I came across an article on a group in FB called Ethical Photojournalism. It talks about VICE magazine sending a couple of photographers to cover Appalachia. One lives in Appalachia and calls his style of photography autobiographical. The other photographer is Magnum's Bruce Gilden, who's been quoted as saying during an interview, "you need to be sneaky to get the shot..." I personally don't agree with this approach. I'd like to think I'm more along the lines of: Treat thy neighbor as yourself.
One way or another, this got me thinking about what I was taught in journalism school about aiming to become the proverbial Fly on the Wall when it came to documentary photography. However, as much as we'd like to think that we are achieving this maxim of photojournalism, the truth is we all carry within us our own built-in prejudices and preconceived notions.
When we do manage to straight-out document a scene and or a subject without affecting the outcome these instances turn out to be the exceptions and not the rule. That is not to say it never happens but alas is rare when a photographer can continuously achieve such purity of documentary photography.
It is my belief, It is during spot news situations when we are reacting reflexively and “shooting from the hip” where we are are most likely to find our purest documentary style.
I'm including an example of mine below where I wasn't thinking but reacting instead. This was covering the ousting of Haiti's president Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004. A couple of other journalists and I, were running towards Cite de Soleil where we'd heard shots fired. I veered away from my group distracted by some commotion on a side street.
I ended up stumbling upon civilians trying to help a soldier who'd been shot in the foot. They were trying to carry him to safety while a soldier in the back guarded their escape. Had I been thinking more clearly I'd have move my camera a fraction of an inch higher and I'd have gotten the full image of the soldier returning fire in the background. But alas, I wasn't thinking, I was reacting.
Point and case of reactive shooting is that of Boston Globe’s John Tlumacki’s image of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing and the fallen runner and the three police officers. After publication his editors looked at the time line between the first bomb going off and the moment when he shot this image and only seconds had passed between both actions. Now THAT is pure documentary.
But even at this highest level of pure documentary photography, Tlumacki’s considerable acumen of experiences as a professional photographer still played a role on how he shot this image. Maybe not at any conscious level but all those years of shooting played a role on how he shot that image the way he so superbly shot it on that day and on that moment.
But when covering extreme situations such as wars and disasters become our norm, then the human brain tends to adapt to help us cope with such realities. It is at this point where once more our own perspectives, opinions and points of view end up affecting our photography.
So now lets extrapolate. If our brains can adapt so we can get used to covering horrible situations, then imagine what happens when we are given an assignment before hand.
The moment we find ourselves having the time to figure out "the how" of covering a story or subject, that is the moment where our own personalities and life experiences start getting involved in our decision-making processes when it comes to making photos.
We do not live outside of the laws that rule our universe. We were all first sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sister, etc, before we became photographers. There is no escaping our humanity.
After all we are all humans. And as such, we are nothing but extremely complex apparatuses made up of millions of inter-acting parts unique-to-the individual and held together or “sparked” to life by – call it what you may- a spirit, a soul, or an energy force.
But one way or another all of these variables will end up playing a role in the way we do all things. This includes photography. Therefore it can not be considered a great leap of deductive reasoning to think our experiences and personalities will at the end affect the outcome of our images. Thus by just being there and observing we are affecting the outcome of a situation.
If not, what do you think our personal style of photography truly is? Why do you think someone with the personality of Bruce Gilden creates images like the ones he made in Appalachia?
On a lighter note: If you want further proof of our capability of producing built-in biased photos, then take a look at this: