Contemporary awareness 1

A key aspect of my development as a photographer is being able to contextualise my work and the OCA actively encourages us to make connections between the traditional practice and values of the social documentary genre and the contemporary or current values of photographers producing top quality and cutting edge work today.

I have researched a number of contemporary social documentary photographers and have added them all to my hand-written directory with some analysis of their approach.  The ones listed in the course notes represent quite a wide variety of styles and motivations and I think I have concluded that it doesn’t really matter where they fall on the social documentary-photojournalism spectrum.  The labels they are given or that they give themselves can depend very much on specific projects and the mood of the critics. And, of course, things change all the time.

There seems to be a trend towards activism rather than being a silent witness and a sense that many from the new generation take a cool but a subjective gaze but this is an extremely broad church and there are examples of every possible approach.

Richard Billingham (b. Birmingham 1970) is well known for his excruciatingly candid portrayal of his family, revealing poverty and chaos and sometimes violent relationships with his alcoholic father and obese chain-smoking mother. The images are stark and compositionally often bleed off the page enhancing the sense of claustrophobia. Billingham creates some distance by mostly shooting from a high angle but the empathy and authenticity of his work is palpable. He started to photograph to get source material for paintings but became famous when included in a Saatchi exhibition in 1997.

The strength and uniqueness comes from how personal the work is – anyone else photographing these people would be seen to be exploitative and patronising. We are able to get close to Ray and Liz and Jason and understand life in their flat in Birmingham and in these moments, we can glimpse some of our own familial relationships.

It is a mixture of documentary and snapshot – taken fast and cheaply. The work has no social reform agenda. It is more like a reversed family album, captured from the offspring’s viewpoint, not the parents.

Briony Campbell (b. 1980, London) created a touching film and a photographic stills series called The Dad Project.  This work is much softer and feels like more of a considered narrative approach. Campbell has showed how important it was for her to be able to photograph her dying father as a way of dealing with the pain and trauma of that experience. The images from The Dad Project include self-portraits and glimpses of leaves, grass and the sky, dreamy interludes which pull the series back from being too bleak and allows us inside her world at that time. This work sits in the photojournalism camp but again is revealing deeply personal aspects of her life.

Luc Delahaye (b. 1962 France) distances himself from photojournalism and deliberately makes large-scale images to ensure they are not compatible with newspapers and magazines. His style is detached and borders on conceptual with his exploration of truth and the relationship between beauty and conflict.

Delahaye considers himself to be an artist but one who presents a neutral reality: “I have no style. That is my style.” [1]

I cannot find much biographical information on Melanie Dornier but I gather she is or was an OCA student on the social documentary course. Her #I BREATHE project is in keeping with the Salgado ethos of having to do more than just be a witness. Fred Ritchen talked about how contemporary soc doc photographers are actually working with NGOs and other organisations who can bring about change. Here Dornier partners with Airveda to give “visual support” to the anti-air pollution campaign. All of her work has a respectful and sensitive feel to it, shot in colour using natural light. It feels quite neutral and realistic and has now been featured widely in magazines.

As well as his more traditional approach to documentary projects David Gillanders (b. ? Glasgow) takes stunning portraits using the wet plate collodion process and is currently travelling in a mobile darkroom. I love the artistic finish of these images.


His other projects cover issues he has become interested in such as drug abuse in Russia and homeless children in Ukraine.

The images are black and white, high contrast, close-up, wide angle. Quite a familiar style in contemporary social documentary. There is a strong sense of the interaction with, and empathy for, Gillanders’ subjects and he states that he is trying to produce balanced and honest visual records.

Nadav Kander (b, 1961 Tel Aviv) says he is not a documentarist: “I’m much more about making work that excites me and it excites me when it points very clearly to what it’s like to be human.” [2]

Kander’s work is revealing though and certain sets have a strong narrative. He actually won the Prix Pictet in 2009 for the social and environmental importance for his ‘Yangtze: The Long River’ project. In interviews he has talked about how he found himself making the people very small in his China pictures as he felt vulnerable and small when he visited. “I do realize that all series of work, even if its intention wasn’t documentary – any series of photographic work that isn’t obviously Photoshopped – by human nature’s trust in it, becomes a document.”

Like Soth’s Sleeping by The Mississippi, Kander has used the river as a metaphor and describes how he chose the Yangtze as a symbol of change. His primary aims are personal but he does accept that his images “reflect a wider social reality”. [3]

Steve McCurry (b. 1950 Philadelphia) is known for his war photography but is concerned with showing the human condition and the impact of conflict on people as well as the landscape.   Whilst he will photograph stories on assignment, his interest is in creating individual pictures which have power and reveal something profound. He is quite a traditional social documentary photographer, trying to be unobtrusive and harmonious with his surroundings.

Mimi Mollica (b 1975 Sicily) was not familiar to me. His photojournalism work covers a range of social issues such as migration, terrorism, identity and environment and is a mix of colour and black and white. Some of the projects are really interesting such as his East London set of fragments and his exploration of the Number 30 bus route after the 7/7 bombings. Mollica’s work has an vibrancy created by the angles, the strong colours and dark shadows. It feels unfussy and provides some intriguing insights into the world of his subjects. The work in Sicily around co-habiting with the mob is really visually interesting and uses his background to access a fascinating community.

Zanele Muholi (b. Durban 1972) describes herself as a “visual activist” and is recording the existence of black lesbians in South Africa. For ‘Faces and Phases’ she refused to describe her sitters as ‘subjects’ but said these are ‘participants’ in changing perception and history. Stunning black and white portraits reveal dignified and defiant people presented as a united front but all as individuals.

As well as these social documentarists, I have researched a number of others in my hand-written log including Adam Hinton, Alex Webb, Nicholas Nixon, Anna Fox, Ingrid Pollard, Jim Goldberg, Brent Stirton, Pieter Hugo, Medford Taylor, Ed Thompson, Albrecht Tübke, Donovan Wylie, Lisa Barnard, Kitra Cahana, Antonin Kratochvil, Alex Majoli, Paolo Pellegrin, Simon Norfolk, Dougie Wallace, Zed Nelson, Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti.

“And thus the conundrum of photography continues, as its irrefutable documentation of the here and now becomes a history of time’s past, an ongoing drama of the photographed and the photographer, a bewitching combination of loss, desire and memory.” [4]






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