Thursday, May 16, 2013

Social Documentary Photography: It Can Be Pretty?

For those of you who don't know, I am in Lisbon in Portugal right now. We've been here two weeks, and will be here for another four. At least. I say 'at least' because it is a city that already I know is going to be very difficult to leave. But, in keeping with my new resolution to 'live in the moment' more, I categorically refuse to think that far ahead.

Anyway, enough about that. Well, actually it's related to what I wanted to talk about in this post. You see, one of the BIG reasons I wanted to come to this city is that it is a street photographer's paradise. Friendly open people, life, vitality, picturesque buildings as backdrops. You name it, this place has got it! But, so far I've only been out with my camera once. Been sick you see. Another story! And that once I just got a couple of images of buildings in the Alfama district where we were staying (we've moved now. Yet another story! Hell, I love travelling!).
So, before I get started, here are the two images.

Alfama Houses

Love in a Lisbon Lane

Now, I am a Social Documentary and Street Photographer. Of course both of these images are made on the street, but they wouldn't meet the definition many would give for being street photographs. No people, you see. But, still they are street in that they are of the street and tell us something of the moment in time that they were made, especially the second one with the "graffiti" love heart.

I'm not even going to begin to list here all the various ways that Documentary Photography is defined. Here is my definition, well what I use as my guide when working. 
Documentary Photography seeks to produce a visual record (a photograph) of a moment in time, a place, an event, a person (or people) in such a way that a viewer will be exposed to something of the life, culture and environment of that time, place, event or person and hopefully will be moved to react in some way or at the very least have their lives impacted in some way by the viewing of the image. Documentary Photography will, by definition and because of its nature, always provide only a partial and purely subjective view which could be described as a "comment" by the photographer on the time, place, event or people depicted in the images produced.
I guess that's not overly articulate but it does sum up what I try to do with my work. The question here, however, is: do these two rather touristy and "pretty" photos fit with this definition? Are these two images documentary photography?

Both are, like all photographs, records of a moment in time. They're pretty ordinary moments in both cases, but moments nonetheless. And I think both images tell us something of the way the people live and something of the physical and cultural environment. The first gives us the impression of a pretty "village" type house with flowers and laundry hanging. It evokes a sense of place immediately.

The second photograph with its locked metal door, bars on the window and crudely drawn graffiti, also evokes a sense of place, but this time of a more urban environment. Now, what adds I think to the documentary value of these two images is that, although superficially appearing to be very different, are actually of buildings no more than two hundred metres apart. Alfama is famed as a "village in a city" with all that this appellation suggests: quaint houses, with roses at the door, and at the other extreme, very urban lanes and graffiti!

How a viewer reacts to either or both of these photographs is going to be very hard to measure: we are all unique and our reactions will be determined by all kind of factors. And any impact the images have on a viewer will likewise depend on who they are and what they bring to the experience of viewing.

I will admit that I didn't really have my documentary photographer hat on when I made these images. I was just sort of wandering around and playing tourist (most unusual for me I can assure you!). So, I did not have an intention when making these photos of impacting anyone or making any kind of comment when I made these images. 

Once I started thinking about it however, I thought, yes, this is documentary photography. I'm not preteding they are great photos by any means, but I think they do make a statement about the place, the time, the poeple who live in the places in the images, and they have the potential at least to have an impact on the viewer. I've used the word "pretty" a few times. What's wrong with pretty? Nothing! If a viewer looks at these images and thinks one or them of them is pretty, or stark or scary or interesting in some way, then they succeed as documentary photographs.

DISCLAIMER: As mentioned, I had no intention of making documentary photographs of the scenes depicted in these photos. It is not my "usual" subject matter, nor to I regard it as an especially serious  subject for my work. This, however, does not exclude it as being a study of value, of interest or as being potentially influential in some way on a viewer. Of course it has to be added that as a subject for documentary photography the living environments of people everywhere is a rich area for exploration and for recording in our fast changing world.

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