A few years ago, I stopped talking about my work completely. I found that the process of trying to explain it to others got in the way of my own attempts to understand it myself. But this is a TED talk and I very much wanted to accept the invitation to be here. So, I’m going to show you some of the images that I’ve made and to go with them I’ve stolen some words. Some as you’ve heard from T.S. Eliot, some from James Agee, from Tom Waits, from Herman Melville and from Wim Wenders. And I’ve added a few of my own.
- Mikhael Subotzky at TEDxStellenbosch
More than a year ago my friend John Malsbary and I began trading emails about a couple of films and some ideas that they inspired. I suppose it is a follow-up to our first post together: Dvafoto Book Club, Vol 1: The Hurt Locker. This discussion started when he told me to watch Winter’s Bone and after I saw it I started drawing a lot of connections to my fascination with the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. So I asked John to watch that documentary. This post is an edited form of the ongoing discussion John and I have been having, and jumps around quite a bit to other bits of art and society that we’re interested in. We hope you find it interesting. Watch the trailers for Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and Winter’s Bone.
I think the most important thing that sticks out to me personally with Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (directed by Andrew Douglas, 2003), in concert with Winter’s Bone (directed by Debra Granik, 2010) is the different approaches to telling stories that I’m interested in. I could see myself working on the stories at the heart of either movie, but I don’t know how I would do that with still images.
Watching Winter’s Bone, I kept thinking .. could I do something like this? Take a very realistic story and use some fiction to be able to communicate the story better? Would it allow me to give the audience more than they could see if I shot it ’straight’ as a documentary? For instance, some of the stories I’ve heard in the Roma camps (I spent much of 2009 photographing the destruction of a Belgrade Roma community), there is no way to show all of those elements in still images made at the moment. These were things that happened in the past, things happening where I can’t photograph, or mental images described to me. It seriously makes me think about doing some work on films some day, to explore that itch to tell a more complete story than “purely” what is in front of my lens. Or maybe there is indeed a way to do that within documentary photography.
It is the same thing with Wrong-Eyed, it makes me dream about making a documentary film. What they are able to pull out of the story, with some scripting, some crew, some lighting, is different than what I would get with my still photographs if I were standing there the day before or after with the exact same idea or perspective. Likewise, their way of telling a story would probably not work at all with the stories I have done. My stories exist because I’m one guy moving quickly with one small camera, really no equipment, and just shooting what happens in front of me, no set-ups at all. That movie can not exist without those setups. It took a crew of people to set up access and equipment, to get those people (in jail, in the bar, the preacher) to say their deepest thoughts in those particular tableus. We could both get in to these places, but our way of working changes what we will get on film. And making the decision about how you physically approach a story changes what you will record.
That’s the essence of what I’m interested in this conversation: the nature and method of story telling. And how choices about a medium, given their specific limitations and advantages, can reveal new elements of the story.
Since watching the film the first time I’ve read up quite a bit more on Wrong-Eyed and have fallen deeply in to Jim White’s music (see the embedded video below for one scene of White playing some music and telling a story while driving around). If you like his tunes and want to hear him talk about the making of the film there is a great live set and interview from KEXP in 2005. There is also a nice press kit with much info about the film, found on the website of the distributer.
The White interview on KEXP gave me some interesting perspective on what they set out to achieve. In response to one of the things you raised in your reading of the film, the whiteness of it all. They say that they chose to focus specifically on the rural southern poor white perspective. And for me, that is something that I haven’t seen much real documentary of. My experience with this population is mostly just jokes about rednecks and northern snootiness. Man, I want to just go drive around the south now. I don’t think I have the balls or emotional space at the moment to actually open myself up to these experiences and go to all of these places right away though. Something I’ve realized living and working abroad: it really can be easier photographing away home. Less personal baggage that you hear off the cuff. Not knowing the nuance at first (though I am obsessed with finding it over time, this is why I am five years in to my project with barely an end in sight). You can photograph and not feel so bad not knowing word for word the details of their life story.
