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.