography. And photojournalism no longer is.

 

Yeah I know, grandiose title typical of me but recent events on both the local and international stage indirectly lead me to have an epiphany about the state of photography as a profession and what in my humble opinion (however grandiose the conclusion) was the answer and way forward.

We had a massive fire here in Hout Bay around Cape Town but as far away as Cape Point that engulfed entire neighbourhoods, laid waste to thousands of hectares of pristine Cape landscape and nature reserves and destroyed houses, top hotels and prestigious vineyards. Just as the out of control fire swept into our area the strong winds thankfully subsided and heaven sent rain essentially killed it just as it threatened to sweep into Hout Bay from both sides of our village.

The response from the community was unbelievable. Fire fighters especially worked days on end without rest to stop the advance and were supplemented by volunteers from the community and by a constant stream of donations of supplies from us all. My poor mum visiting from the UK and who had to bear all of this on a supposed holiday wanted to volunteer but I never would have heard the end of it from peeps back in England so gently convinced her to stand down and we donated as much as poss to support the effort instead.

On the photography side, the first day (last Monday) that the fire arrived in Hout Bay I was up at 5 and on the road to take pics. I was stopped from getting too close to then then epicentre of the fire on instruction from the Fire Chief. I didn’t argue or wrangle my way too much as I would surely have done in the past and decided to go to the other side of the Bay and take more landscape pics of the encroaching fire. I didn’t try too hard though and my attempts were so half-hearted. These pics would have ended up on pic libraries somewhere probably which don’t really do well selling news photog images anyway. I didn’t even post on social media not wanting to alarm those nearest and dearest to me spread all over the world.

I actually started getting annoyed seeing loads of posts from photographers on facebook saying things like ‘SO AND SO PHOTOGRAPHY’ promoting their own visual take of the fire and ending their posts with some comment of concern or commending the bravery of those fighting it almost plastered at the end of their respective posts as an after thought. I guess when a news story starts to effect you personally you start to have a different take on it but I don’t think it is just that.

Slowly but surely I have become so far removed from news photography that the ambulance-chasing (or in this case fire truck chasing) type work on which I have commented plenty of times in the past especially concerning its moral ambiguity is not part of my professional make up any more. I have thought about doing a post-apocalyptic more arty photo series instead that in my opinion would stand out far more and I could prob get far more coverage for anyway and would in all fairness also get the message across of the far-reaching devastation that has been caused. That is more the type of ideas I work around these days and my take on such an issue now although given the short time I have before I travel and the preparation I have to still do I don’t think it will happen (if any photographer reads this, think it a good idea and does it and is successful with it just buy me a drink if you ever see me!).

It has been far more interesting though for me to see the amount of ever improving quality of citizen journalism – esp with video and photography –during the outbreak. I think increasingly – especially as the quality of citizen journalism improves with better cameras on smartphones and the such and the fundamentals of not being biased in a story take hold in this genre (though with a fire of course there is no real controversy in terms of bias reporting) then we will see citizen journalism become more and more important especially on the ever-growing social media platforms whose purpose of disseminating news info in times of crisis is growing exponentially.

Photo news is becoming ever more inclusive which is great for us in general as a public. But as a profession this creeping inclusive nature of news photography is slowly but surely spelling disaster. Swamped from the outside, news photography increasingly has very little monetary value. It has been well-documented that the profession has been long in decline – especially with falling advertising revenues in traditional media houses who increasingly don’t have budget for newsy type photo series.   Many have let go of all their staff photographers internationally (here in SA the classical model appears more robust and still works well) and tend instead to rely heavily on wire feeds who themselves are cutting relentlessly on costs: A good example of this being the whole Africanisation of the news wire services here on the Continent which has more to do with one massive cost-cutting exercise rather than empowering local populations.

All the issues and debates above finally came to a head and spilled over with the more than usually heated debate raging around the World Press Awards Winners this year. Serious questions have been raised concerning the judgement process involved. To put it in a nutshell many in the profession were outraged by the choice of such winners as Giovanni Troilo’s ‘The Dark Heart of Europe’ photo series in the Contemporary Photography section. The fundamental argument is that many of the pics were actually set up and in so doing contravened one of the very fundamental pillars of photojournalism and that is not to intervene in the subjects and material you are photographing, otherwise it becomes more portraiture or art photography. Giovanni’s photo series was eventually disqualified but not for the reasons above but more on a technicality that one of the photos he entered was taken 30km outside Charleroi where he claimed the entire story was based.

