Tag Archive: discussion
I’m not sure what first got me to look at Laura El-Tantawy‘s I’ll Die For You, but I’m glad I did. It’s an ambitious attempt to photograph and tell the story of farmer suicides in India. The situation is staggering. From El-Tantawy’s statement about the project:
Over the past 15 years, more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. Many had borrowed money through government lending schemes or private lenders to plant more efficient crops, but could not pay off their debts. Because of the extremely fast transition has undergone — from a rural to an industrial, urban economy with an open market — farmers have been confronted by immense social and economic problems.
To tell this story, El-Tantawy uses archival materials, strong portraiture of the women left behind, and a visual examination of the land and place. It’s a refreshing approach to something so difficult to photograph, and it’s a departure from much of her other work (which you should check out while you’re at it). I thought I’d ask her a few questions about the project and her approach. Our conversation is below:
What got you started on the project? What drew you to the issue? How did you begin work for the project (such as identifying potential subjects, approaching subjects for the piece)?
The start of the project coincided with me taking part in the prestigious Reflexions Masterclass. It’s a two-year photography seminar directed by Italian photographer Giorgia Fiorio and French Curator Gabrial Bauret. The workshop is based around developing a photographer’s visual language and story-telling capabilities by assigning a series of themes that participants use as inspiration to build on a new body of work or continue to develop an ongoing series. At the time the theme assigned was “faces”. I really struggled with this because all my immediate ideas were centered around portraiture, which I always considered as an area of weakness for me. I felt a strong portrait should convey an emotion and lend some insight into the subject’s character, frame of mind or emotional state – this I had never accomplished well. Meanwhile, as I am thinking about this, I come across an article about farmers committing suicide in India. Everything seemed to come together at that moment for me, in a way that I can honestly say I never reacted to anything else, subject or story. There was something different about this work from the start. So from the moment of its initiation, this project was very unique for me.
I went to India with nothing but the intention to meet the families and photograph their faces. This was my main motivation. I wanted to understand why they were committing suicide, such a brutal act and one with finite consequences. Having been in India before, I always saw India as a country where people really work hard to live in order to avert death. It was the country of vibrant colors, crowded streets – a country where life is seen at its best and sometimes worst, but life and living dominate. Death was not associated with India in my mind, which is why I believe I reacted so instinctively and vigorously to the suicide of farmers, which ultimately led me to think about my own grandfather, who was a farmer all his life. Perhaps you can see there were just too many elements here that led me to pursue this story as passionately and seriously as I did.
In India I landed with ideas, but I had nothing in hand that could translate my ideas into reality. I wanted to shoot the work on film (which I had never done before). I bought the film from a friend of mine living in India and borrowed his Mamiya. He also offered to send his studio assistant with me to meet the families and she became my team-mate at that stage in the project, doing what I consider half the work: translation.
When we left Mumbai we had nothing but the determination to meet these families and hear their story. Once we arrived in the village we had identified as the starting point, we just asked around and things started to work out.
We approached the families with total honesty explaining I had come from London and wanted to hear their story. At that moment the work as I had visualized it only centered around documenting the female survivors and making an archive of photographs of the men who died. The idea of “Man and Land” came later and after much searching for a visual approach to show the strong bond between the people and the land they inhabit, which I believed was ultimately the cause of these suicides.
What was your strategy for telling this story visually? I imagine it was a difficult piece to develop, photographically–the events happened well in the past and the causes of these suicides are abstract economic and psychological notions that don’t present themselves in a straightforward visual way.
