Since late last fall I had the opportunity to view a number of portfolios by some talented college photographers. One obvious trend emerged that gave me concern, though I can’t say it’s a new trend or that I’m the first to be concerned. In fact, it’s likely been around since the advent of photo contests.
The work that I viewed from the young photojournalists deals overwhelmingly with poverty, drug addiction, homelessness and other “dire looking” issues. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with covering these issues and they should be examined, but there is a definitive line between exploitation and honest examination. In other words, the relevance of photographing the poor and destitute should be weighed against what the photographer is revealing. There has to be substance that brings to light new awareness to the topic. Example: Years ago a student of mine asked to do his final photo project on homelessness. I asked him, as I asked all of my students, to tell my what he wanted to say with his photographs (students weren’t allowed to shoot a topic until I signed off on it). When he replied that he wanted to show what it was like to be homeless, I said “no”. I challenged him to find something with more meaning and purpose, something that had not been done a million times, something that would awaken the viewers perception of homelessness. He rose to the challenge and produced a dynamic set of images chronicling the incredible bond between a homeless couple. The story was more about their intense love-hate relationship that was affected by their homelessness than it was about “just being homeless.” However, I haven’t seen much of that with the student’s work I’ve viewed. Most of it borders heavily on exploitation.
Let’s face it, it’s simple to take the easy route and spend time photographing the down and out, but if your images aren’t shedding new light or portraying your subjects in a way that helps viewers to develop a new understanding or awareness of their situation, you’re exploiting them.
And I’ve seen this with other photographers as well, though they weren’t college photographers, they were relatively young. Quite recently, in fact, there was a situation in which a couple of photographers had the opportunity to make some potentially significant images relating to the economic situation facing ordinary Americans. However, those photographers, for reasons unknown, failed to rise to the challenge of making extraordinary images from a somewhat ordinary environment, the true mark of a gifted photographer. One photographer instead decided to photograph the down and out as a means to replace the “economic” image that had been requested and expected. I can’t say for sure why this occurred, but I can say that it appears as if the easy route (eg: photographing the visually destitute) was taken as a way to produce a “compelling” image that would have been more difficult to capture had the photographer covered the required subject matter. In other words, and strictly hypothetically speaking, if a photographer is challenged with producing compelling images from a union hall which reflects the current economic situation, that photographer is going to have to work hard to capture a fleeting moment of, say, despair in the eyes of someone looking at an empty job postings board. Opting out of that situation and photographing a group of obviously chronic homeless people in a park is taking the easy route that has a higher likelihood of producing a “dramatic” image.
Wars, famines, poverty, drug abuse and the likes are all important subjects. But they are subjects that young photographers too often (in my opinion) document to make their mark. The real test of a talented photographer is to produce extraordinary images from the ordinary (ala Alex Webb, Bill Allard, etc), not vice versa. In fairness I’ll point out that one young photographer’s portfolio that I recently viewed from the same group of students had exactly what I’m talking about. She had produced a wonderful story on a small, Colorado town that had beautifully composed images executed in wonderful light that showed her ability to stroll down a typical Main street and produce extraordinary images. The story left me with a awareness and understanding for that town and it’s people.
I simply think the younger photographers looking to win contests and create a name for themselves need to have an understanding that there is a fine line between examination of a subject and exploitation of a subject. Some guidance from others will hopefully channel their energy to taking on a variety of subject matter and not just rely on the destitute to make compelling photographs.
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