Following on from researching John Szarkowski’s concept of categorising photographs into mirrors or windows (see here) this exercise delves into my archive to find photographs that represent the second of these two view points, the window, having previously looked at mirrors here.
A photograph that might be called a mirror will tend towards being subjective as opposed to a window being objective, reflective as opposed to a direct view, expressive rather than documentary and potentially manipulated instead of being straight. A window will tend to “deal with matter that is specific to a particular place and time” (1 – p.22) can therefore be associated with realism and the view that the world and everything in it “exists independent of human attention.”
We take photographs for different reasons, some very complex and some quite simple but looking back at many years of my photographs I realise that the archive speaks for itself; yes, I have my fair share of chocolate box landscapes, historical monuments and more than my fair share of family snaps but putting those to one side I am reminded that for more than forty years I have been interested in the human condition. Who are we and who are you?
It’s not an earth shattering revelation, I’m not a social animal, I like people at a distance, in concept, rather than to actively engage. One wonders whether the camera has always been an object to hide behind to avoid direct engagement, to allow me to be the outsider without appearing as such. I like the idea that much of my photography is a window because windows imply being on the other side of a wall looking out from a safe viewpoint and this might describe me very well.
To delve into an archive that spans forty years of amateur photography focusses attention on what John Berger (1 – p.89) describes as a photograph’s two messages. Photographs are always of the past and their capture arrests a single instant which, within the frame, is absolutely isolated; it does not and cannot lead to the present; this instant is the first message, the information contained within.
I have selected this photograph because it is packed with information, even without any context the casual viewer can interpret the image quite effectively. Viewers responses will vary dramatically depending on the context they bring to the picture and there is no need here to discuss the extremes of reaction that adults can have to pictures of unknown children. Whatever the reaction this is a response to the appearance of that single instant back in 1988; the first message.
The second message involves what Berger calls the “shock of discontinuity”, the “abyss” that exists between the moment the photograph was taken and the time of its viewing. This second message may have a more significant emotional impact that the first and even for the same viewer changes as the abyss widens. I cannot remember my emotional reaction to these Filipino children when I took this photograph nor my reaction when it was first developed but now I am wondering what happened next; did life improve on this tiny and poor island? Where did these children go? Perhaps some still live in Boracay, running guest houses or waiting on tables or becoming fishermen like their fathers, some may have become part of the Philippines’ most valuable export, its people, and are now doctors or nurses in the NHS, engineers in Dubai, or domestic staff in Hong Kong and Singapore, sending money home to their family.
If the viewer knew these beautiful children the second message would potentially cause a quite different, potentially traumatic reaction especially if fate has been unkind to one or more of them. For Berger these two messages and their natural tendency to change are at the heart of why photographs are inherently ambiguous and it is that ambiguity that is ultimately their most appealing feature.
Having opened my Philippines archive I was reminded of a different view of children that has quite different connotations. Without context this is a more ambiguous photograph than the first; to the viewer unused to the so-called third world the activity being photographed here is probably quite obscure. These boys are making their way to meet the buyers of recyclable materials, they did this every day, pushing their homemade carts up this long winding hill. They are cheerful, pleased to be photographed and in later pictures in the same series began to pose for the camera. The scene is not disturbing as such but it hides a dark truth. These children work and live on a rubbish dump; I can no longer remember which one. Unless they are part of Manila’s huge army of abandoned street children their parents will also live and work on the dump. To this day Smokey Mountain in Tondo, a northern suburb of Manila, supports a permanent population of over 25,000 people who glean the discarded waste of Metro Manila for saleable scrap, earning $2 or $3 a day. Their homes are made of discarded waste, they have no utilities, no health care, no schools and seemingly no future.
Today I would have strong reservations about photographing Filipino street children, not because they are children but because they are victims and to exploit them in pursuit of a hobby means to engage in what Susie Linfield calls the fraught enterprise (2). I have never been a social documentarist because I have never done anything useful with the many photographs I have taken that record the results of our failed societies. I am, and have always been concerned, but ultimately passive, an armchair reformist, skulking in the hiding place of all capitalists arguing that by creating jobs in the Philippines I was doing my bit, but in reality it was never near to being enough.
I have included this image because it reminds me that if I thought these children were a suitable subject I should have repaid them in some tangible form, a weak thought but one that, at least, enables me to better select my subjects thirty years later. When surrounded by poverty and despair, do some good or at least do no harm with the camera, avoid engaging in what Martha Rosler called victim photography (3), a undesirable pastime that hovers somewhere between voyeurism and victim tourism.
My inclusion of this photograph is, as much as anything, a reaction to the previous two. It probably shows where my subject matter has been in recent years. The street is the most democratic of photographic subjects, we can explore specific subjects, or seek the decisive moment or just capture what and who passes by. I began street photography in the eighties and have returned to it on and off ever since and the more I look back the more I realise that people are the subject that invests a photograph with interest, most of my favourite pictures are of people, strangers whom I am unlikely to ever see again but who have offered themselves as context for the landscape, often their landscape, regardless of whether it is rural or urban.
This is the type of photography I still enjoy when away from the demands of academic study. It is a snapshot that might be constructed reality. Every member of the cast has taken on a pose, one looks at her phone, one poses for another photographer, a child runs into the scene. A fractional moment in time on Brighton pier that records an aspect of modern Britain, touching on social media, being permanently connected via technology, our multiracial society, tourism, the scale of modern entertainment and the old fashioned traditions of sitting on a beach as long as the sun is out, walking down the pier and children at play.
And, staying on the subjects of tourism and social media I chose this photograph from a trip to Barcelona. Intentionally excluded from the frame is Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece La Sagrada Familia whose purpose as a temple has been subsumed by its role as a tourist destination. A backdrop to yet another selfie.
The tourist as a subject is compelling, we go armed with our cameras, tablets and smart phones all photographing the same objects, objects that are often very challenging to photograph such as a huge cathedral from nearby street level. Once upon a time the tourist captured the scene as proof they had been there but social media would soon be bored with that so now the scene becomes a backdrop for a self portrait, not only have I been there but here’s me there taken by me; there’s a lot of first person singulars in that idea that might suggest the tourist is less interested in where they are than in themselves.
To finish my selection of five photographs I wanted to include an image that represented where I am today and that somehow reflects two and half years of study. This picture was taken last week in the Mayor’s office in Montefino, a small village in Abruzzo, Italy. At one level it shows an evolution of subject matter no doubt influenced by a wide range of practitioners studied and considered over the last thirty months. At another level it reveals much about the small town comune.
The typewriter and ancient card index cabinet suggest a past that is still hanging on, old technology still in use, probably on a daily basis; the religious picture represents the traditional religion of the region but is decorated with synthetic flowers which suggest a more pagan tradition. The calendar is opened to Giugno or June, which the cynic might argue represents the disconnect between Italian bureaucracy and the reality of time and the decorative plate partly obscured by the blinds celebrates the twenty fifth anniversary of something in Castiglione, the next comune down the valley. This is in itself surprising given the suspicion the average Italian villager has for foreigners, foreigners being anyone not born in their village.
There is lovely story that the reason the clocks in each village chime the hour at slightly different times, Montefino’s and Castiglione’s clocks are about two minutes apart, is that you wouldn’t want to be called to your dinner by the idiots in the next village, how could you trust them to get the time right?
(1) Szarkowski, John (1978) Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. New York: The Museum of Modern Art
(2) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
(3) Rosler, Martha (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughs (on documentary photography) (accessed 2014 at the Everyday Archive) – http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf