My overall direction is towards a book about the UAE that fuses photography and the written word, along the likes of City of Glass by Douglas Coupland and Bill Brandt’s The Land. The idea is for each module to spent looking at one aspect – one chapter. Last module I focused on the fusion of tradition and modernity in the UAE. I have several avenues I wish to explore now I am back in Dubai (having spent much of the break traveling), and at the moment I am trying to decide between a psychogeographical tourist approach or, and this is the more likely one, an exploration of liminality in the UAE – a look at borders both political (between emirates and with other countries), geographical (shoreline and where the mountains meet the desert), cultural (East meets West) and sociological (different areas and styles of living, exploring where mankind stops and the desert begins). As I have had a very busy start to the term (Ofsted style inspection as soon as we returned…) I have only managed the one border thus far – a look at the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi – a border which resulted in armed warfare between the two emirates as recently as the late 1940s but which is now only visible as the streetlights change shape.
And a look at the liminality of sea and land, particularly here in view of the heavy sea-fogs we often get in winter.
In terms of the ideas presented this week, I personally would say that frame is the most important to my work so far, particularly as I have been looking to present the idea of the juxtaposition of traditional and modern int he UAE. Thus, although there are a great many examples of each, it is when I can frame both together that the juxtaposition becomes most defined, such as this shot of a traditional Emirati date farm in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab hotel:
I use other aspects to enhance the visual impact of photographs though they may not be essential to the actual meaning. For example, I used the idea of depth to make this shot of a traditional salwar wearing labourer with his old-fashioned bicycle crossing an ultra-modern footbridge:
And time was important for the visual impact of photos from the tradiotional Fujairan sport of bullfighting (the bulls fight each other and aren’t harmed), but not essential to their meaning:
As much of my practice lies in the travel photography sphere, I would also argue that context or background is important. Whilst traveling, I primarily look for either what is the same in a new place or what is different. This, of course, relies on a starting point for measuring similarity and difference. As a white, middle-class, British male, what I find to be interesting depends entirely on that context. When I am photographing the UAE, I choose subjects that an Emirati might find extremely commonplace and lacking in interest. Then, also of course, there is the context of the viewer. Travel photography now has an instant, international audience. It’s not like having a slide-show for the neighbours when you get back from Torremolinos any more… Flippancy aside though, cultural sensitivity and an unwillingness to view people as tourist attractions are much more of a consideration for a travel photographer as they might have been in a pre-digital, pre-social media time.
Regarding truth vs authenticity: as a literature teacher, I naturally prefer fiction to non-fiction and find in it a higher sort of truth (although good non-fiction also taps into the universal of course). And yet in my photographic context (primarily travel and documentary) I am personally averse to more than minimal manipulation of an image. I suppose it depends on context and expectations – A Million Little Pieces was originally marketed as non-fiction until James Frey admitted it wasn’t entirely a memoir. Should that matter? To some people it did and to other it did not; is this the same as Capa’s falling soldier?
I would agree that artifice is unavoidable, even with documentary photography. As we saw last week, the photograph may be an indexical representation, but the choice of what to include in the frame is an artificial decision, and one made on the basis of what the message the photographer wishes to convey. As a journalist you write to create empathy for one person/group, and the same goes for photojournalism. Intentions are key – are you focusing on the crying faces of refugees to encourage empathy or on the sheer numbers to instill fear?
This is a shot of a coffee shop in Baku, Azerbaijan taken on Valentines Day and the red objects are heart-shaped balloons – the thing I was trying to convey was the feeling of being outside looking in, both culturally (I didn’t know even one other person in the whole country) and emotionally (I am ambivalent towards the concept of romance) and yet I still harbour a desire to be included.
The responses from my peers were varied with one reading coming very close. Semiotically, the heart-shaped balloons are a clear signifier of romance (at least in our Western world) and I hoped that the reflections on the window would suggest the idea of being outside looking in. Further, but less obvious symbolism was the fact that the coffee shop appears empty and that I, as the photographer, am not reflected in the window (though perhaps the idea of being outside looking in might have been clearer had my reflection been visible).
My own reflections on my peers’photographs was incredibly informative, particularly in making me realise what a broad palette of cultural signs exist for me – from nature doscumentaries (which I never watch yet seem to have seen enough of to understand the conventions) to the social and political history of South Yorkshire.
My gaze is indubitably voyeuristic and inescapably political – I walk around different cities, countries, and photograph what seems to me (a white, middle-class, British male) to be worthy of seeing – implicitly commenting on what I find to be ‘the other’ or what I find relatable, such as this shot of a family walking along the corniche in Baku, Azerbaijan from my visit there last week.
I personally find that photographs from outside the professional realm (and this is a broad generalisation) provoke more of a response in me than most shots from documentary photographers. Perhaps this is partly to do with a greater degree of exposure to ‘famous’ shots of tragedy – I still think that Eddie Adams’ photograph of the execution of the Viet Cong prisoner and Nic Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph are astonishing, but familiarity has removed the initial response of shock. Furthermore, the more we learn about some photographers’ process, the more inured we may become (I am thinking here of Capa’s Falling Soldier). However, for me the photograph used in the video taken by an evacuee of the Twin Towers of a firefighter climbing to his almost certain death is more powerful still – it allows more for compassion as it directly reveals the experience of being there. The shot is not artfully framed and the expression on the firefighter’s face is human and natural.
A few of years ago, I visited Rwanda. The most shocked and moved I have ever been by photographs was in the ‘hall of children’ in the genocide museum in Kigali. I was too shocked to take photographs myself, though I wish I had, however wrong it felt at the time, just for the possibility of transmitting what was there beyond the walls of the museum. I have found a representative photograph online (below). Much like the everyday Iraqi photographs in the video, these were comparatively artless portraits with minimal text.
And there were hundreds upon hundreds of them.
Much as I love the visual aspect of Salgadao’s work, this, for me, is a million times more powerful. Powerful enough that the images have yet to fade from my psyche (though there has been no overexposure, I suppose)