Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cutting through indifference

First an update of the site building project: things are going well, if we wanted to could be launched in two months, However, there's no need to hurry and right now me and Mr X are gathering more ideas and trying to find the balance between a fully screened site and an on-line gallery that gives members more freedom to present their works. One thing I never liked about 1x was that one couldn't show what he wanted, instead 1x showed what they found most popular. A huge difference.

Anyway, right now I want to record some thoughts I wanted to clear for a long time. It's about documentary and portrait photography. More accurately, two things: how to photograph people in misery without exploiting them and becoming demagogue, and how to make such a photo work.

As a starter, here's one I took of charming little Sapuna in Nakho, Northern India.

It's a decent photo IMO but something is missing. She looks stern beyond her years and her chaffed skin also tells a tale about life in a Himalayan village so remote even God needs a geo-tag to find it. But no self-respecting photographer (and on my better days I claim to be one) wants to produce pictures which gain impact only from the misery of their subjects. Nobody wants to get those "OMG, what a poor-poor child" reactions. No need for condescending and a fake feeling of superiority.

The other issue is that viewers are smart. More often than not they refuse being manipulated by a photograph appealing to their social conscience and compassion. Too many images of this kind; maybe we are not cynics after all just saturated.
Compassion is the keyword - getting connected with the subject. How to achieve this? What technique or detail could get past sobriety, the very understandable self-defence of "oh no, I'm bored of photos of poor and sick people" and so on?

Looking at a photo by my friend Zoltan Huszti, whose cheerful character doesn't prevent him from an occasional dive into the deepest bowels of Bulgarian society, I got a step closer to the solution. Let's have a look at this:

We see the village fool, a retarded woman and if we look closely we can even see the lice crawling on her arms. The reaction could be: "uhm yes, life is difficult, poor woman and all." A photograph that aims very directly at our tear sacs and we don't like such direct messages.

I edited this and cloned out a little detail. Here's the original:

For me, it's that rose that makes the big difference. A little embroidery to to make her rags just a little fancy. The aim to display something beautiful like we all do. Some got Zegna ties or Prada shoes - she got that rose. In my eyes this is the detail that connects me with her: call it vanity but for me this is the eternal human longing for being beautiful. And when there is such a detail that connects, any condescending attitude gives way to compassion.

Too bad there's not always such a detail, but honest people photography has never been easy.

It reminded me to a photograph I took a decade ago.

Look at that funny duck with the sombrero. Maybe now I better understand why I framed it this way; now I would include more of that duck. Anyway, that was in 1999 and hope to see her again soon. Just like Sapuna and my favorite "model", Priyanka. I'm a cold-hearted bastard but somehow she got through to my soul.

This time next week I'll be in India again, trying to use all the good things I've learned from the pictures of Zoltan, Andre and many, many other friends.


Stathis Tzouvaras said...

GREAT series ***

jacques philippe said...

I like your comment about how the printed rose make the shot. You already have elaborated on this on an 1X critique I believe. Very inspirational. This makes me think about "what triggers the idea of a shot in our photographer's mind ?". It is essential here, because the rose belongs to serendipity (others say "luck") in a sense, as opposed to something we are looking beforehand for from the model for such an environmental portrait, with all our personal preconception and cultural background. Lot to say about this indeed... but now this makes me think how complex and difficult it is to make a good photo.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece.
I need a neurological `post it´ to stick this op the photography wall in my mind...

Not sure though if the portrait of the child need much more duck... It is there as it is and triggers the subconscious.

Willem de Vlaming

Anonymous said...

Not really on topic, but I think you might like this article I've found on the web

Traumatic stress in Photojournalism ==>


Willem de Vlaming