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Posts tagged ‘George Philipas’

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.

 

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:

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

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!

Golden Oldies… one from El Alto, Bolivia

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In preparation for building a new website I have been going through some of my (very) old work… Came up with this pic from my days on the Postgrad course at LCP (now London College of Communication).

After marching with coca farmers half way across Los Yungas to protest in the capital La Paz, I did a side story about a lone Catholic priest who had been cast aside for his liberal methods on tackling drug addiction in his once sizable Munich parish and now worked with street children in El Alto – the large, sprawling shanty town (and a city in its own right) just outside La Paz.

It was taken in the days when I would shoot on grainy Fuji Superia 1600 film and then either scan it on the old Microtek (and spend hours getting rid of dust and scratches in some ancient version of Photoshop) or spend hours in a darkroom fiddling with chemicals in annoyingly dim infra-red light… those were the days! I think I used this pic for my first ever business card (which of course I did myself on an early version Epson inkjet printer)!

Interesting to see how my relation to my old work changes with time… at first discarding it as early experimentation but in time seeing (some) of it in a new light.  It is also interesting to see how some things never change – my work does tend to gravitate towards light-hearted moments even in apparently dark situations (which I guess somehow mirrors my own personality on some deep level).. my Hangberg long-term project is permeated with such images.

Presenting an Art Portfolio, Conceptualising and Apartheid

A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen… the meaning is the use.

Susan Sontag – On Photography

Spent the last few hectic weeks in the UK and a small trip to Europe preparing amongst other things a portfolio of my 2 long-term projects: ‘Of Religion and Gangsters’ & ‘A Changing Landscape’ – that is making large prints, presentational Blurb self-published books and new cards and websites (frustrating work in progress this last one!). At this early stage, the most important thing when showing the new work has been the feedback from peeps well-placed in the industry whose cumulative opinions ultimately help my own decision-making process in what way to take my own work.

The highlight of these meetings for me was definitely getting to hook up again with my old mentor from the Northern Lights Masterclass, Marc Prust in Amsterdam.

Marc is one of those rare successful guys who is also a genuinely friendly and open guy. Spent a pleasant afternoon chewing the fat and of course trying to put the world of photography to right over a couple of beers.  For me, getting feedback from Marc is a bit like being broken down in basic Marine training – all my ideas (read here delusions) about my own work quickly evaporate, but in the long-run from that come the crumbs that help build stronger more relevant ideas around my own work.

I have known for the longest time that presenting my own work has never been one of my strong points. I have always been one of those photogs more comfortable hiding behind agencies and not having to market myself directly. Assignments have always come relatively easy in that I have always been good at implementing someone’s photographic specs (however ludicrous and unrealistic the logistics and timelines etc may sometimes be – and always with a big fat smile on ma face!).  But to truly progress as a photog, unlike many other professions, this is simply not enough. Professional photography – in all fields, but especially in the world of book, gallery and art photography has this added dimension where you are and must be in a perpetual state of self-promotion. At the end of the day, if you don’t keep up with the newsletters, emails, blogs and portfolio reviews (but the relevance of portfolio reviews is questionable and will write about in a future blog), then with so much competition out there, you will simply be forgotten and quickly at that matter.

Given its importance, it has been essential that I bring these skills up to scratch. To say it has been a hard experience preparing is an understatement to say the least. But as Marc, who first sat me down on a couch like some Freudian interrogative session before even looking at my pics rightly pointed out: The problem and strength of my own presentation of the work, begins way before deciding how to show it. I have go way back to having an airtight idea of who I am professionally (esp now I have decided to leave the world of news photography behind) and essentially where I am going. I previously had some vague notion that I was doing these two projects to test the waters and either create a book (which I now think is def possible) or approach a gallery space or even to use as promotional tools to make contacts in this new field and from that build relationships that will eventually lead to the same goal with future projects. After our convo, I realised that this idea needs serious development. I have began formulating a much more solid idea and essentially a business plan – of where I want to be in 5 or 10 years. What now seems obvious, is that without this – it is hard to decide ultimately the best method to convey the work or even the best way to edit it: Understanding whether the work is strictly art portfolio, has a documentary-style narrative and therefore where it’s final destination will be will at the very start determine how best to present the work.

The other side of getting the basics right is having a solid conceptual basis for both projects to work around. It is interesting that even before I presented my work, the concepts for both have evolved and transitioned into something very different from where they started life and especially for my ‘Of Religion and Gangsters’ project.