I have no idea why you would be afraid of these places. You are straight, white and male. People would make fun of you for being northern/west coast, but that would just be their way of trying to know you. The struggle would be to put up with the hateful shit they’d say, and keep your cool, and not judge them or fight it. Or maybe you would feel you have to fight it.
You know, I think you’ve put yourself at such a disadvantage by talking to people in a foreign country. In America I sometimes feel like narratives are a dime a dozen. Part of my job, as I’ve told you before, is just being where people are aching to be heard. My supervisors occasionally say that people with literally no money only have their story to trade. No one wants a hand out from me. So I receive stories like they’re legal tender.
For me it’s a pleasurable job. But I get a kick out of incoherent pandemonium. I think the hard part for a story teller would be sewing it all into something coherent.
The title is a quotation from Walter Lippman, who argued that the herd of people saw things and made decisions through stereotypes fixed in their minds, and that the job of elites was to circumvent this “democratic defect” by operating their own channels of fact-based and critically-informed insider information.
It may be that people recently believed things; certainly McLuhan et al. avowedly all believed in the truth – but is the truth/falsity just part of the fading artifacts of a dethroned logical system?
In essence, it’s time we recognize our solipsistic viewpoint of only one way to record and document what we deem “photojournalism.” For far too long we have been held hostage by our own stringent rules, guidelines, methodologies and processes of making and distributing what was supposedly photojournalism. To discount Wolf’s work as anything less then what we all do is a rather fearful and, as quoting Lippman, a “democratic defect” in the pursuit of what really should be an egalitarian form of documentation. We cannot thrust upon the public or ourselves an outline of a “proper way.”
Frankly, I am very much surprised by the vitriolic reaction to this work, if anything this only heightens the exclusive worldview we have been maintaining for far too long as photojournalists. I see this as a freedom to begin looking at photography and journalism not as a source collected by the very few for the very large, but a release to finally allow ourselves to break free from a Victorian-era/Early 20th Century construct and create photojournalism that is reflective of the times it is created in.
Digging around I found this very prescient paragraph: “Lippmann saw the purpose of journalism as ‘intelligence work’. Within this role, journalists are a link between policymakers and the public. A journalist seeks facts from policymakers which he then transmits to citizens who form a public opinion. In this model, the information may be used to hold policymakers accountable to citizens. This theory was spawned by the industrial era and some critics argue the model needs rethinking in post-industrial societies.”
What I also find fascinating about this work, is that Wolf has exposed our roles as photojournalists as essentially creating work based on Pure Chance, a secret we like to keep to ourselves. Again, this plays into the myth of the Photojournalist and the role he plays (yes, He, as what we do is still very dominated from a White, privileged, middle class background; it really is only Us who can afford to roam the world and report other people’s miseries). Are we so upset at the fact it was a series of appropriated images? That these were not images made in a “classical” HCB kind of way? That we now realize that perhaps our role really isn’t that functional anymore? What I see is a lot of panic, when in reality this is a very valid form of journalism. In the end, what is Journalism? To me it’s about looking and seeing, a very pure form of expression, filtered through an analytical mindset, in the end, it’s about “Bearing Witness” (as has been stated time and time again). Why are these photographs by Wolf anything different? Are we truly worried about the way technology plays a role in photo-gathering? Why? What I perceive is Wolf has found a series of events, edited them into a cohesive whole, and presented the results. Not much different from what the rest of us do. If anything, we are now in the early stages of great dissemination of our work, we need to embrace these changes lest we get shunted aside even further. It should never be about the photography, but what that photography says about our contemporary condition – this idea of “Bearing Witness.”
I think of course what else Wolf has managed to do is approach the thorny issues of appropriation, authorship, collaboration, and multiple perspectives in the making of a contemporary story. I believe there should be a deeper concern: what is enough, to generate a meaningful datum in this solipsistic era? What are the limits of self-knowledge and objective description? How far can we go before coherence fragments and fades under the weight of mass observation? Does subjectivity have a future in an accelerated culture? Or are we secretly collaborating in a jittery facsimile of an invented order?
