Its all about what you photograph

One of my passions is social documentary photography, that is the work that I feature on this website. I have since 2009, been the lead photography Lecturer at Idea Store Learning, in Tower Hamlets. A role, that I am giving up on the 24th of January, to return full time to photography. In my time teaching photography, one of the things that I have had numerous students struggle with, is what to make images of. Which, is partly the reason for this post. I was reading CounterPunch.org, a website that I believe is one of the few that tries to publish, the news as it should be read. The article, that I was reading is tiled Its Class, Stupid, Not Race which has got me writing this post, it made me think about what it is that we photograph. Why we do what we do. I am interested in politics because it affects how we live and I am interested in capitalism because it is how we order our financial structures, that we live within. As with fish, not seeing the water they swim within, we often do not see the structures that we live within. For me this quote by Marshall Auerback:

“In most elections, U.S. politicians of both parties pretend to be concerned about their issues, then conveniently ignore them when they reach power and implement policies from the same Washington Consensus that has dominated the past 40 years. That’s why so many Americans have simply stopped voting” is self evident and typical of so much we read on the internet. And not just specific to America either. Yet it has profound effects on how we are living as a society. If we do not have engaged citizens, how are we going to have a decent democracy. Please also remember that democracy is a way of arranging decision, making not a financial system, our financial system is capitalism and nearly every country now works with some form of capitalism.

Right now, I want to do what Andre Vltchek wants to do; “what I am longing for: to shut up, to be silent, and to listen” except I also want to see, because that is what I do as a photographer, I look and see, then I make images.

In next quote again by  Andre Vltchek from the same article, I want to substitute listen for see; “I want to listen and to understand so the course of action can be determined, so that we know where all this will lead … because this is not the end, just the beginning… of something… Because not only people in the United States, but also in Europe want something, and listening to the analysts from both parts of the world…” does not actually give us any idea of what people want, only what the analysts want to happen. I do not know what needs to happen to make our world fairer for all, I read a lot about economics theories and sociological studies about our social landscape and still am no closer to being able to answer this so I think in the end Andre’s idea of just going out and listening is as good a place as any to start. In my case I want to both listen and see. That is how I need to approach what I photograph.

I was also reading, Jörg M. Colberg’s piece on Now What? over at Conscientious, where he quite clearly sets a challenge for the photo community, to get out of their PhotoLand ghetto and engage with the real world around them and make work that speaks within to ordinary people. All of these strands I have been struggling with for a number of years, and while I still do not have any answers to them, are what has and is motivating me to move my work forward. If we do not actively look as photographers, how can we make work that reflects on the worlds we inhabit. Jörg‘s comment about seeking new ways of disseminating work and not making it for a small clique resonates with me, in a way that I have been struggling with for some time now.

If anyone would like to sit a round table discussion on this over a few drinks in a pub, so that at least I can formulate a way forward, that would be really great, if we can create a collaboration then even better, as the more heads and eyes working on this problem the better.

Photography is a powerful tool for exploring the world, as it lets you show what you see, but it needs to be used intelligently and it needs to find ways to be seen by a wider community, I suspect also that the main stream media has this problem of authenticity as people do not trust them to say what is happening as what they see and experience is different. This is why it is important to listen as a photographer.

Update since original posting Aditya Chakrabortty has a piece on the worsening situation for the middle classes. “However seductive this is as explanation, as analysis it’s off economically and it’s off politically …. It also seeks to turn a larger and wider economic process into a smaller and more trivial culture war”

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