On the other hand, it has also come out that almost 20% of all potential finalists who made it to the last round of the prestigious competition were disqualified because they manipulated their images too much, especially darkening some areas of an image so much that it supposedly changed the content and message of the image itself thereby contravening the second rule in photojournalism and that is not to digitally alter images to affect overall message and content.

The argument has become so heated, that Visa Pour L’Image, arguably the largest photojournalistic festival globally and held annually in Perpignan in France has taken the most unusual step of categorically refusing to showcase all World Press Winner photos which it has done religiously for as far back as I can remember.

For many photojournalists the arguments that have now spilled into the public arena have been simmering for years and I have often spoken here of the increasing moral ambiguity in the profession, always under pressure in the new digital age to create more visually striking images which is harder to do naturally with object trouves (found objects) without interfering somehow and digitally altering the photo to the point where it might be judged to be have been altered somehow.

It is interesting to me though, that the judges have been very lenient on one side of this argument – judging many set piece situations to be acceptable while almost to compensate and try and keep in line with classical ideas about photojournalism have come down heavily on the other side in terms of disqualifying the slightest bit of supposed digital alteration (I haven’t actually seen the images that were disqualified and am purely going on what has been widely reported in the press). I have a lot of sympathy for Lars Boering, it’s new managing director appointed last October who one suspects was brought in to make the competition more relevant today and bring it closer in line with art and gallery photography. Indeed his appointment was announced on the World Press website with the quote:

Lars Boering is well-known in the photography scene but for World Press Photo he represents new blood, combining continuity with innovation. We believe he is the right person to future-proof the organization and to take it to the next level.”

I know Lars from the Noorderlicht (Northern Lights) Masterclass in Groningen in the Netherlands which he runs with Marc Prust (another great in the photography world) which I undertook back in 2011/12. I was mentored by Marc (and whose instructions and advice have had a massive influence on the direction and expression I have been trying to take these last few years), but had enough contact with Lars to know him to be an outstanding agent and an absolute asset to the world of photography that he clearly is so passionate about. His background though is more from the art world of photography. World Press seem to have brought him in to try and re-invent the competition to make it more relevant today and bring it closer to the art, gallery and established book world of photography. But in so doing, his new bright and innovative ideas clashed horribly with the classical notions of what photojournalism really is. And hence the furore and heated debate raging right now.

In my humble opinion the two are anathema to each other and never the twain shall meet. Its fundamental nature means that mainstream photojournalism can and never will be brought in line with the modern and more commercially viable art photography world (although this world is also suffering the last few years from severe recession). By even trying to do so, it is making art photography look insidious, superficial and frivolous when it is anything but. You simply cannot make something as serious as the subject matter many photojournalists tackle more arty in nature, fiddling with composition to make it so without a massive backlash from those with very traditional and classical concepts of what photojournalism is that is essentially far more humanistic in its approach which ultimately had its heyday back in the 1950’s and peaked in the 70’s.

With the far more inclusive nature of photography in the digital age where everyone has access to a decent enough camera, and especially with the advent of citizen journalism, photojournalism will and even already is lost to the masses and no longer a viable profession. I am a strong believer in the fact that if you can’t essentially feed your kids (or even yourself these days) from what you do, you can no longer call something a profession.

If awards such as world press continue to try and update photojournalism to make it more part of the relatively successful art photography world, it will damage photography as a whole. And here I come full circle in my argument:

It is time to let photojournalism go as a profession and recognise it has and will become far more inclusive in nature. It is time to ring fence and protect photography’s exclusivity in the digital age and clearly define what is and what isn’t professional photography. And photojournalism no longer is.

I think in the future, as technology gets better and better, internet speeds get inevitably faster and people become more media savvy and able to edit, video footage and news clips will, for better or for worse, be the next to fall into this brave new world of increased inclusivity. But that is another story all together.

I was trained as a photojournalist. I had varying degrees of success in it and have always gone in and out of that side of photography. And I must clearly note here that I entered the World Press Awards this year and didn’t get anywhere (sour grapes I hear?!). But I also knew it would be for the very last time (my work in South Sudan qualified for entry). In a previous blog after coming back from South Sudan last year I said it might be worth every now and again doing something meaningful as a news wire photographer in a war zone. I no longer think so. I have been moving away for years and now that door is finally closed. And I love the work that I do now and see it as more personally fulfilling and meaningful than anything gone before – especially news photography.

Hangberg and a different type of photography

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Been a while since I last blogged but that’s not to say haven’t been busy.

