Friday, June 5, 2015

Documenting Daily Life with your Camera: Why is it Important?

A Special Love (Dubbo Australia December 2014)

Recently I came across the term concerned photography. Cornell Capa, the great photojournalist coined the phrase, which for him described “work committed to contributing to or understanding [of] humanity’s well being”.

What interested me at first was the idea that this very much coincided with one of the driving forces behind my own work. So, I dug a little deeper. Looking up the term in Wikipedia I discovered that, according to their writer:

Social documentary photography or concerned photography is the recording of humans in their natural condition with a camera, it is a form of documentary photography.

Ah, I saw, the two terms are interchangeable. So, off I went to the entry on Documentary Photography:

Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle both significant and historical events and everyday life. It is typically covered in professional photojournalism or real life reportage, but it may also be an amateur, artistic, or academic pursuit. The photographer attempts to produce truthful, objective, and usually candid photography of a particular subject, most often pictures of people.

And, without wanting to enter the endless and tedious debates on what is and what isn’t street photography, much of what I discovered in my little research resonated with my own thinking and more or less described how I define my street photography. In other words, and to again risk complete and permanent ostracism from the street photography community, for me my street photography is social documentary and vice versa. I know that many street photographers claim their work is not documentary, and while for many it may be true, for others I think they are mistaken. Oops, sorry. Not going down that road or street (get it? not going down that street? lol)

There are many extraordinary social documentary photographers today, and from the past, who have highlighted many important social issues, injustices, wars, poverty, famine. A lot of what we (or should I just speak for myself here?) know of the world and the history of the last century has come from seeing the work of these gifted and dedicated people. People like Capa himself, Mary Ellen Mark W.Eugene Smith, and a dozen others spring to mind.

You will have heard that currently fashionable idea that “these days everyone is a photographer”. Of course it is total and absolute nonsense. Have you watched the promotional videos put out by camera manufacturers? You know, the ones in which this or that camera turns the user into an intrepid high risk taking adventurer, smooth talking travel “shooter” in mystical and exotic lands far away, or legend in the making photojournalist documenting poverty in dusty war torn places (while still maintaining a pristine hairstyle, spotless safari type outfit and brand new dustless camera gear).  Like most advertising, it is sad, cynical and manipulative rubbish peddling “things” to people who they must think are too stupid to know better.

Despite this myth making (which it has to be said does sell heaps of cameras), most of us are either not able, are unwilling, or simply don’t have the skills, courage, opportunity or desire to pursue such lives. Most of us live what might be best described as ordinary lives.

But, of course, you know what I have to say about this already I think. There are no ordinary lives, nor are there any ordinary people. While I hope there will always be people willing to bear witness to and document the injustices and horrors in our world in the attempt to help correct them, or at least bring them to the attention of the rest of us so we can no longer say “but we didn’t know”), the reality is that for most of us it is the life around us at this very moment that is, well, reality. It is the people we witness in our daily lives, as we go about our business (whatever that may be) that are “humans in their natural condition”. And it is the photographing of those lives, moments in those lives, that constitutes social documentary photography, as noted in the definition above.

And it is by documenting the so-called ordinary that we may contribute to the work being done by those “big names” we love and admire and sometimes wish we could emulate. Well, we can emulate them. Look around you, see the people around you. Don’t look for the “pleasing composition” or the “interesting shadows”. Don’t become obsessed by the “tonal range” or whatever. Look at the people. Realize that at that very moment you have an opportunity to record the significant and the seemingly not so significant, moments that in reality are all important and worthy of our attention.

(DISCLAIMER: I’m not saying don’t learn and apply technical skills. I’ve written before that the documenting of the lives of people requires us to the best job we can with our camera equipment (and editing tools). It’s about intention, about priorities. It's about knowing the tech stuff but allowing it to work on its own accord while you focus on the real point of photography.

Because we see our own lives as pretty ordinary and often dull and full of what we think of as meaningless routine, we tend to see the lives of those around us in the same way. It’s only when we look further afield that we think that life "over there" is different, more exciting, more interesting. But, it’s not true. Every moment we witness with (or without come to think of it) our camera is unique. It’s never going to happen again. Ever or anywhere. Each photo we make has the potential to become a document that just might affect someone somewhere, elicit an emotional response, even lead to change. It might just be a small change in the life of that one viewer, but you’ve got to start somewhere


I do know quite a few people personally who are fine social documentary photographers of the "everyday". Here are just two who I think meet the criteria for being concerned photographers. Follow the links and it might just set you on a wonderful journey of discovery. I hope to feature these special artists and others in posts to come

Judith Rodriguez is a compassionate photographer from Argentina whose work is full of humanity. Judith's photos just ooze truth and love. I'm proud to call her friend.

Doug Berryhill is an American photographer whose work in documenting his hometown is extraordinary and will be seen as a valuable (and an especially fine) historical archive. Doug knows his town, cares for and about its people. All round good guy in my not so humble opinion.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome any comments, questions, suggestions. The floor is yours! Sharing is a huge part of my philosophy, so please, share your thoughts with us