Reflexivity, authorship and a sense of place

Compare and contrast the strategies that the photographers discussed in this project adopt in conveying a sense of local identity. Do you think this work is easier or harder if you come from the place that you’re documenting? Can you find any evidence for the view that ‘the same geographical space can be different places at the same time’?

The photographers introduced in this section are united by a personal and subjective approach to the places they photograph which makes the work less about the places themselves and more about the effect these places have on the photographer’s psyche. Quoted in the course notes, Allan Sekula asserts that this self-expressive quality means the work transcends its reference to the world, becoming art rather than documentary. This acknowledged and intentional subjective view of the world is referred to as reflexivity – a term originating from the social sciences and acknowledging that the cultural background, preconceptions, values and opinions of the researcher affect the way they interpret the data they collect.

Alex Webb:

Istanbul: A City of 100 names (2004):

This project is the culmination of seven years engagement with the city of Istanbul by Alex Webb. In the notes accompanying the book for the series, Webb describes being compelled to photograph Istanbul as it is a borderland between Asian, European, Islamic, secular, ancient and modern. The uniquely Turkish notion of ‘huzun’ is referenced – a “note of melancholy that seems to suffuse the streets of the city.”

(Link to A city of 100 names on Magnum site)

Under A Grudging Sun (1989):

Two year documentation of the period of Haiti’s history between the departure of “Baby Doc” Duvalier to the ascension of Manigat in 1988. The photographs document the initial excitement and enthusiasm which turned to chaos and violence. I find little of the supposed excitement in these images, although the onset of violence appears menacingly throughout the series.

(Link to Haiti images on Magnum site)

Webb talks about working in an intuitive way, taking photographs as a response to events around him without full, rational comprehension – something that often does not emerge until the editing process: “Photography like mine is an exploration – visually, physically, emotionally and psychologically.” (Boot, 2004: 474) Rather than photographers Webb mentions magical realist authors such as Gabriel García Márquez as inspiration which is a reference that makes sense looking at his work which seems full of beauty, poetry and enigma. He trys to limit his research before going on assignment to learning a few basic facts believing that too much knowledge can lead to photographs that seek to illustrate rather than a genuine visual response.

Webb’s photographic style uses deeply saturated colour, heavy contrast and shadows and often demonstrates complex, dynamic and energetic compositions. This image, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1986 is a case in point, full of complexity, detail and tension – the returned gaze of the two men contrasts strongly with the broad smile of the young girl leaving the frame on the right, that she is blurred through movement and about to leave the scene seems significant. Likewise this image from Istanbul: City of 100 Names, 2001 appears to encapsulate the apparently contradictory nature of Istanbul as a city both modern and traditional, recognisable and yet foreign – this is demonstrated by the two women in the centre of the frame – it appears significant that it is the traditionally dressed older woman who returns our gaze while the younger woman in jeans strides away from us.

Webb’s photographs are enigmatic and contradictory – they show an affinity with the places photographed and yet are an outsiders view, they are full of detail and yet meaning is opaque and complex. The key success of his approach and style for me is that those photographed are not shown in a simplistic way or as ‘other’ – I find myself seeing similarities and differences but ultimately feel I am able to identify on a human level with what is shown – there are often more questions than answers in the images which suggests a recognition that a photograph can never be a definitive representation of reality.

Jens Olof LastheinMeanwhile across the mountain:

Lasthein’s series, ‘Meanwhile across the mountain’, about the people of Abkhazia in the Southern Caucasus is a complex insight into an area trapped between the cold war years and hope of a happier future. The political situation of the area, officially recognised as part of Georgia, means inhabitants feel cut off from the rest of the world – industrial and tourist areas which thrived under the Soviet Union are brought to a standstill, trapped between despair and hope for a better future.