Intimacy – all I could think about was intimacy. Given the sensitivity of the issue in and of itself and the delicate nature of addressing issues related to life and death, I felt that I had to move slowly, but somehow give a sense of intimacy. It was imperative to me to attach a face to the suicides and not follow a conventional approach that would deprive the story of emotion or developing a relationship with the women survivors and the men who died. I wanted to focus on the faces to make the suicides real to myself and to viewers and not just portray this as something abstract that could happen anywhere to anyone. I felt the urge and the responsibility to anchor this in reality, or at least what I perceived as reality (we all have our different realities or interpretations of it). For me a more photojournalistic approach would not have told this story the way I felt it and instinctively reacted to it: the deep emotion, sorrow and absolute sense of anguish and deprivation these men must have felt at the time of the suicides, all feelings that were carried onto the women now surviving them. People died – thousands of them – and I chose to tell this story. I was responsible for what people would think and feel when they see the pictures. This was always at the back of my head.
The suicides are continuing to happen, so this is not an old story, but very much an ongoing one. In the past 15 years, more than 250 thousand farmers have committed suicide and the numbers are still rising.
How did you get the women to be part of the project? In parts of India I’ve visited, women tend to be hidden from the public and I imagine they initially did not want to be photographed. What about the issue of suicide? In some societies, suicide is a very shameful act. Was there a societal or cultural stigma that you had to overcome in order to get people to even talk about the suicides? How did you approach that issue with your subjects?
A few things could account for me being able to gain access to the families. Perhaps the fact that I was a woman myself allowed the women to gain some sense of comfort around me, but I think ultimately the main reason I was able to talk to them is because they wanted someone to talk to – they wanted to be heard and in all cases helped (which I shamefully explained I was not in a position to do). They wanted their struggle to be acknowledged and the fact I had come from an entirely different country to meet them and understand their plight probably made them feel some sort of respect and seriousness towards me.
Yes, there is a huge stigma attached to suicide. You must remember India is a predominantly Hindu country and suicide is not accepted within the Hindu belief. Surprisingly, this was not an issue that took much of the conversation I had with any of the families I met. It was about survival and for the men who had committed suicide, living had become an impossibility. Tradition among the conservative and modest farming communities dictates men are the main providers. Girls get married because their fathers can pay their dowry and are of a good reputation in the village, so once a man starts to sink below the expected status in the community, he starts to be overcome by shame. Status and community standing play a big role in the decision to commit suicide in these villages and I think they would in any village in the world. Farmers are a unique breed and their work and lifestyle are about modesty, pride and survival under the harshest of conditions. But I think if any of these elements start to shake, their whole existence comes into question.
Read on »
“If any of the things we see don’t suit us, guess who is to blame? It’s never us, it’s always the photographer. It’s never the fact that we want to see certain things, it’s always that someone else is not showing us what we want to see.” Joerg Colberg – Colin Pantall on what photographs tell us
Colin Pantall and Joerg Colberg both recently wrote interesting posts on what photographs tell the viewer and how they do so. Analyzing two well-known photos of apparently disinterested observers in the middle of crises, Colin Pantall investigates how photos work to inform preconceived and simple narratives in the viewer’s apprehension. If the viewer is looking for hip, young New Yorkers unaffected by the attacks on September 11, that can also be seen in Thomas Hoepker’s photo. If the viewer wants to see a diverse group talking about the events of the day, that can be seen, too, as one of the subjects of the photo suggests. Joerg Colberg continues the thread, suggesting that we should approach all photographs by understanding what role the subjects of those photos are expected to play in such “simplistic narratives.” Both posts are well worth a read.
We’ve already had the debate this year on the reading of photographs to fit into easy narratives with Samuel Aranda’s World Press Photo 2012-winning photo of a Yemeni mother comforting an injured man. Some saw a Western photographer shoehorning Christian ideology on a Muslim and Middle Eastern scenario; others saw a beautiful and heartbreaking devotion of mother/woman taking part in revolutionary struggle. For what it’s worth, the woman in the photo found out about the photo via facebook and thought it supported the revolution and showed that Yemenis were not extremists.
