Why Photograph Real Life?
I am thinking now about the lack of those essential elements of life which make possible a real society of human beings. The great fundamental lack, which is apparent everywhere in our civilised world, is the total absence of anything approaching a communal existence. We have become spiritual nomads; whatever pertains to the soul is derelict, tossed about by the winds as flotsam and jetsam. — Henry Miller
As a photographer and film-maker I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to reveal the unjust things that are happening and I encourage others to look at our shared world critically and to comment on it so that people can begin to see clearly what is going on.
It is not just the social/political world that I am concerned with but also the inescapable human and personal questions of love, beauty, and death; the endless ‘why are we here’ and ‘how can we contribute’? All of these questions are a part of what one has to say and a part of how one can use photography.
Our confusion, uncertainty, self-doubt, as well as our loves and hates, are human responses most of us understand. The more truthfully and clearly we represent even negative attitudes in our photographic work, the more the rest of us may gain from those creative struggles. The best of one’s private world, expressed eloquently, can heal wounds and provide people a sense of solidarity with others whom one does not know but shares pain and pleasure with. The work serves as a bridge which crosses time, cultures, language and class barriers and which overcomes existential loneliness.
I have worked in India, Thailand, Vietnam, in Srebrenica Bosnia (for 5 years on and off), and now in the UK, using photography (and video) as a means to help people find their voices, to overcome racism, ethnic suspicion, social tensions, and alienation – and it works. The wonderful thing is that this ‘creative social therapy’ actually brings unity among people previously alienated and suspicious of each other; it fosters dreams of something better; it motivates a permanent change in people’s souls and helps them to travel to emotional and intellectual places previously out of bounds for them and they often create surprising and profoundly moving work.
This is not a process of pandering popular culture to workshop members, but rather, to offer an idea of something more real – I offer them to aspire to beauty, which is universal rather than to shards of popular culture usually promoted and sold by the media and the entertainment corporations.
There are many aspects of this transformation through photography and video: people gain self-respect and a sense of dignity, they realise that their voices count and that what they do helps others to overcome their own isolation and fears and it creates a sense of unity between the artist and her audience, an exchange which travels in both directions. Within the new artist, it encourages a sense of performing a generous duty for their community and awakens notions of neighbourliness, social responsibility and helps to balance the sense of self with that of others. Further, the community become proud of their own friends, neighbours and children aspiring and reaching for beauty; they know that somehow it is right that this should happen.
Photography is a powerful tool for this. Recently I was in Brussels photographing for the International Feldenkrais Association when I met a woman coming to take part in one of the photo sessions. She was, in many ways, a normal looking person but her large liquid eyes and open but shy smile told me she had witnessed many things and that she knew about life’s secrets. During the session, I photographed her with others but was compelled to do close-ups of her. Later, I edited one and showed her. She looked in silence for a long time, turned to me, gently placed her hand around my neck, drew me to her and kissed me tenderly on my cheek for many seconds. When she moved away, there were tears in her eyes. I believe she understood that I had valued her and that communication between us, moved her to express what was a moment of recognition, or may I say, an idealized love between two strangers of different races, languages and backgrounds. It was as it should be.
This is where motivation and making a choice about subject matter converge. If you do not create a story of your life, a record of your perceptions, loves and woes, who will? Your own story is as precious as the next person’s story. The telling of the story engages you with finding just what your story is. This may help to reintegrate a personality that has been alienated by life. It is a healing process.
Last year I worked with a young, unhappy, unemployed man. At first his antagonism and depression blocked his curiosity and his willingness to engage. As we worked together he began to realise that his state of being was okay to talk about and that I considered it as important and as central to what he was feeling about life as did he, and he began to understand that to utilise these harsh emotions to create a project, was valid.
More than that, when he explained the yet unmade film to other young people, and when he showed it publicly, he saw that others applauded it because it expressed something of their own lives.
He had come to see that the usefulness of his labours was that it allowed others to feel that they were not odd or crazy, nor alone. His work crossed a bridge from his inner being to others, joined as they were in a generation’s recognition of how their society was failing them.
Photo-essays, just as the story of the film above work, because, as in the story above, it will be filled with humanity and may help others discover new solutions to their life’s problems or at least help them to recognize that their problems are shared and therefore that they are not alone. In this way, photography provides comfort to others. This is one reason why it is important and why participating is valid and valuable.
There was an influential group of historians (the Annales School) who emphasized the importance of social history; a history based on how people lived rather than in the diplomatic or military history of each period. It showed the importance of the lives of the people over the lives of the rich and famous.
In revealing your own thoughts and concerns, you help to give insights into yours and others needs and wants in your moment of history. This, in itself, is valuable in addition to how it helps others to come to terms with their own lives and this is why it is important and useful to photograph our surrounding reality.