Lathstein, who is of Swedish nationality and was brought up in Denmark, admittedly brings a western perspective. However, his continued visits to the area are driven by curiosity and a feeling of resonance – something that is essential to sustain his interest in the long periods he spends on project (‘Meanwhile across the mountain’ took six years.) His approach to photographing is intuitive with deliberations over selections being left to the editing process and his focus is the complexity he sees in everyday life. He sees being an outsider as the success to being able to capture this – what the locals take for granted he is able to focus attention on. His working condition is contradictory, a tension that he believes is the success of the work. He is both immersed, feeling at home and driven by the desire to challenge western misunderstandings about the east which lead to presentations of these areas as another world that is unreachable and unfathomable, serving “the same need as going to the zoo.” (McLaren, 2017) Not speaking the Caucasian languages and limited Russian which makes him feel like he is both at home and a stranger – this major difficulty in communicating in this area makes me question the validity of Lathstein’s assertion that he is immersed.

The immediate thing that strikes about Lathstein’s work is his use of the panoramic format which allows a wide angle of view that is both intimate and disorientating. This allows him to stand in the middle of a situation, get everything in the frame and combine several, sometimes contradictory, elements in one image. The use of this particular format means that his work is the antithesis of the ‘smash and grab’ approach to street photography – there can be no doubt what he is doing and he spends time getting to know his subjects, which paradoxically, he often finds results in unpredictable situations occurring which he could never have previsualised.

Marco van DuyvendijkMongolia (2006):

Van Duyvendijk, who trained as a psychologist before becoming a photographer, was commissioned by the Mongolian Consulate to catalogue the nations shifting identity. ‘Mongolia’ (2006) is the culmination of this and appears to be an attempt to take a snapshot of Mongolian life at this particular time which is seemingly seen as significant to the Mongolian people themselves given the commission and possibly also driven by a desire to show a broader view of the country that does not solely rely on clichéd images of barren land and horses evoking barbarism and Genghis Khan. That does not mean these sort of images are not included, viewed as a whole the series shows Mongolia as a complicated place built on the conflicting legacies of Buddhism and communism and affected by the encroachment of western materialism. The aesthetic of the images is warm with a soft yellow and brown palette prevailing. There is a sense of stillness with the majority of portraits self consciously posed and far removed from a candid, street photography style. In his review of the work, James Morrison (2006) states he finds the pictures clinical and detached which is not a view I share – I see a warmth, if there is any stilted elements this could be because the subjects often seem slightly nervous, but I find this ultimately endearing. The care and consideration in the work shows a respect to both the people photographed and a commitment to the brief by van Duyvendijk in my view.

Philip CheungWest Bank Project:

Cheung - West Bank

Cheung’s work in the West Bank is an attempt to challenge the stereotypical violent images of this area and portray daily lives in a way that provides understanding of the place and enables identification of the people who live there. I have struggled to find much more about Cheung’s West Bank project apart from what is presented in the course notes, there are only seven images from the series on his website. These are captioned with ‘M Magazine’ which I assume is the weekend magazine of Le Monde and suggests the work is more traditional reportage assignment than the extended stories that I have looked at so far. This is certainly the impression I have looking at the images on the website which seem illustrative of an editorial article rather than a photo essay in themselves and there is not enough to counteract the negative portrayals of the West Bank that Cheung is supposed to be attempting to address. A picture of a group of Palestinian women on a swing ride does stand out however as both aesthetically interesting, unexpected and joyful.

David Goldblatt – Intersections:

Goldblatt has photographed the complex socio-ethnic issues faced in his native country of South Africa for over 50 years, developing his practice from a traditional B&W style to a modern colour vision. Intersections’ (1999-2011) is the first personal project he has made in colour and developed from a complicated concept where Goldblatt set himself the restriction of only photographing within 500 metres of each if the 122 points of intersection of a whole degree of latitude and a whole degree of longitude within the borders of South Africa. A combination of often finding little of interest to photograph at these points and realisation he was becoming a slave to his own rigid concept saw the project develop into an exploration of the idea of intersections to people, values and land in post-apartheid South Africa. The work is separated into four headings – landscapes, in the time of Aids, Memorials, and, Municipal People.