“If we don’t get that then we’ll helplessly stare at all these images, to project what we already know onto them. Samuel Aranda’s photograph provides a good opportunity: It’s easy to see the veil, it’s easy to see the pose (the expression of human suffering and of compassion), it’s easy to see (or at least somewhat realize) the very specifically Western visual imagery. But it’s quite a bit harder to put all that together and to then find out what we are really looking at.” -Joerg Colberg, The Problem with Western Press Photo
The winners of World Press Photo 2012 were announced on Friday, and while no awards went to anything as controversial as an iPhone or Google Street View series, there have been varied reactions to Samuel Aranda‘s winning image of a woman in a niqab comforting an injured man in Yemen. I was struck by the image when I saw it published without a photo credit on the cover of the New York Times. The image is strong, but it allows much to be read into it. Over the weekend, everyone came out with an opinion on the image. Some were fawning, others were more measured or outright critical. Of particular note, be sure to read these: Michael Shaw’s Aranda’s World Press Photo of the Year: Pietàs and Burkas and Just Plain Obscurity, Oh My!, JM Colberg’s The Problem with Western Press Photo, Jim Johnson’s Uses of the Pietà ~ Criticisms of World Press Photo Award. Make sure to read WPP juror Nina Berman’s response to Jim Johnson in the comments (that link may or may not go directly to the comment. If not, scroll down to comment #9).
What do you think?
BagNews is one of my favorite places online for thoughtful (sometimes snarky) analysis of news photography as it is used. They’ve been growing over the years, producing original photography and award-winning videos and generally being a can’t-miss stop if you’re interested in contemporary visual journalism. A periodic feature of the site is BagNewsSalon, online roundtable discussions about photography with photographers, editors, professors, and anyone who wants to watch, listen, and ask questions. On March 20, there’ll be another such event, Assignment Egypt, in which key images of recent coverage of Egypt will be discussed, dissected, and deconstructed, by photographers who were there and thoughtful members of the larger photographic community. Put this one on your calendars.
Damon Winters’ iPhone-taken story, A Grunt’s Life, was awarded 3rd place Feature Story in the 2011 Pictures of the Year International. This has been met with controversy. Many, including most prominently Chip Litherland, say the pictures aren’t photojournalism and that they don’t represent what was in front of the camera, others, such as Logan Mock-Bunting, say that the images violate POYi’s rules that stipulate, “No masks, borders, backgrounds or other artistic effects are allowed.”
I have no problem with the pictures being allowed in the contest. There haven’t been masks, borders, or backgrounds added to the picture (and “other artistic effects” should be read as non-photographic elements added to a picture; the structure of the sentence in the rule makes this clear–”other” indicates that forbidden effects would be of a sort similar to borders, backgrounds, and masks and not of a sort that includes such things as color filters, flash, grain, black and white conversion), and I think there’s no reason not to call this photojournalism. What follows is a modified version of my response to these concerns that I posted in a conversation on the Luceo Images facebook page.
If the color modifications of an iPhone application are to be forbidden, why allow black and white or flash in photojournalism, then? That’s not what the scene looked like in front of the camera. Or why allow ISOs, apertures, and shutter speeds that manipulate light in a way that the human eye can’t achieve (the human eye can’t have infinite focus starting on something at 3 feet away; the human eye can’t let in enough light in an instant as a ISO3200 on bulb; etc.)? As long as the content remains true–that is, nothing has been posed or removed or added to the frame–and it’s intended (photographed and presented) as journalism, I don’t see a reason to disqualify pictures from the contest.
I see arguments against these types of photos as similar to complaints about Salgado making pictures that were too beautiful for the subject matter. Our goal should be to make people look, and these do an admirable job at commanding the attention, not just because of the content but because of how the pictures look and how they were taken. So much photojournalism shot in the traditional style gets ignored or washed over; we need to use everything at our disposal to connect to audiences.
And I’m wary of a lot of the argumentation around these images.
Slippery slope arguments don’t work. It’s perfectly possible to imagine a world where Winter’s photos are awarded, but more traditional photography still gets published and awarded. In fact, there’ve been other problems with over-toning in the past, or Holgas, or other weird techniques, but it hasn’t destroyed all of the other photojournalism that’s still being produced, nor does it mean that non-hipstamatic photojournalism won’t hold public attention. Recent coverage of Egypt proves that. Even the most straightforward wire photography was going viral.
Arguments about the tradition of photojournalism don’t work, either. Older ideas aren’t necessarily better. They might be, but we need evidence that new photojournalism tells a story less accurately or connects with audiences less well than old, straightforward photojournalism. Only then can we fully discount the new style. If we held on to the traditions, we’d be moving corpses like Brady, we’d be shooting daguerrotypes, we’d be posing and using huge lighting setups like the early Life photographers, we’d be layering frames like W. Eugene Smith, we’d all still use film. Traditions fall by the wayside. Methods evolve. New styles emerge.
I don’t want to say that just because the technique is novel or popular that that makes it okay, either. That’s fallacious reasoning. Danielle Steele sells a lot of books, but that doesn’t make her books great literature.
As I see it, the photos are faithful to the story and to how things were in front of the camera, and that’s all that really matters. The colors might be juiced a bit, but that doesn’t invalidate the work. Really, the colors aren’t changed much at all compared to work such as Richard Mosse’s infrared work exploring conflict in Congo.Artistic technique goes a long way in communicating tone and emotion in photography, and I think we (photographers and the public) would be a lot worse off if we (photographers) couldn’t use aesthetic language in photojournalism.
[Matt, the other half of dvafoto, wanted me to say this: 'Matt agrees with everything but wanted to record the fact that he still hates iPhone photographs. Even his own.']
“I really don’t have the desire to go to another country and make the kind of pictures that I make. There’s so much to do here…” -Brenda Ann Kenneally for BagNewsNotes
Thanks to Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes for writing in to let us know about Brenda Ann Kenneally’s recent slideshow discussion of her work from Troy, New York at the BagNews Salon. The work is powerful, but hearing Kenneally talk about why she photographs what she does, especially the personal connection to her subject matter, drives the work even deeper. Well worth a watch.
A scene that celebrates itself has nothing to celebrate
The affirmation of your work by your friends in a small scene means nothing. No one is going to tell you that your work is bad to your face and risk being ostracised. Seek the widest audience for your work, if that’s what you want, then ask yourself why things are or aren’t working. -John Allison, “A Manifesto for UK Indie Comics in 2010“
John Allison has a short 10-point manifesto to aspiring webcomic authors in the UK, but it might as well be aimed at freelance photographers. It’s a lot of straight talk about why clinging on to past ways will not work going forward. Works well as a companion piece to Chip Litherland’s Open Letter to Newspaper Photographers that we wrote about yesterday.
One of my favorites, Roger Ballen talks about his work and its underlying philosophy while walking around his exhibition at the 17th Biennale of Sydney earlier this year. It’s a little slow-moving at first, but offers an interesting look at why he photographs what he does in the way that he does. While you’re in the mood, check out a music video for Die Antwoord directed by Ballen.
duckrabbit’s at it again. After the Twitter/Morel/Visa flap, Visa’s JF Leroy responded to some of duckrabbit’s allegations and questions. A valuable, and much-needed discussion on the focus of Visa and its usefulness (and, by extension, that of other photojournalism events and entities) has arisen. Leroy, director of Visa Pour l’Image, is listening. If Visa is indeed just a festival of shanty towns without context (as William Klein famously called it), what would you do to make Visa and other major photojournalism events and organizations relevant, engaging, and interesting? Leave your comments at duckrabbit.
Following up on our previous coverage, Marco Vernaschi let us know that the Pulitzer Center has published another post about the subject, “Uganda: Response to Critics.” The post includes both a response by Vernaschi and a note from the Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer. The response specifically addresses questions raised by A Developing Story and Vigilante Journalist and includes a link to an interview with a Ugandan lawyer about the inadequate police response to the murder of Margaret Babirye Nankya, as well as a video of Vernaschi’s interview with the girl’s mother. Of specific note, also, is Vernaschi’s statement about removing another photo from the project, this one of a child’s coffin. Three bodies were exhumed in a separate case and this coffin was one of the exhumed bodies.