Documentary Photography Artist Research (and some objections)

Documentary photography to me, is a way of capturing life; a way to explore the connections between human psyche, and connect with others without really having to connect. Documentary has always had an air of controversy though, blurring the lines between exploiting strangers and friends to appear as part of something that it ‘noteworthy’ enough to document and arguing for the fact that really it’s not that its noteworthy enough, but something that can have meaning to others. Richard Billingham, interviewed for the Guardian by Tim Adams (Richard Billingham: ‘I just hated growing up in that tower block’) captures this line almost perfectly:

“We talk about the line between exploitation and documentary; did Billingham worry about crossing it when he photographed his family?

“Not really. That’s why you put them in a gallery,” he says. “You frame them in a certain way to allow a particular reading of them. But now you have the internet, the pictures are all there out of context…”

Does that bother him?

“With the photographs I tried to make them as truthful as I could and hopefully that element overcomes any exploitative element,” he says. “I think there was a warmth to them.”

Billingham manages to sum up the difference in just a few sentences, pointing out that if the photo is honest enough, the real meaning can always shine through, and I think this is a real asset to have when shooting documentary photography. An intent that is not malicious, nor dishonest, but purely a representation of a person or place that cannot be manipulated to appear otherwise is not only a goal to reach, but I think a necessity. A true and honest intent to capture the good (and the bad, obviously, if the situation calls for it).

Billingham’s photos are honest. They bleed with memories and emotions of the time, raw and visceral, they spark a recognition within me; not so much the setting and the people, but a British family life, transporting me back to a childhood that is rooted deep within everyone.
The use of his flash photography, and cheap film available to him in the 80’s, the colour tones remain similar throughout his work, bright pops of green and orange, with the familiar 80’s patterns of brown and mustards, earthy colours that ground the photos in the era they were taken.

The various viewpoints he uses allows glimpses into a life that shows the relationships between him, and the people he is studying and their environment, using close-ups to evoke feelings of closeness and familiarity with his parents, shots such as these below perhaps not so possible to shoot if subjects were unknown to Billingham.

Nicotine stained fingers, blown out, overexposed skin tones and in this case, a smile and a frown, the message translates as one of pure documentation, a capturing of a moment that pinpoints a representation of these two people.

Another documentary photographer, (although sometimes I think his work falls more into the category of portraiture) Poem Baker explores themes alongside the ever more accepting society, studying themes such as gender, sexuality, relationships and family. Baker, when questioned, why are these a focus point, answers with
“Quite simply these are the themes that distinctly define us & the dynamics of them frequently change all the time too !”

The kind of photography that Poem creates is one of pure self-expression and intimacy. Not intimate in the sensual/sexual definition, but more leaning to the side of society that isn’t talked about in huge detail when you’re not involved in the ‘community’; an intimacy that relies on trust and ease, something that again, proves to be an invaluable asset for a photographer.

(Some of Baker’s work contain nudity, so I’ll link his full website here, but in this piece I’ll only display the ‘suitable’ ones).

Baker uses a lot of black and white photography within his practise, which he puts down to “you can hide a multitude of technical sins , which is just as well as i don’t have any big lighting theatrical set ups , its just me, my canon 5D , one lens and a flash gun , it all fits into my ruck sack !” (taken from an interview for The Pink Snout )

But I also think it brings a sense of timelessness to his images, a person in a modern context, who just as easily could be from the 90’s, only really held in place by modern clothing brands, or the feeling of acceptance that comes with the times, or indeed Poem’s approach to connecting with his models/friends.

I love Baker’s work because it’s confronting and real and again, has that element of honesty. It is documenting a subculture of society, in a way that is not judgemental, conveying this message of acceptance so well.

Daragh Soden’s series Young Dubliners chronicles the youth of Dublin – “The pieces are nostalgic for the moments of naive youth drifting away, gracefully immortalising lingering moments of buoyant innocence on medium format film. The work is a deeply personal collaboration between subject and artist. He explains his intention to capture “young Dubliners presenting themselves, in their own environments.”( It’s Nice That – Daragh Soden)

Soden’s series, a mix of portraits and landscape shots, have a certain air of curiosity and wonder to them. A story behind everything, and everyone, the documentation not only shows the youth of ‘today’ but the way in which they are comfortable being photographed. Soden’s use of colour within his work creates a nostalgic and familiar feeling, almost transporting you back to a simpler time, or at least, the sentimentality and nostalgia in you telling you it was better.

I love the mix of the confrontational looks at the camera and the more subtle character building when the subject looks away from the photographer, giving an insight into maybe a curious personality (whats happening behind the frame? this allows depth within the viewers mind too), or a discomfort in front of the camera.

Although I do love all these photographers, I find it difficult to connect the concept of my final project outcome with these types of photos, due to the quite distant viewpoint that the photographer takes on when viewing the subjects, no matter how close/ friendly the two are. Billingham and Baker both still have a feeling of ‘distance’ between them and the subjects, whether that be a physical one with the camera creating the gap, or the style and ‘sense’ of the category of photography, and this doesn’t quite work with the subject of ‘vulnerability’ I’m focusing on within this project. Although the definition I’m working with visually, requires stereotypes to come into play, I’m going to have to find a way around presenting imagery without becoming too cliche within the area I’m working with. I am aware though, that I would like to work with perhaps some more abstract definitions of femininity and vulnerability, maybe using some close ups of body parts, (hands, eyes, shallow depth of field to focus on other parts), maybe more like the imagery within my editorial research, the one below definitely, as the minimal colour palette and ‘delicate’ hands make for a very graceful and easy layout to ‘read’.

This is definitely something more to consider when I find a model and location, as I need to incorporate the fact that I need to be comfortable enough with the model to be able to get the shots I want, although if I’m just focusing more on hands and abstract body parts, they don’t necessarily need to be nudity, more a representation of vulnerability without exposing too much.
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