Examination of the issues raised when documentary photographers represent the alienated margins of our society despite an openly dismissive and hostile critical environment. Examines the works of photographers working in Australia who use various strategies and methodologies to document the margins. Explores the difference between photojournalism and documentary.
To me the work I do is a means of interpreting unsettling truths, of bearing witness, and of sounding an alarm. The beauty of formal representation both carries an affirmation of life and subversively brings us face to face with news from our besieged world.
American Documentary Photographer
A deceptively simple question:
Why do some Documentary photographers persist with representations of the alienated margins of society despite an openly dismissive and hostile critical environment?
It's hard to begin teasing out the threads of this issue without some background discussion of that hostility. However, I am reluctant to go too far in that direction because as both a practitioner and a teacher of Documentary photography, I am tired of having to defend the form against a series of false premises that seem almost willfully (and woefully) uninformed.
Documentary photographers have for at least the last several decades, moved beyond the kind of ethnographic examination of the exotically dispossessed that is still seen by critics as the defining preoccupation of the form.
My own work is positioned nowhere near the margins. I photograph the white bread middle class world that I inhabit. I find more than enough material to engage me in the shabby vulgarity of the class and race to which I belong. I am more than a little wary of the idea that I have a vital and necessary contribution to make to the depiction of other cultures or the suffering of the disenfranchised.
It shouldn't be any wonder then, that I have trouble respecting the judgment of critics who continue to condemn the entire genre of documentary photography on the basis of its supposed naive quest for Objective Truth and its exploitative focus on 'the other'. How is it possible to be so apparently blind to the enormous amount of documentary work that takes the rejection of these clichés as a given?
This has indeed been a fundamental starting point for several generations of documentary photographers who have developed since the era that peaked and died with Steichen's mammoth Family of Man schmaltz-fest over forty years ago.
This is not to suggest that prurient ethnographic Freakshow photography has disappeared. A quick perusal of the colour supplements of the weekend broadsheet newspapers will reveal plenty of facile photo-reportage laden with shock, whimsy, pity and all the other marketable titillations.
Helen Frajman runs M.33, a Melbourne based photo agency to which I belong. In her 1997 essay, 'The Baby and the Bathwater', she summarises the kind of fatuous work that has muddied the waters for us all.
We stare at closed, dull spaces. There is no room to move...
Occasionally well intentioned, sadly misguided attempts to tell 'The Truth', more usually trite, slick, narcotic and toxic, these images come from a variety of sources and inspirations.
Taking up much of the foreground are the endless variations on a theme of the "exotic" - the camera's demand for the 'other' taken to absurd extremes. Hence the endless travel type stories of people from foreign cultures surrounded by their graphically arresting and sumptuous paraphernalia performing their mysterious cultural rites.
Hence too the local exotics - the marginal figures - the tattooed, the indigenous, the pierced, the cross dressers, the substance abusers, the wearers of prosthetics, collectors of Gilligan's Island memorabilia and, of course, the very poor, the very mad, the very naughty.
Despite the existence of this phenomenon within some documentary practice there is still an enormous amount within the genre which is challenging and perceptive.
Although I choose to restrict myself to photographing that which is familiar to me, I still find much to admire in the work of many photographers who document experiences foreign to my own. The main objective of this article is to look at the images of some photographic artists working in Australia who manage this vexed task of documenting the margins with a variety of strategies and methodologies.
Let us pause briefly to carve out a crude working definition of documentary photography in order to appreciate its nuances. Documentary is photographic art that draws on 'the real world' for its subject matter. This notion of drawing on 'the real world' does not require any special claim to authenticity.
The use of an apparently 'actual' environment (over, say, an obviously constructed studio set), does carry a kind of authenticity but it is of course a faux one. It is a mere verisimilitude. All photography is abstraction to a greater or lesser degree but work at the documentary end of the spectrum holds strongly to its perceived connection with reality. This tension between (implied) authenticity and abstraction is a fabulously rich area of ambiguity, very much at the heart of a lot of documentary work.
Documentary is related to, and is often mistaken for, photojournalism. The area between them is a grey one. They share a lot of common ground but there are some important differences. Photojournalism tends to be about specifics - who, what, when, where. Documentary is more concerned with universals. It may record particular situations or events but its purpose is more a comment on resonant themes, ideas or emotions than the factual particulars of the hard news photography at the other side of this dichotomy.
Documentary photography concerns itself with plural truths rather than evidential or prescriptive Truth. Of course in an area of practice as broad as this there are a wide range of motivations and methodologies and nowhere more so than in the vexed area under discussion here - photography at the margins. It is worth having another look at the quote from Richard Misrach which prefaces this article.