I’ve hired an assistant to help me out with all the backlog of work  I had accumulated and was dreading to face – mainly helping with the cleaning and keywording of stock library images (which is not what I think she had in mind when she took the job – imagining exciting adrenaline-fuelled work and the such!).  I’ve strengthened my relationship with AMO who I love working with and also began engaging with a lot more with Alamy.

Apart from taking the whole stock library income stream seriously, I’ve also pushed forward on a couple of long-term photographic ideas and brought them through from conceptualisation, to proposal stage and have begun shooting them – one in Hangberg, a poor coloured community set in an amazingly stunning surrounding near where I live. And another in the Karoo – a vast desert expanse north of Cape Town.

The doccie on front-line services working on child rape took a break for a few months.  There have been a few problems concerning access that I have been dealing with and decided to stand back for a bit because the mild pressure I was applying had become counter-productive.  We have decent emotive general interviews now with all the key players except the police in Khayelitsha but what we really need to do is to follow a couple of cases through the system which is proving harder to do.

There is an ongoing Commission of Enquiry into the police force in Khaye at the mo looking into the high level of vigilantism in the township and looking at why the police force may not be stepping into the security vacuum.  This has managed to irk the police there no end and has lead to them being a lot more reticent in allowing access to media and the such.  I think it will happen but in the meantime we have been filming at the Thuthuzela Centre in Port Elizabeth where access is a lot more open.  Doing so has given me untold headaches though in terms of having to re-focus the short doccie away from Khayelitsha which was the main scope and re-writing the entire documentary script to incorporate all of this.

In the meantime, I was happy to work with the journalist Claire Simpson on a piece that gave a bit of publicity on the forthcoming short doccie in Vice magazine (UK) which can be seen here:

http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/a-lot-of-children-are-being-raped-in-south-africas-biggest-township

As for the photo projects, Hangberg is tentatively ready to put up here (which I have done above) although I realise I am still a very long way off from completion of the project.

I’ve done a lot of blogging about how I would like to evolve my work away from news photography into more long-term book and gallery exhibition projects.  Well – finally I can put my photos where my mouth is.  This is the first such project I am undertaking and has been a great joy to shoot as I’ve always wanted access into Hangberg.  Going back to the Benefits of Teaching Photography blogs I wrote – well, I managed to gain access through one of my more prodigious students I worked with on one of the courses I taught through the local charity Lalela and who now regularly works with me as my assistant in Hangberg.  I will be doing more teaching with Lalela and look forward to the opportunity to work with the kids again.

As for my assistant in Hangberg, he has been a masterstroke and am so happy I had the opp to meet him.  I sometimes walk into his house not knowing whether I will be beaten up or whether he will assist me – such is the look of anger on his face – but he is a solid – ‘all I’ve got in this world are balls and my word and I don’t break them for no-one’ type and trust him completely – so much so that I decided to shoot the project on my Hassleblad.

I have wondered whether it would have been better to shoot the Karoo desert project with the Hassleblad and the Hangberg project with my Canon 5D MkII (soon to be upgraded to MK III – can’t wait to use the new AF system – finally Canon have got it spot on!).  I originally thought that using the Hassleblad in Hangberg would force me somehow to slow down and take more static images rather than working with the faster and more dynamic Canons which would lead to more new-sy type images – smthg I of course have been trying to get away from.  The results have partly vindicated the decision but I have lost a lot of decent images there too mainly in very low-light conditions and esp at night where the Hassleblad struggles and where at ISO 800 (the max on the H4D-40) a lot of noise is introduced into the images.

I worry sometimes that the old reflexes as a news photographer didn’t come to play in the decision to employ the Hassleblad, simply so I can prove to myself I can walk around with it there –  Hassleblad may have got a camera on the moon (their own marketing blurb) but I bet they’ve never had one in Hangberg type thing!

I’ve had one or two hairy moments there – a gangster there told me outright he was going to steal my camera – when I laughed nervously he told me he was in fact very serious – I told him I knew he was but knew also that Denrico (my assistant there) is well-respected in the community and I was safe for now.  The gangster said as much.  Anyway – he was gracious enough to let me photograph him and I have given him A4 prints in return for the favour and we often greet each other now amicably enough.

As I’ve said – there is a long way to go with the Hangberg project but I am happy to put some of the images up now.  I have found the road away from my old type of work long and hard but without any initial feedback – I am happy with the new direction I am taking and with the type of work I am beginning to put out.  I am excited to get the short doccie finished too and know once that (and the Karoo photographic project) is complete, my shift will have been complete and I will be able to offer a new style and services to potential clients.

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