I have some knowledge of Goldblatt’s earlier black and white work and it is frustrating that I have not been able to find out much more information about ‘Intersections’ as it seems like a fascinating series and exploration of South Africa following apartheid. The images I have looked at are very clinical, measured and detached – this appears to be a consistent strategy of Goldblatt who has always tried to show the complexities of life rather than focus on a sensational portrayal of South Africa. Interestingly, although he has lived in South Africa all of his adult life, Goldblatt still sees himself as an outsider as his Lithuanian Jewish family settled there to escape religious persecution.

Mikhael SubotzkyBeaufort West:

‘Beaufort West’ is a body of work by Subotzky exploring South Africa’s issues with crime, punishment and social injustice. The title refers to the place Beaufort West, a South African province with a prison in the middle of a traffic circle on it’s outskirts. South Africa’s longest highway slices through Beaufort West and several million cars pass through each year. The author of the afterword to Subotzky’s photobook, Jonny Steinberg, describes travelling through the area frequently, yet only recognising Beaufort West as a place until he looked at Subotzky’s images – something that was a “scruffy, ugly interruption” became something “instantly recognisable.” The social problems of the area are described as being typical of South African rural areas that have now become repositories for “people and things the cities cannot contain…increasingly inhabited only by the young, the old, and those who haven’t made it elsewhere.” It was the spectacle of the prison in the traffic circle that initially caught Subotzky’s eye and drew him to photograph the area. He found Beaufort West

represented something that he always knew and yet had never seen about rural poverty in South Africa and the photographs he took of the inhabitants of the area seemed to possess a sense of theatre. There is certainly a dramatic, surreal nature to many images, for example, a child on a rubbish heap wearing a Spiderman mask (Samuel (Standing), Vaalkoppies (Beaufort West Rubbish Dump), 2006) and a prisoner wearing orange overalls relaxing against an idyllic painted landscape scene. (Jaco, Beaufort West Prison, 2006)

I am drawn to Subotzky’s work in both style and content, it is not an insiders view of the community at Beaufort West but the fact he is South African seems to give him permission to approach this subject. I find the series shows a world that is both completely alien and also identifiable, a paradox that from reading Steinberg’s afterword to the photobook is intentional.

Conclusion:

At the end of this research project I find my opinion little changed about the whether the strength of a work is increased if a photographer comes from the area they are documenting. Each of the practitioners here are united by a compulsion to record and this is driven by their personal interest in people generally – each appears to have an inquisitive approach and respect that unifies their approach. Each of the photographers main concernis to capture both the spirit of the place and the people who occupy it through their work. This question has led me to a concern I have about how I photograph my own area and my instinct to focus on the run down and derelict aspects of it. Could this be because I inherently feel this way, or is it simply easier to be cynical than complimentary? This is something I am trying to explore as I work towards assignment 3 and find strategies to challenge this. This thought would suggest that the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this project is that the same geographical space can be different places at the same time – this notion is supported by my personal feelings and the photographers here are unified by the aim of showing the places they have photographed as complex and multi-layered and conscious of avoiding simplistic and straightforward representations.

Bibliography:

Boot, C. (ed.) (2004) Magnum Stories. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Howarth, S. and McLaren S. (2011) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Lardinois, B. (2007) Magnum Magnum. London: Thames and Hudson.

Lens Culture (2017) Meanwhile across the mountain: interview with Jens Olof Lasthein. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/jens-olof-lasthein-meanwhile-across-the-mountain [accessed 10th April 2018]

McLaren, S. (2017) Book: Meanwhile across the mountain by Jens Olof Lasthein. British Journal of Photography, July 2017. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/07/jens-olaf-lasthein/ [accessed 10th April 2018]

Morrison, J. (2006) Mongolia by Marco van Duyvendijk review. Foto8. Available at: http://www.foto8.com/reviews/V4N4/monglia.html [accessed 10th April 2018]

Steinberg, J. (2008) Afterword the Beaufort West book. Available at: http://www.subotzkystudio.com/works/beaufort-west-text/ [accessed 10th April 2018]

Webb, A and R. N. (2014) On street photography and the poetic image. New York: Aperture Foundation.

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