The quote is taken from an interview between Misrach and Melissa Harris in Misrach's book Violent Legacies: Three Desert Cantos. This book is part of a massive project that the photographer has undertaken to document the collision between humankind and nature.
Misrach has chosen to focus on the desiccated landscapes of the American West because these landforms starkly record and display the scars of human impact. This is photography of, and at, the margins but it is the landscape itself that is marginalised not the missing humans whose artifacts and activities litter the frame. This is 'the fringes' as physical space rather than as a state of mind.
Melissa Harris: Richard your photographs are visually very seductive. Yet your subjects are death, contamination, and violence. Are you perhaps aestheticizing the horrific, and thus exploiting it?
Richard Misrach: Probably the strongest criticism levelled at my work is that I am making 'poetry of the Holocaust'. But I've come to believe that beauty can be a very powerful conveyor of difficult ideas. It engages people when they might otherwise look away... To me, the work I do is a means of interpreting unsettling truths, of bearing witness, and of sounding an alarm.
Young Sydney photographer, Liz Ham also has an agenda but it's a more modest one. Her black and white images are ostensibly just a quiet record of her circle of friends. They are documented in all the simple, mundane rituals of urban life - shopping at supermarkets, making toast, fulfilling their work commitments. The act of presenting these apparently normal activities carries a social/political edge however because the young people that populate Liz Ham's world have many of the tribal markings of fringe dwellers. These are the pierced ones, the dreadlocked, barefooted, tattooed, mohawked, Goth, Punk, Hippy louche that cause apoplectic hysteria from the radio talkback demagogues that give voice to the inner fears of Howard's "comfortable, more relaxed Australia".
Liz Ham is clearly aware that these people are seen as outsiders but her recording of their day to day activities shows us they are not demonic freaks. They have chosen to move in and out of the mainstream. Ham's work is almost disingenuous in the way it presents the ordinariness of these lives so prosaically that we are forced to ask ourselves why we might be surprised by it. Clearly, as in the case of Liz Ham's work, a documentary photographer has special insight and, importantly, special access when they are photographing that to which they belong.
This is also the strategy of Japanese-born Cherry Hiromi who is involved in photographing gay and lesbian couples in her adopted home of Sydney. The image reproduced here is from her series Intimacies which is to be included in a group show at Stills Gallery Paddington during next year's Mardi Gras. Again, like Ham's work, Hiromi has no interest in exaggerating the marginalised status of this couple. They, like Hiromi, are literally foreigners (Swiss backpackers in Australia to study English) but the quality that drew the photographer to them was inclusive in nature, not exclusive. Their outsider status only serves as background to the closeness of the relationship that the photographer has recorded. The work is presented in a series of couplets each consisting of a colour double-portrait of the women and a black & white image recording details of their physical space (favourite books, shoes, hostel etc) The prints are small requiring the viewer to approach closely. The scale of the work reflects the title and subject of the piece. This work is a depiction of intimacy that has resonances far beyond the potentially lurid specifics of backpacking-Swiss-lesbians in Sydney.
I hope my enthusiasm for the work of photographers who document their own surroundings does not seem to disallow the work of others who do not restrict themselves in this way. I believe excursions into the unfamiliar territory involve a high degree of difficulty in avoiding the excesses of superficiality and tendentiousness. It can be managed however, particularly if the subject of the images is more the resonances than the factual particulars.
Melbourne based photographer Max Creasy was born in Norway. His life is outwardly, at least, very different from the ennui-heavy existence he has documented in Horizon 50's.
The title of this piece on teenagers living in the backwater of Ararat, Victoria is taken from their preferred brand of cheap ciggies. These individuals live on the uncomfortable margin of a depressed semi-rural small town. They also occupy the margin between childhood and an adulthood that doesn't seem to offer much. If there are parallels between Creasy's life and their rootless existence they are metaphoric.
Perhaps Creasy sees aspects of his own life as equivalents of the leftover pizza, spilled-ashtray detritus that clutter these images. There is no sense in these strangely beautiful colour images that the photographer is ridiculing or even criticising the subjects but neither is there any sense that this is a culture that he is promoting or sentimentalising.
Text is a powerful mitigator of image. Words will almost invariably lead and potentially distort meaning when they accompany photographs. Documentary photographers often have understandable reservations about the use of captions with photos, particularly when the content of the text is under the control of the editors and subeditors of news publications.
The mitigating effect of text can however be a useful tool when a photographer wants to hand some control over the process of representation back to the people being depicted. This attempt to redress the power structure that exists between photographer, subject and viewer is central to Wall of Silence - Stories of Cabramatta Street Youth. This project is a collaboration between photographer Tiet Ho and Dr Lisa Maher of the University of NSW School of Medical Education.
