I am always intrigued by images that apply the aesthetics and tools of commercial photography to subjects in the social sphere. The better-known images along these lines are those of Richard Avedon who dragged his huge large format view camera and a team of assistants across the American West [Google images] to record oil workers, farmers, drifters, etc., who worked and lived at the margins of that part of the United States.
Irving Penn also traveled to Dahomey (Benin today) in 1967 on an assignment for Vogue magazine to shoot landscapes, village scenes, Legba shrines and portraits in that country. As highlighted in the quote below, with his portraits his aim was not to faithfully record subjects as he found them but to insert himself and his vision in the picture-making process.
I was excited at the prospect of a Dahomey trip, but it was clear that in the native village it was going to be near impossible to find buildings in which to set up daylight studios. It was at this point that I considered for the first time a practical way of constructing a portable studio — demountable, sufficiently simple to be put up by unskilled labor ….
The young people of the village were lined up outside. I walked among them and chose those I wanted to photograph, roughly composing each picture in my mind as I went.
Irving Penn from “Worlds in a Small Room”, 1974 excerpted from the book “Photographs of Dahomey”.
More recently there is the work of two photographers* (Ken Hermann and JoeyL), who hauled studio strobes and medium format digital cameras to the Omo Valley in the Horn of Africa like Penn before them. In various parts of his site JoeyL describes his process from shooting in Ethiopia to returning there to present prints to the subjects of his images to hosting an exhibition of his prints in Los Angeles.
Attending this kind of image-making (as opposed to image taking) is often the question of manipulation and artifice. The problem is that this kind of work occupies the in-between space between reality and fiction. The commercial photographer’s work is thought to use the artifice of commerce including removing the subjects from their natural environment and putting them in the controlled environment of the photographer’s studio, subject to his/her agenda. This is a very subjective process, very much driven by the photographer’s goal, whether it is to portray beauty and dignity in their subjects or otherness and exoticness (grotesqueness?). This is a process quite separate from the stated goal of the documentary/news photographer who records images as a neutral witness taking unaltered pictures of what he/she finds. Given this lofty goal, the images of a commercial photographer in this realm get the side eye as not rising to this level of “honesty”. This process is especially problematic here in Africa where most of the widely seen image-making is by outsiders many of whom may be just looking for new and interesting stuff to take pictures of.
As I learn to appreciate images more, I believe there is no elemental/objective truth to be found in a photograph. There is only the image itself and the decisions the photographer took to make the image, good, bad or indifferent, subjective or objective. In this view, there is room for me to see reportage on the reality of life in the Horn of Africa on a news web site and a gallery presentation of the people who live in this harsh, arid and thus violence-prone but stunningly beautiful place.
*It is these images that inspired me to write this post, trying to work out my reaction to them.