What photographs tell us

“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.

Worth a Look: Joerg Colberg interviews Nadav Kander

Joerg Colberg has posted another terrific interview with an interesting photographer in Conscientious Extended, this time “A Conversation with Nadav Kander”. Colberg previously wrote a book review about Kander’s project “Yangtze: The Long River”. There are many interesting ideas and questions brought up but I thought this reply was relevant to reprint here:

JC: I was gonna ask you something that’s related a little bit to something you said earlier. There are photojournalism and documentary photography, and we always think of those as very different from what artists do. I’ve always thought that a book like the one you did in a certain way is documentary. It’s just a different kind of documentary. Even though it is art it also informs us about a place.

NK: I think when you photograph new lands or new views with the clarity of a camera it always has a layer of documentary in it. But I think the intention of an artist needs to be away from documentary for it to fit into the art context. For it to fit into an art context it needs to reference or react to other art. I think it needs to sit well or change the direction of the mainstream. I think when you go and just document that isn’t one’s intention. That’s the main thing, the intention.

But of course, by photographing China with the clarity of the lens it of course becomes a sociological document, even though that wasn’t the intention. The intention was much more to make photographs the way I make them, which is to really go on automatic and to go with one’s feelings and let the humanness of the person making the work clearly show.

We’ve previously posted about Kander’s Yangtze Project, with a link to a ten minute video presentation of the work that is really worth a watch. The project also won the Prix Pictet in 2009.

Worth a Look: “A Theme With Variations”

Joerg Colberg has a very interesting and probing post titled “A Theme With Variations”. It deals with, possibly, the changing nature of both war and fine-art photography, and/or their intersections. Well worth a read and the thought.

The post stems from a series of three photographs (posted by 2point8), starting with Nick Ut’s famous image from the Vietnam War following a napalm attack. Then there are two variations, one removing the Vietnamese victims and the other removing all of the humans from the image. Colberg has some interesting theories about how this parallels changes in photography itself. And points to a thought-provoking quote from Susie Linfield (posted on Colin Pantall’s blog): “…I don’t urge naïve acceptance or cynical rejection of photos of political violence; the book makes a plea for us to use photographs of atrocity as starting-points to engage with very complicated histories and very specific political crises.”

Read the post and be sure to check out the entire series “Fatescapes” by Pavel Smejkal on the Critical Mass 2010 website. (also of note: A Photo Student just wrote about another series by Smejkal which is very odd: photoshopped faces of celebrities on photos from the Holocaust)