The project collects Tiet Ho's haunting, almost film-still like, black and white 35mm images with edited transcripts of conversations with the subjects of the images. This kind of methodology can never be a perfect redressing of the power structure. The selection of images shown and indeed the editing of the conversations is usually outside the control of the people depicted but nevertheless it does allow very different meanings to be built up as composite truths. We have as viewers more opportunities to find for ourselves signs of confirmation or opposition to the factual narrative of the images.
This strategy is taken a step further in the project Boys by Melbourne photographer, Matthew Sleeth. The text accompanying Sleeth's images has not been edited by him. It is handwritten directly onto the prints by the male prostitutes portrayed.
There are two important aspects to this method. Obviously there is one less stage separating the words of the subjects from their presentation as part of the piece. The second aspect though is the crucial one. The fact that the photograph is brought back to the subject allows them to comment on the image itself not just on the events recorded. These individuals are invited to participate in, and make a critique about, the process of their representation.
There is another motivation that lies behind some documentary practice. It is in a sense the oldest urge of all in photography almost so fundamental that we might neglect to appreciate its continuing influence. Some photographers document things because they fear they will disappear. Documentary photography is in essence, despite its fabulous subtleties and layers of meaning, an act of recording and sometimes that alone is reason enough. Melbourne photographer, Jozi Atomic has been documenting West St Kilda R.S.L., a small Victorian sub-branch that faces almost certain closure. Even the simple act of recording such a place inevitably touches upon other issues. The photographer was originally drawn to the aesthetic elements of the building; once a grand private home visibly displaying its slow physical decline under the patina of successive attempts to attract membership through half-hearted renovations. As the project progressed however, she discovered that even a forgotten corner like this is affected by larger concerns. The declining membership is not only due to the natural attrition of the aging diggers. Attendance has fallen suddenly with opening of local mega pokies establishments, part of the casino culture visited upon that state.
It would not be possible to look at the documentation of the margins in Australia without discussion of the matter in relation to the country's indigenous community. Obviously this brings up a huge raft of issues. I would like to just touch upon a few by looking at the work of three very different Australian photographers; Ricky Maynard, Sandy Edwards and Jon Rhodes.
Ricky Maynard is an indigenous photographer. The image of his included in this article is from the recent series Urban Diary. This subject could hardly be closer to Maynard. During a period of turmoil in his own life he documented a group of indigenous people who frequent a particular park in St Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne. He produced a photo essay that covered the factual realities of homelessness and substance abuse but, as might be expected of a gifted photographer working on a subject so close, the images never dwell on facile clichés of piteous victims. The second part of the project began when Maynard dealt with his own problems with alcohol by booking himself into Galiamble, a Melbourne rehabilitation centre run by members of the indigenous community. These extraordinary images record a process of repair and transformation from the nearest possible viewpoint.
Sandy Edwards has a career as a documentary photographer that goes back to the mid 1970s. She was involved (as were both Maynard and Rhodes) in the 1988 Bicentennial project After 200 Years. This was a major project in which over twenty Aboriginal and non-aboriginal photographers were sent out to document Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. Edward's project was with the Brewarrina community in NSW. Cooperation with the community was sought at every stage. Edwards surrendered control over selection of image and text and engaged in an exhaustive process with her subjects in the attempt to preserve their input into how they were represented.
In mid 1987 the community had finalised the selection of photos and text when the death of a local aboriginal man in police custody caused a flaring of old resentments and tensions. Edwards returned to Brewarrina to see whether people wanted to modify the selection of images. The community decided not to do so but added three photographs of a large demonstration that occurred during Edward's visit.
Jon Rhodes has also had a long history of work that documents aspects of indigenous culture in Australia. His recent work includes Whichaway, a series shot in the WA / NT border region. Rhodes has a fascination with form that extends well beyond the frame of his 35mm black and white images.
His installation of Whichaway in galleries involves hanging the sequential work on the walls in carefully choreographed configurations that invite and yet, at times deliberately confound the reading of the multiple narratives. Some sequences are simple sets that read from left to right or top to bottom but others involve cruciforms or blocks of sixteen images abutted.
The subject matter includes landscape but never just as background, as an empty set for action to occur within. There is no appreciable difference in approach between Rhodes' s portraiture and his landscape images. He seems almost to be trying to reconcile 'photographic seeing' with Aboriginal concepts of time and place.
There is no easy answer to why the margins of society and the denizens of those fringes continue to engage the attention of documentary photographers. It is evidently a vast arena with room for so many motivations and approaches.
Much of the work may be rubbish. The exotic 'other' will always be a source of prurient titillation that attracts sentimental, misguided and exploitative photographers, but that hardly extinguishes the validity of the whole genre of documentary photography.
What it does do however is cloud the picture and make it hard for us to appreciate the work of many talented and sophisticated artists who choose, in the words of Richard Misrach, to bear witness.