At a recent editorial meeting, the Foto8 team and I shared a common frustration, that is also a professional conundrum, about some of the most celebrated photography from the past year or so, including work we’ve featured in 8 magazine. We’re talking about well-received documentary work by established photographers on significant subjects. What we find incongruous is that we are unsure of the basic moral position of the author in relation to the socially significant subject matter.
Open See by Jim Goldberg: “The words and images combine to tell intimate stories of past and present experiences. Faces and features are sometimes scratched out, coloured in, or marked in some way. Larger-scale colour photographs depicting landscapes from the subjects’ countries of origin appear both poetic and dystopic in equal measure.”
Every week, photographers make intensely political decisions – whether they realise it or not – to become embedded, for example, with the soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet there’s an overriding feeling that we need to know what the photographer thinks about the military invasion of Afghanistan, the 6584 Afghan civilian casualties, the 4,800 fatalities in the Afghan army and police since 2006 or indeed the deaths of 256 British servicemen and women to date.
The Day Nobody Died. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin: “The Day Nobody Died is the expression of a considered position informed by the last ten years in which Broomberg and Chanarin have followed, to quote Janet Malcolm, ‘…the camera’s profound misanthropy, its willingness to go to unpleasant places where no one wants to venture, its nasty preference for precisely those facets of our nature that we most wish to disown…’ “
We English by Simon Roberts: We English explores national identity and people at leisure in England’s rich landscape. The project was developed from Simon’s childhood memories, and the range of associations and images they evoke, how landscapes formed an important part of who he is, and a fascination with ideas of belonging and memory, identity and place.
This same “need to know” can be applied to landscape photography, depictions of English life for example, that have so possessed photographers this past year. We need more than dramatic vistas or seductive tableaux, we want to know rather to know if the photographer takes a position on their mother country’s devastating record on inequality or the criminal recklessness exhibited by finanical institutions for which the country will pay for decades to come.
Much of this contemporary work has been wildly successful in photographic terms, garnering commercial and professional accolades, held up as examples of the best contemporary practice – and make no mistake, we have been among the people who have conferred that success. Is this, then, what contemporary practice has become?
Gambia by Philip Jones Griffiths: “On the riverbank in Gambia near Juffure, 1978, home of the slave Kunte Kinte of ‘Roots’ fame. Nowadays, Swedish visitors have made this poor West African country a favored tourist destination, especially for older single women who find the local men amenable. In earlier times, slaves were gathered on the island in mid-river before being shipped to the West Indies.”
Why Mister Why? by Geert van Kesteren: “Presented as a kind of anti-coffee table book, Why Mister Why, with over 250 photos printed on magazine stock with perforated edging, makes for a curious object from the start. In it, van Kesteren’s layered documentary aesthetic produces a complex portrait of Iraq during the U.S. occupation.”
We know the name, we know the subject matter, and maybe it’s easier to buy into a photographer whose work allows the observer to see what they want to see, that declares no moral stance of the author and therefore permits a comfortable slippage into a moral vacuum where we don’t have to think too hard about these issues, or take a stand ourselves. Is part of the reason for these photographers’ popularity the fact that their work acts as a kind of shortcut to significance; it’s a great ‘piece of work’.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.
Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2
Is it enough to have the idea for making the body of work and to execute it well? Usually photographers who want the world to be different make no secret of their critical or radical politics. Look at Philip Jones Griffiths then, or Simon Norfolk and Geert Van Kestern now. It seems a certainty their work will endure. Their moral currency and thereby that of the photography itself will not deppreciate over time, because its value is integral to its creation.
Bleed by Simon Norfolk: “The largest mass grave so far discovered in Bosnia was opened at Crni Vrh near Caparade in the Republik Srpska. The grave contained the remains of 629 people who had been killed and buried in the Zvornik area and then dug up and moved to this location in an attempt to hide the killers from justice.”
Is it in fact not the case that documentary photography demands a moral position on the part of the photographer? We’re worried that without one we might begin to question their validity.