2. Web research
Part of this exploration of photography involves looking at examples of how photographers have approached using photography as a tool for interrogating the human condition. I've selected a range of different online resources (some websites, some articles, some photographic collections) and categorised them according to their purpose (documentary photography, social change photography, phototherapy, therapeutic photography and fine art photography). This by no means an exhaustive list; I found many street photographers that I would like to document, but alas for space reasons I will just link to their sites. Weblinks are denoted by bold typeface.
Make Life Worth Living is an exhibition by Nick Hedges at the Science Museum currently. The information about the exhibition is held on the Science Museum website, but there is also some follow up information on the Shelter website (http://stories.shelter.org.uk/make-life-worth-living/), including an interview with Nick Hedges.
The exhibition chronicles the substandard living conditions of people living in innercity slums, commissioned by the housing charity Shelter from 1968-72. After a 40 year restriction to protect identity, Hedges' photographs can be shown to the public. Good documentary photography brings its audience right into the domain of its subjects, and this collection of photographs is particularly hard-hitting and poignant.
Looking at other examples of photojournalism on the Shelter website, it is obvious that conditions for some have not demonstrably improved, despite various government initiatives such as No Child Left Behind strategy for 2011-2014. Child poverty and homelessness continue to be subjects that need to be illuminated and discussed.
The National Media Museum has a blog section on photojournalism, but the section that caught my eye was about austerity and the effects of poverty during the Depression. The photographs are Creative Commons licensed (which means that the photographers are likely unknown), snapped by staff photographers of the Daily Herald.
In the current economic climate, where job security is a luxury that we seemingly have come to depend on since the 1960s, we would do well to remember how we as a nation navigated economic disparity prior to the establishment of the welfare state in the 1940s.
The Foto8 website has a wealth of documentary photography on it. The site itself is a repository for documentary series, generally including a written statement by the photographer explaining the context (studium) that runs through the body of work. Each of the artists links to their own website.
Dr Rosemary Bannon Tyksinski is a psychotherapist working with phototherapy in Washington (USA). She describes what is meant by PhotoTherapy quite brilliantly:
"PhotoTherapy is conducted by a trained mental health therapist with specific therapeutic goals in mind.
Photographs are used to cue memories, provide stimuli for associative meanings thereby tapping subconscious or preconscious psychological material.
The client is not necessarily involved in creating the photographs used but could be. Photos provided by the therapist, found in magazines, family albums, or on the clients cell phone can be used.
Photos can be looked at and talked about, arranged in various configurations, made into collages, spoken to or made to speak for the client, to the client, or to another photograph."
Her site explores in detail how images can be used in therapeutic settings. I like the fact that it is an informative site without being overtly commercial. She links to other artists and therapists using PhotoTherapy and therapeutic photography.
Marianne Gontarz York is a social worker and photographer primarily working with elderly people, helping them to come to terms with ageing and finding a purpose in life when it seems that society would rather not address the fact of their being. She works using PhotoTherapy techniques, having studied Judy Weiser's seminal book PhotoTherapy Techniques: Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums in 1999.
One of her projects was a social activism project in 2003, where she photographed the Seniors for Peace, demonstrating against the Iraq War. I find it interesting that, though there are distinct purposes and uses of photography for therapeutic purposes, very often there is a crossover in application and benefit, which is exemplified in this project.
I'm drawn to the work of Fabio Piccini because he is a Jungian analyst. Essentially, working with Jungian techniques means accessing the unconscious through imagery and symbology. I have personally worked with Jung for 10 years, so the application of his theories is second nature to me - I am intrigued by Piccini's work as a whole (happily, his application of Jung appears to be appropriately holistic), but his Self-Portrait Project looks particularly interesting. I am always heartened when I see therapists working directly with shadow:
"Self-portraiture, is literally photographing the many faces of an individual’s emotions and feelings. Sometimes these are raw images, sometimes they can be frightening. Sometimes these faces are so different from the beliefs one has built about him/her Self that they can be hard to recognize.
And yet, self-portraiture is a means of keeping a safe distance even from the most disturbing images of the reader’s Self while helping him/her identify and integrate the many faces of his/her inner feelings and emotions."
Note: This is as distinct from PhotoTherapy, which is photography used by therapists and other mental health professionals in a specific therapeutic setting. Therapeutic photography can be employed by non-mental health professionals for therapeutic purposes and is generally done with/by professional photographers. For example, Cristina Nunez's work is therapeutic photography rather than PhotoTherapy because she is not a therapist.
The ONE Project is a Canadian initiative offering online courses and a platform to share photographic storytelling within a supportive online community. People are invited to share their photographs and their stories in order to gain a different perspective and possibly cathartic release in the telling. Their aim is to foster mental wellbeing among those in pain and marginalised by society.
It is worth bearing in mind that this is a commercial enterprise, so the techniques used and the content of the stories are behind a paywall. I'm also weirdly put off by the website's slick presentation - it makes pain look like something that can be polished up and packaged, and I'm concerned about the potential lack of therapeutic rigour behind it. It's possible that I have misread this, but I do tend to distrust any claims of depth made by such design-heavy sites.