Most importantly, what is the relationship of photography to the unsettling phenomenon of a society veering into this icy state of flux? I sensed from all these responses to the Google Streetview work is our lack of control over our destinies. It reminds me cheesily enough from a line spoken by the narcissistic heroine in the film Beaches played by Bette Midler: “Now what do you think of me?” The photographer has become so entrenched in their own invincibility that we neglect to actually be journalists and photographers and just get on with seeing – and disseminating – what’s out there.
Lastly, I enjoyed this statement from VII’s Stephen Mayes writing on photojournalism in Dispatches Magazine, and feel that his argument is very valid:
“There’s a joke: how many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb? Four: one to change the bulb and three to sing about how good the old one was. Wherever three or more photojournalists gathered together I find this song is sung, but it’s not funny. The “crisis” in photojournalism is not an absence of newsworthy events, nor even the absence of an eager audience, it is the absence of imagination in bridging the two, and we are limited by the constant backward hankering for the way things used to be. People ask who is the new Robert Capa or Eugene Smith? But the question is misguided, and just as so many innovations have been misunderstood because they were defined in terms of what went before, so we are missing the opportunity to make a meaningful step forward in photojournalism because we are hanging onto the old references. How long did it take for people to realize that the automobile could be so much more than a horseless carriage?…”
This is essentially a cross-post from my tumblr Only Unity, a side project where I play with b-side images from my Serbia project and muse about the music I’m often listening to.
A couple of months ago my friend Michael Bowring showed me the documentary film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, where I was introduced to the wonderful musician Jim White. I’ve grown mildly obsessed with the film and the music it includes, and I’m sure to discuss it in-depth with an upcoming Dvafoto Book Club discussion that I’m working on with past contributor John Malsbary. For a taste, here is one of my favorite clips and favorite songs from the documentary where White introduces us to a small town in the American South and plays his song “Alabama Chrome”.
I want to treat you all to this tremendous twenty minute performance by Jim White on NPR Music’s series of “Tiny Desk Concerts”. It offers a beautiful introduction to White’s personality and his music, and he has a lot to say for life and creativity. NPR’s Bob Boilen introduces White with the note that he is truly a storyteller at heart. Maybe this is why I appreciate him so much. Here and in “Wrong-Eyed Jesus”, he sweeps me away and gives me chills with both his music and allegorical stories.
Jim White is a storyteller first and a musician second. It’s a kind of storytelling rooted in his own unusual history: He grew up in Florida in a deeply Pentecostal community and fell in love with the white gospel music he heard. But from there, White took a surprising path to becoming a full-time musician. He was a professional surfer, a boxer, a fashion model in Milan and a cab driver in New York City. White’s travels recently took him to Washington, D.C., where he stopped by the offices of NPR Music for this live performance. - NPR’s introduction to the performance
And if you want more, you really need to listen to this live performance and interview Jim White did at Seattle’s great independent radio station KEXP in 2005. He plays some amazing music and tells stories from the production of “Wrong-Eyed Jesus”. There are also free songs of White’s to download from the always-worthwhile Daytrotter Sessions website. I’m also happy to report that White just funded his latest album “Where It Hits You” via a Kickstarter campaign, which had I known about I would have contributed to (especially with the terrific rewards). Watch his presentation, it is the best kickstarter I’ve seen yet.
Also, I’m entirely aware that the ”Book Club’ has become more of a culture-media club, but I don’t care, I like the name. And I want this to feel a bit like a friendly discussion at the table over a bottle of rakija. So what do you think of Jim White, had you heard of him before? And have you seen the film?
