Category Archives: 3 Documentary, identity and place

Project: Documentary, identity and place

Reading: We English (Foto8 issue 25 2009) and The English Outdoors by Stephen Daniels (2010)

Reflective Summary

I read the introductory article to Simon Roberts’ “We English” project from Foto8 magazine with interest. It outlines the project and describes the successful manner in which Roberts publicised and generated an audience for his book through an on-line presence via the BBC. It also describes the funding that he secured to finance the project from the National Media Museum and the Arts Council.

Stephen Daniels essay put Roberts’ work in its historical context, describing the artistic heritage of depicting the English landscape, with or without the people who owned it, worked in it and latterly use it for their leisure pursuits. I think the success of the project owes a lot to Roberts’ audience building. It is a collection of locations familiar to  hundreds of thousands of the population, engaged in activities with which we are all familiar. It is about “us” and as such is a valuable social document. Of course, Daniels alluded to the problems that the increasing numbers of visitors cause to the environment. These cannot be ignored as anyone who has ventured into the West Country on a Bank Holiday Weekend can confirm. I am sure is no shortage of documentary photographers willing and able to record the environmental impact on the landscape.

Reflexivity and authorship

This is an important quote to remember:

Documentary  is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded , first and foremost, as an act of self expression on the part of the artist. (Alan Sekula, in Liebling, 1978, p.236)

I spent some time looking at Alex Webb’s series on Istanbul and could recognise that self expression had played a large part in Webb’s selection of what to photograph. He has reacted to what is happening in front of him and produced images that are full of the life of the city. I also looked at “Suffering of Light” which included images from Istanbul, those mentioned from Haiti as well as some from places a far apart as Georgia, Cuba, Mexico, Panama and the USA. As I looked through these images I had feeling that they were very abstract, mostly colourful but always contained a human element, something which told you about the subject’s relation to the place. This image from Haiti for example, Webb has seen the three colours of the French flag, indicating Haiti’s colonial past. The almost surreal element of the man carrying a bunch of bulrushes and the silhouette of the man image

in the foreground reinforce the everyday aspect  in harsh tropical sunlight.

A sense of place. I looked into the award winning work of Jens Olof Lasthein “Waiting for the Future – Pictures from Abkhazia”.

Of the images in the series, nine had people in them three showed derelict or abandoned sites with either dogs or ponies in them. Most were taken outdoors in clear bright weather with strong saturated colour. The subjects in the pictures seem aware of the photographer although not posed. I am given the impression that they are waiting for something, patiently and with resignation. Lasthein says he was attracted to the country because of its situation, having been internationally isolated as a result of war. He was trying to find out what goes on in such a country.

Talking about his practice he says he uses photography as a means of “subjective expression” using the “real world as a starting point… to try to understand what goes on among other people and inside myself.”

Next I examined the work of Marco van Duyvendijk – Mongolia series:

Looking at the website, van Duyvendijk has displayed thirty six images which show the diverse and changing lives of the people of Mongolia. He poses his subjects to make a connection with them. As they look into his lens they establish themselves in the place and seem to say “this is me and this is where I belong”. As a set, they contain all of the diversity expected, the harsh landscape, the traditional dress and culture amongst modern influences of dress and culture. Elsewhere he talks about his experiences in travelling and asking strangers to pose for him: 

It is also notable that his work bears a resemblance to that of Lasthein in that he has visited similar places around Abkhazia and they have a very similar style.

David Goldblatt

I got side-tracked while researching Goldblatt’s work. This short interview gives an insight to the man and his work:

Here is the web page for his MOMA exhibition:

Mikhael Subotzky’s work can be seen here.

I found comparing the strategies of these two photographers very difficult because of their different backgrounds and ages and the complex political and social conditions they worked under and the lack of any detailed information about the way in which they worked. I don’t think it is possible to say whether this type of work is harder or easier if you come from the area you are documenting. So much depends on your personal qualities in your interactions with the people, and your objectivity. It is interesting that  Goldblatt’s asserted that he was a self appointed critic of the society in which he was born and lived.  I would have thought this made his task doubly difficult. As for the question about a geographical space becoming different places at the same time, I think question this is a tautology. Of course it can. An individuals perception of a place is coloured by his own prejudices, pre-conceptions and experience (or ignorance) of that space. Thus, it becomes a different place for each person.