I find it so interesting how the same set of images, edited and presented differently with a totally different conceptual idea can have such different meaning and be made more profound and relevant on the back of a great solid concept (and hence the Susan Sontag quote above). Of course, you can’t fake it at all. In all probability I will have to go back and shoot a lot more for both projects but at least once I have the concepts for them firmly nailed down I have a great set of images as a starting point and ultimately the rest will fall into place rapidly.

I knew conceptually both projects needed developing and being able to bounce ideas has been a god-send.

It is interesting that what came out though organically from the meetings was that I am moving towards tying them both to a narrative that is in both cases loosely based on a framework around the concept of apartheid and its continuing effects on South African society. I do hesitate in ever doing such things. I find it contrived and cliché to even mention it as many have done before and as many who live in SA know, the everyday narrative has transformed and moved forward a lot. But in many ways it also hasn’t – and more significantly – in the all-important international world of opinion, SA is still viewed through the eyes of apartheid and the positive redeeming journey towards the relatively peaceful transition to independence.   In photography (as in many art and media platforms) it is work and concepts based somehow on this idea that continue to have appeal in the West.

Of course, there are well-established photographers out there who have done an amazing job of moving and helping to transform this perception of SA and even Africa as a whole. Pieter Hugo immediately comes to mind and who is currently my stand out photographer (check out his new work ‘Kin’ based on his relationship to his surrounding environment i SA which has now become more releavnt to him after having a family) and of course there is the forefather of a new South African narrative Roger Ballen and his seminal book ‘Outland‘ (not a big fan I must say though).  Might or might not do a future blog on African narrative in photography which is something dear to my heart.

I must say though by attaching an interesting and innovative angle based loosely around the framework of apartheid to both my long-term projects, I see them in a new and exciting light and has given them a more profound visual purpose that genuinely excites me. Evolving both concepts and setting out to finish and shoot both projects is something that gives a new breath of life to the work and the feedback, especially from Marc (however punishing and ego-shattering!) brings with it much welcome new possibilities… and I can’t wait to see where that road might lead.

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.

A quick first edit of ‘The Karoo – A Photographic Odyssey of a Changing Landscape’

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Been a longer while than usual since last posted here.  A lot has been going on in the background and of course jobs have come and gone but I have been quiet mainly because I have said enough about transformation from news photography and the such and trying to become a more book/print and gallery photographer and just wanted to get on with it.  Change has taken time for me because it requires a complete change in mindset and outlook not just towards work but in life in gen in my humble opinion.  I am not saying I have established myself yet in this more creative field!  Far from it.  But I feel I have come enough down the path and made enough tentative steps to introduce some of the new long-term projects I have been doing (I have already posted a lot from my first project on a small colored community here in South Africa on past blogs).  I have won some awards that stand out from the usual honorable mentions I usually achieve, managing 3rd Place and Honor of Distinction at the Annual Photography Masters Awards last year for work on one of the long-term projects.  I was also invited onto the internationally-renowned Lens Culture online to show work recently.  Baby steps – but def going slowly in the direction I want my style of work to go.  I will soon though be traveling Europe and Stateside to show a new portfolio which will be the true gauge of how far I have come.

 

I don’t have much more to say about news photography and the such.  But reading my last (ancient) blog and recent events both locally with a massive wild fire here in the Cape and internationally with the controversy raging fiercer than normal over World Press Awards winners, I feel compelled to write one last subsequent blog about it all (yes – I still complain and moan as in the past!). On other fronts – I have been working relentlessly to improve the style and content of my time lapse photography which has been coming along nicely and hope to have a show reel ready some time this year.  I will be doing a very useful workshop at the Palm Springs Festival in Cali with an established master in the genre, Jeff Frost and hope to hone the technique further there.

 

Anyways – the pics in the slideshow are actually from an old resurrected project which I first tentatively started in 2011.  At the time I think I wasn’t ready and am happy now I put it on the back burner at the time – but recently, with a changing style that I feel suits this project more, have brought it back to the forefront.  It essentially aims to visually chart the course of large-scale change about to transform the Karoo desert – a large expanse of sparsely populated land north of Cape Town where little has changed since the days of the first Voortrekkers (English and Dutch settlers who first moved inland away from the Cape Colony in South Africa).  The building of the SKA near Carnarvon (Square Kilometre Array Radio telescope) awarded in large part a few years back to South Africa and the discovery of the 5th largest deposit of shale oil in the world and subsequent exploration and forthcoming mass extraction will see the Karoo undergo the largest unprecedented change since the introduction of the railway in the mid-19th century.  The images in the series aim to at once capture the serenity and beauty of the Karoo but are also riddled with hints of brooding insecurity and doubt that the great change already in progress will inevitably bring to an ancient way of life essentially untouched for generations.

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