Institute for Artist Management’s blog just published a full view of Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen’s new book “Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land”. It is the second annual publication from their amazing Sochi Project and concerns itself with the tiny and absurd nation of Abkhazia. Hornstra of course is a favorite of ours and we’ve written about his work many times in the past (and recently posted a great video interview). But this is one of the first times I’ve gotten to really dig in to one of his books (other than briefly flipping through a copy of 101 Billionaires earlier this year) and see how it all comes together in the form that he clearly prefers. This book is a thick 272 pages with lots of interesting text and maps. It is great that there is a complete preview online, you can see and read it all, but the real book would be of course much superior to absorb their words and pictures (e.g. the recent discussion “Seeing work on a computer is not seeing it at all”)
‘Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land’ (ELPLFL) is an account of four years spent travelling through Abkhazia. Abkhazia broke away from Georgia after a short, violent civil war in ’92-’93 and was recognised as independent in 2008 by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the atoll of Nauru. Over the past four years we have seen how the country has slowly attempted to claw its way out of isolation. We visited the refugees in Georgia and described the attempts made by the Abkhazian government to repopulate the empty, war-ravaged country with new immigrants.
In ‘Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land’, we sketch a picture of Abkhazia from the perspective of many different Abkhazians, from pupil to president, in cities and in the countryside. It is the first time that the young country has been so extensively portrayed in words and images.
The book was first unveiled last week in Paris as part of Paris Photo at Offprint Paris. You can order the book for €49 (or €35 if you are a sponsor of The Sochi Project) through Hornstra’s website or via email: email@example.com.
Just came across a new song that for obvious reasons I thought to post here (as part of our intermittent Book Club). The video features a cool vintage camera with fancy flash and cool vintage dancing people. Can’t really say what the song has to do with a ‘photojournalist’ because I can’t understand most of the lyrics. But really, it is kind of nice.
See the Pitchfork Review of Small Black’s new LP “New Chain” if you’re curious. It comes recommended by none other than KEXP’s head DJ John Richards, aka John in the Morning, who is one of my personal music gods.
(via KEXP’s Blog and their Song of the Day Podcast)
The NYTimes Lens blog just posted a piece including the words and images of Velibor Božović, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in Sarajevo. In the interview Božović said some things that have really echoed with some earlier thoughts of mine: is it possible for a photographer to photograph as someone else? In other words, to photograph in character? Actors can assume new personalities and do things (on set a least) that they would never say or do in their personal life. Does this, can this, should this apply to photography?
“[Hemon and I] spent hours talking about what these guys would do and about Rora — what would he really photograph,” Mr. Božović said. Through their conversations, Mr. Božović would discover that Rora possessed aesthetic tastes and instincts that drastically differed from his own.
This did not always sit well with him. One photograph he took still leaves him feeling uneasy. At a sidewalk café in Lviv, Ukraine, he sneaked a shot of a woman’s bare legs from underneath a coffee table.
“I simply would never do that,” he said. “But Rora would do that kind of thing.”
This is a proper book club post because Božović’s comments are referring to the book that he made with his friend, the writer Aleksandar Hemon called The Lazarus Project. In it there are two characters traveling through Eastern Europe (Bosnia, Moldova, Ukraine) in search of certain historical events and this is exactly what the author and his photographer friend, Božović and Hemon, did in real life. This curious parallelism is found often in Hemon’s books, which I count amongst my favorites of recent years, especially his first: The Question of Bruno. This mixing of first person narrative, of fiction and real experience, even to the point of having a character named Hemun that fits biographical features of the real Hemon, work incredibly well at playing the tensile strings of fragile immigrant identities. But what about doing this with photographs and blurring the line of who is the photographer? Does the biography of a photographer matter? Does it matter if they exist at all in a non-fiction world?
Interesting ideas for me.
Be sure to look at Božović’s work, especially the whole Lazarus Project set on his website and the Stone Sleepers project which we’ve previously written about on dva. Word is that he is traveling to Russia at the moment, I hope for some nice new secret project. Can’t wait to see it when he’s back.