Therapeutic Photography UK is an initiative by Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, which aims to "explore the potential benefits of using photography in a therapeutic manner with service users from social work and social care settings". The School of Applied Social Studies from the University has developed a programme looking at 4 main areas (self, relationships, personal story and environment), using photography to help people who are hard to reach or unable to engage with linguistic therapies. The programme looks very well crafted - simple but effective - and is offered as a two day course for practitioners and support workers in social care settings, so that they can apply the techniques with their own clients. From my previous work in the social care sector, I can see how this programme would benefit people who would otherwise struggle to engage with services. I would certainly recommend it to those working in social care.
Sarah Treanor was a graphic designer, but turned her talents to fine art photography and writing following the tragic death of her fiance in 2012. Her project Still, Life - Living with Death charts her journey through the grieving process. Her photographs are a way of reminding herself that she is still alive, and to help her to work through the emotions of grief.
Of the pieces on her website, this is by far the most powerful series of photographs. She has a very stylised aesthetic which, when divorced from raw emotion, can fall a little flat, so as art I'm not quite sure it hits the mark. But as a piece of therapeutic photography, it's tremendously powerful and moving. I would imagine also that her imagery has great value for others going through similar journeys, as she is able to articulate quite complex emotions through her work, helping to give voice to something that is sometimes impossible to verbalise.
Social change photography
The Photosensitive website shows some really great examples of social change photography. It was started in the early 1990s by idealistic Canadian photojournalists who wanted to raise awareness of issues that aren't normally discussed or depicted in our media saturated world. PhotoSensitive is now a photographic collective, addressing such diverse topics as AIDS/HIV crisis in Africa, breast cancer survival, poverty, war, environmental destruction, etc.
Their ideals are listed as: "to raise awareness, give voice to the voiceless, shed light on suffering, and document precious, beleaguered resources". There are many projects listed on the site, each including documentation of aims and objectives and results of the project.
I was drawn to the image on the left in particular because I remember the intensity of the fear of my son succumbing to SIDS when he was a baby. This was happily unfounded, but millions of families are not so lucky.
Blue Earth, based in Washington state, was set up to support the idea that documentary photography can effect social change. It brings together photojournalists with practical support and fundraising to help address the issues the photographs raise. It is specific in its linkage with documentary photography, which is slightly different in that pure photojournalism on its own doesn't seek to effect change, it is observation only. But social change photography wants to have an impact, and in the case of Blue Earth, it wants to be able to help practically by diverting funds to worthy causes (as well as supporting its photographers so that they can continue to raise awareness about issues that need addressing).
On the site, visitors can scroll through many photographic projects and donate fund per project, or become a member for an annual fee.
Fine Art photography
My choice of fine art photography will always be street photography, as I know just how difficult it is to combine studium and punctum on the fly. I also believe my grandfather's street photography to be the most successful of his works, and I completely fell in love with Vivian Maier's work when I first saw it. That said, when I was younger, I very much enjoyed the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, which is very carefully staged and has a sculptural aesthetic. However, I'm now aware of some of the more exploitative undertones of Mapplethorpe's work which rather alienates me. I now much prefer the more spontaneous and joyful expression of street photography as the kind of fine art photography I would choose to look at.
Burn My Eye is a website showcasing the work of a street photography collective that operates internationally. It's primarily an online presence, but they do occasionally meet up, as they did in November for an exhibition.
I've featured here the work of Justin Vogel, who has a particularly quirky eye and a knack for multiple punctums which have the viewer hunting around the image for each surprising element. Vogel lives and works in New York.
Jack Simon is a street photographer working in San Francisco. A psychiatrist for 40 years, he turned his eye to photography and has since won awards and published books of his images.
His interest seems to be in light, shadow and reflection, and he groups his photographs thematically on his website, reflecting his vast experience with people. His Flickr website is a vibrant resource. His use of colour is strong, but not overpowering.
I'm drawn to Swedish photographer Ola Billmont's work because of his use of flash. I hate flash photography - I find it vulgar and tacky and tasteless; and this is exactly what Billmont's photos are. However, he moves flash photography beyond the tasteless and firmly into the lurid: he sculpts his photographs with the flash, achieving a strange depth which is not unlike the projection exercises I have done with my family photographs. One gets a sense of the otherworldliness of his subjects through this overt use of flash, and his subject matter and compositions support an overall carnival feel to his work. I find them strangely compelling.
Meanwhile, by far the most useful street photography website is Eric Kim's blog which links to many resources both on the site and off, to do with street photography. It's a fascinating treasure trove of articles, photographs, how-to guides, videos, interviews and advice. I admire the passion and drive it took to compile this wealth of information.
Tina Barney's stilted photographs of her family are strangely compelling - I want to construct narratives around each image, to try to work out why the relationships seem so stiff and formal. What does this family talk about around the dinner table? It is unknown whether Barney directs her photos explicitly, or simply sets up the shot and allows action to happen naturally. The result is generally photos that have an oddly hybrid feel - not quite posed and not quite candid. I like that they refuse to be categorised.