Towards the end of part two the course manual refers to a photograph taken by Celest McKenzi and a couple of paragraphs outlining the circumstances surrounding it. McKenzi explains her approach to the work and the ethical stance she adopted; I think the point of including it is as an example of good practice but I find myself at odds with several aspects.
First I look at the picture itself and the information it contains. The three people look as if they are quite familiar with each other, they seem like they might be mother and two of her children. By white western middle class standards they are not particularly well dressed even for a sunny day. The children are grubby, the ‘mother’ is wearing her slippers, which gives the impression they are not far from home. Indeed, are we to assume that the wooden sided construction is their home? It looks pretty basic – there are electrical cables running along the dirt floor; the seat looks like an old car seat with attached seatbelt. The overall sense is one of a poor family who are nevertheless emotionally connected and supported. The children do not look malnourished and there is a sense of family cohesion.
This much we can reasonably get just from the picture itself. I use my internal experience of people and circumstance to make these assumptions. I can be fairly confident because when I have drawn such conclusions before, I have been right more than wrong.
In this way the picture seems to be honest and uncontrived. Reading the accompanying text I am struck by the distinct ethical position of the photographer. It’s necessary to pick the sentences apart to get a clearer impression of this:
- The woman is referred to as “Sonja no surname”. I don’t think that’s a regular form of address. Did McKenzi not ask her surname, or did the woman refuse to disclose it? Either way, a point is made about her missing name in a way that suggests she is lacking in some way, unworthy of a wider family history. Why include the no name bit, rather than leaving her as simply Sonja?
- The woman has “ended up” at the caravan park. This feels like a judgement about accommodation, with McKenzi looking down on her subjects circumstances, as if Sonja couldn’t sink any lower.
- McKenzi mentions that she was struck by “how proud” the mother was, as if she was surprised to find pride in such meagre circumstances. Why wouldn’t the mother be proud of her children? Did the photographer feel that the poverty was so profound that she would be rendered incapable of pride, in anything, even her children? Because clearly she couldn’t possibly be proud of her shack…
- McKenzi seems gratified that she held the trust of her subject, refraining from depicting her as a “victim of struggle”. And yet she clearly is exactly that; watching cars outside a supermarket for a pittance to sustain a family of five in a dirt floor shack.
- I’m struggling to work out the significance of identifying her subjects as “white” car guards. I don’t know how this works in South Africa (if it is SA) but is car guarding stratified on racial lines?
Although the picture itself is mute regarding the points above, McKenzi’s statement is, I feel, rather more illuminating. The statement is intended to expand on a socially responsible approach to photography but ends up inadvertently telling us more about the photographer than the picture does about the subject.
Language and image, it’s easy to get them all mixed up when talking about what they do and how they work. It seems to me that language is far better at communicating complex, nuanced ideas than pictures. This is probably tantamount to heresy, calling into question the language of photography! But I don’t think photography is a language of any kind. Photographs are a form of communication but they don’t rely on the acquisition and use of linguistic rules and conventions. Photography can look like a language because it hijacks some of the properties thereof. In “The Public Image: Photography and Civic Spectatorship” by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites the authors maintain that:
“Visual images are not texts…. showing is not telling….. and photographs are indeed mute fragments”.
It was a bit of a struggle for me to keep the faffing down to five minutes and this may be discernible in the resulting pictures. My subject’s direction was better than mine, largely due to the intent aspect – I was concentrating on expression she on pose. We disagreed on what to wear and her choice was more imaginative.
I can’t say that, left to their own devices, these pictures disclose to the viewer who was ‘in control’ at the time, but perhaps that’s the point. Or perhaps we were supposed to take as many pictures as possible to give a lot to choose from, then the real point begins in the later selection. Had that been the case, I think we would have ended up with a lot of pictures that look very much the same and we would be making our selections based on subtle differences. Is that the purpose? Somehow I doubt it. I think it’s more about how it feels, as a photographer, to relinquish control to the subject. In the event, it was still me pressing the button although I could have handed over complete control to my subject by means of a remote control. The camera was tethered so she would have been able to see what she was doing quite easily, but I understand that the availability of this option could not be relied on generally. Anyway, this is how it went: