It was once quite fashionable amongst photojournalists to argue that ‘too much information’ about a situation, conflict, region, culture, society, subject or story could confuse and damage a photographic work. I remember at least a handful of interviews with ‘major’ photographers where they each claimed that they went into situations and stories such that they were not ‘influenced’ by readings and open to the experiences and inspirations from actual experience. I always felt that this was yet another weak attempt to veil what can only be described as intellectual laziness behind the obfuscating language of ‘the creative process’. It was quite obvious that the works being produced from complex socio-economic environments were riddled with simplicities, banal clichés and a frankly egregious and irresponsible disconnect from the broader social, political, economic and cultural factors that defined the nature of the ‘social pathology’ the photographers were focusing on.
All this is perhaps much too obvious to many. Yet photographers rarely quote books and research papers as the key source of influence of their work. And yet we are, as photographers, primarily if not exclusively, engaged in the process of expressing ideas, and depicting ideas through photographs. So I do find it odd that rarely do photojournalists or documentary photographers discuss the literary, non-fiction or poetic works that not only gave birth to a major photographic project, but that also defined the scope and nature of the work itself.
Just a random though this morning as I saw the latest issue of Grant Magazine which focuses on the nation of Pakistan.
I have written frequently enough about the rather shoddy and limited engagement most photographers and photojournalists have had with this nation. Here in the pages of this magazine a few of Pakistan’s young writers, artists and poets offer a vision of the country, its people and their lives that are determinedly missing from the world of photography and photojournalism. The contrast cannot be sharper and I can’t think of many other nations where the divide between how it is represented by ‘the outsider’ and how it is expressed the ‘the locals’ is greater. I have yet to meet a major photographer or photojournalists who can actually name an important Pakistani writer.
But ideas come from readings, and from an intellectual curiosity about a people and a culture. Perhaps part of the reason why so much of mainstream photography is so derivative and repetitive is because photographers prefer to mimic rather than explore. Perhaps there is a fear that a new idea, a new thought may have to be transformed into a new approach and a new eye. All this is not easy to do. But certainly there are regions which after so many decades of shallow and repetitive coverage could do well with a new approach and some new stories. In fact I have been quite pleased to see a photographer like Alixandra Fazzina attempting to do just this and immersing herself into Pakistani families and communities to try to return with a different angle on the lives and concerns of the people of this country. But I can’t think of any others.
New readings. New ideas. I think its time to get rid of this assumption that knowing more results in producing less.
A new project idea emerged after even a brief reading of Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. You go figure how that happened!
But ideas can come from many sources and if there is a dearth of new ideas and interesting works being produced today then perhaps it is because we are just not reading enough. This is of course not some highbrow arrogance at work here, but it would seem quite obvious to me that to explore issues in a new way we as photographers would turn to works, research, insights and creativity that can inspire our own. And it would allow us to stop repeating meaningless and ahistorical statements when confronted with the world we live in today and offer genuine insights and information about their reasons and possible solutions.
I think it was photographer Jonas Bendikson who recently argued that with the advent of sophisticated digital cameras most anyone can make nice photographers and that the challenge now was to see who could come up with the best ideas. It seems to me that the ideas are all out there, but that the difference is going to be determined by who reads more.