Another Way of Telling (1), a collaboration between the writer John Berger and Photographer Jean Mohr, is a rich source of material on a variety of photography subjects. I looked at Mohr’s series Marcel or the Right to Choose as part of my research for assignment 2 (here) but will proceed to discuss the book in more general terms in this and other posts.
The book is divided into five sections that explore the nature of photography in parallel with documenting the lives of the peasants of the Haute Savoir, a rural and mountainous corner of France bordering both Switzerland and Italy. The appeal of the book is the combination of both the professional photographer’s and the writer and art critic’s perspective on the same subjects as well as including nearly two hundred of Mohr’s documentary photographs.
Beyond my Camera
The first section of the book combines Mohr’s photographs with his own words. He uses single photographs or short series to discuss his practice in an open and self aware manner that, apart from being an insight into the nature and processes of documentary photography, offers a model for how to discuss ones own photographs.
At the heart of Mohr’s writings is a simple thought. He recognises that a photograph is naturally ambiguous and that it is “a meeting place where the interests of the photographer, the photographed, the viewer and those who are using the photograph are often contradictory” (1 p.9).
With this thought in mind he looks at examples of his work and his interaction with subjects and viewers that display these contradictions. His ideas are unlikely to fundamentally change our view of the medium but he touches on many of the issues that confront a documentary photographer. The reaction of the Savoyard peasant who, on seeing Mohr photograph his cows, half seriously points out that he is “helping himself to my cows without having to pay a sou for them” (1 p.13) expressing, as only a blunt peasant will do, the thought that many subjects have when confronted with a camera. There is an element of theft in photography, even the words we use to describe the process hint of larceny when we take a photograph or capture an image. The wily peasant farmer puts a value on everything he owns or produces yet the photographer can take away an image of that product for free, it goes against his principles. This is not unique to the Savoyard peasant, professional footballers expect payment for their “image rights”, the men dressed as legionnaires standing outside the Colosseum in Rome make their living by being photographed and in many parts of Asia people will expect a “tip” if they have been photographed.
The most interesting point that Mohr makes about Marcel, his Savoyard herdsman, is the difference in opinion between the photographer and his subject regarding what was worth photographing . I commented on this same dichotomy between myself and the farmer I photographed for assignment 2. The next section of the course deals, in part, with insiders and outsiders so I won’t explore this too deeply here but I would argue that photographers are rarely insiders, even the dedicated hobbyist photographing their children’s birthday party, withdraws from the actual event to become an observer. In the example of Marcel the herdsman Mohr is unquestionably an outsider, he is not only an observer but is also the inexpert photographing the expert. As shown by this book Mohr has taken hundreds, probably thousands of photographs of Savoyard peasants and must have a deep understanding of their way of life but his knowledge of cows and dairy farming is negligible in comparison with the man who has spent his life as a herdsman. Mohr sees a subject and composition that achieves his aesthetic and story-telling objectives but his cropped picture of a cow’s eye fails to meet Marcel’s expectation of how a cow should be seen. In this example he shows how the photographer and the subject come to the photograph from diametrically opposed positions but Mohr is sensitive to the need to achieve his own objectives whilst leaving his subject feeling valued and includes a portrait of Marcel where the subject was given the license to manipulate his own image.
The next selection of photographs is not a coherent series, simply a collection of five pictures that he has shown to nine viewers to interpret. Each viewer brings their own context to the photographs and describes what they believe has been captured. Of course this exercise exemplifies the post-modern view described by Roland Barthes (2 p.145) as the death of the author. Barthes argues that there is a line between the before and after of a work of art; the author is the before who “thinks, suffers, lives for it” and the reader is the after who provides its future. In that particular essay Barthes is primarily talking about literature but it is an accepted principle that a photograph’s meaning changes along with its context. The examples used by Mohr highlight the ambiguity of any photograph, an ambiguity that is significantly increased when the picture is taken out of its original context. For many, perhaps most, photographs there is no consequence of any importance when this happens; Mohr’s Vietnam War demonstrator in a tree is variously interpreted as a Spanish orchard worker, a metaphor for sexuality, a symbol of spring and youth, a nature lover or a peeping tom and unless the imaginary victim of his supposed voyeurism wants to use the photograph as evidence it arguably matters little which of these readings are true. However, the factory worker which all Mohr’s viewers have interpreted as a happy worker celebrating the end of the working day or the start of the weekend was in reality making a statement regarding being ignored on racial grounds when Mohr was photographing workers at his factory. This example shows Barthes’ philosophy in action in more dangerous waters, the subject is concerned that he has been ignored because he is Turkish, the photographer has captured his image to disprove that idea and the factory could use the image to describe their happy multi-racial workforce. If Mohr, as a documentarist, wants to fix the meaning of this image he has to anchor it with a caption.
In his series of a woodcutter Mohr explores two other ideas. Firstly that the subject can negotiate the photographers approach; in this instance Mohr gains permission to photograph the forest worker only “on condition that he shows what the work is like” (1 p64). Perhaps naively I found this an interesting remark; I assume that these photographs were taken in the seventies or earlier, yet the woodcutter expresses a very contemporary concern about how he will be represented and how his image will be used. Mohr doesn’t expand upon this conversation other than to describe the pictures of a tree being felled as the photo the woodcutter dreamed of “since I began cutting down trees” (1 p.69) which suggests that it was important to him that his work was correctly represented. Last week I was in Italy for five days and spent time in my local village documenting the residents for assignment 3 and it struck me that, whilst no one minded being photographed and despite their expectation that they wouldn’t see the results many of my subjects were very specific about how they should be seen. They recognised that their image was being fixed by the photographic process and it was important that this process created the right representation.
The second point is that the woodcutter’s wife had asked Mohr to take these photographs because, if her husband was killed in the forest, she would have nothing to remember him by. Until very recent times, even in advanced European countries, photographic portraits were uncommon amongst the working classes, this being especially true in rural peasant communities. A widow might have very few pictures of her husband; formal portraits taken at key moments in his life, perhaps when he left for national service in his uniform, or when they were married so a photograph of him in his prime had the potential to become an important momento. This highlights an important historic and contemporary role of photography, it is often discussed as being used as evidence or as a documentary record but at the personal level it becomes evidence of someone having existed, an artefact that allows us to build an emotional bridge between now, when the person is absent, and then when they existed. By freezing a memento in time it enables the viewer to use it as a still from a movie and recall the past before and the past since the photograph was taken allowing that one moment to became a much more complete memory of the absentee than the 1/250 of a second that it factually represents.
(1) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury
(2) Barthes, Roland (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press
(3) Sontag, Susan (accessed at John Berger: Culture Collaboration Commitment 19.4.16) – http://www.johnberger.org