When World Press Photo announced its plans for a new contest designed to honor “imaginative” storytelling, the executive director noted that photographers had long been pushing “new ways of communicating with photography.” PDN has regularly reported on photographers who have blurred the boundaries between fine-art and documentary work in their projects. In some cases, they have found that it was impossible to remain fly-on-the-wall observers as stories unfolded. Some have followed the model of “creative non-fiction” or “literary journalism,” mixing staged or fictional elements into their narratives. But photographers sometimes find that the decision to abandon the role of neutral observer and become involved in their subjects’ lives can be emotionally and journalistically fraught. What follows are excerpts from interviews with photographers who have weighed the pros and cons of taking subjective approaches to their stories.
“It’s definitely a conflict in all [my] projects to find the balance between being compassionate, empathetic and emotionally present, and at the same time, conserving that photographic distance,” says Isadora Kosofsky. In 2011, she began photographing Vinny, a teenager in juvenile prison, as well as Vinny’s mother and his brother, David. Kosofsky told PDN that she doesn’t “really believe that the objective stance even exists, and I think that some of the most powerful photography is from that subjective view, where the photographer has become part of that community.”
Though Vinny’s mother welcomed Kosofsky, it took the photographer months to win David’s trust. She had to overcome his fear of abandonment, the suspicion that Kosofsky would be one more person who would take something from him and then disappear. “He made a comment one night, about six months in, that even if I leave I always come back,” she says. “When he said that I realized the [importance of ] being present, not even talking, just bearing witness and sitting and observing and being patient.” Eventually, the family stopped noticing her taking pictures. Kosofsky was able to focus intently on the relationships and emotions of her subjects, and present them in a multidimensional way. At the same time, she says, she found it difficult to separate emotionally from the family and their story.
Fine-art photographer Katy Grannan’s first feature film, The Nine, tells the story of Kiki, a woman who lives in Modesto, California, on South Ninth Street, and a community of people around her. They reminded Grannan of a childhood friend, who lived on the street for 20 years. Prostitution and addiction are just part of a much larger story about the waves of hope and despair that define the lives of the women and men living on The Nine, and about the friendship between the filmmaker and her subjects. She gained their trust in numerous ways. Her calm demeanor around people who are “really suspicious” was one factor. “I didn’t pretend to be from The Nine or a similar neighborhood at all, but I wasn’t freaked out, I was very comfortable,” she recalls. She also “always did what I said I would do.” For instance, “If someone’s dog got injured, I’d bring it to the vet, and bring it back. People were shocked that I didn’t go sell the dog. They’re so accustomed to being fucked over that when you do the smallest things—give somebody a ride to the next town or help somebody, whatever it may be—do these things over and over again you become [reliable].” When it came to deciding whether or not to pay her sometimes desperate subjects, she had to wrestle with a quandary, about how to help them and avoid resentment, but also how to avoid having them perform “to make me happy.” Eventually, she says, she found a way to resolve her quandary, answer her own concerns and respond to the needs of “people who just need a place to sleep at night.”
Joshua Lutz’s book Hesitating Beauty is concerned with, among many things, the fragility of memory touched by mental illness. Based on Lutz’s personal experience with his own mother, who suffered from schizophrenia, the book interweaves Lutz’s photographs with images from his family archive, and with text that Lutz fabricated, writing letters from the imagined perspectives of his mother and father.
Though it’s based on Lutz’s life growing up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother who eventually had to be hospitalized (she died a few years before the book’s publication), the book is “fiction-ish,” Lutz says. Rather than trying to represent the lives of his family members, Lutz sought to convey the experience of attempting to “wrap my mind around my mom’s illness, my mom’s life, my life,” Lutz says. “For me, it’s inexplicable, and so how do you address that thing that’s inexplicable?”
Cristina de Middel’s 2014 book Party is based on Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the famed “Little Red Book” of the Chinese cultural revolution, which is thought to be one of the most-printed books in history. To create Party, de Middel went through the book and whited out large portions of Mao’s texts to create a new series of sentences and fragments. She then matched her photographs from China with the texts she created. She traveled to China shortly before her first book, The Afronauts (2012), a reimagining of the history of the Zambian space program, became a sensation that catapulted her to international fame.
De Middel had perceived a disconnection between China’s communist identity and the reality of the society, and that idea was confirmed by her trip. “Once you are there it’s quite evident that people are very different from what they say they are, in a way,” she says. De Middel looked for pictures that explored this idea and came back with 3,000 images. Some of them were staged, but most were observed moments.
The form is open to multiple interpretations. Reality is complex, and she wants to convey that in her work. “I want to present reality as rich as it is, and I’m sort of helping you to approach reality from different angles. And you have to decide in the end what you think and what your opinion is, because it’s all about you deciding.”
The images in artist Daniel Shea’s book Blisner, Ill. show life in a dilapidated factory town. These are combined with documents and blanched newspaper clippings that trace the history of coal production in the Midwest. These photos and documents provide, Shea says, “an account of what happened in and what remains of a single Rust Belt town during the process of deindustrialization.” But this is all part of a conceptual sleight of hand. There is no such place as Blisner, Illinois. More than anything else, the book is about imagination.
Shea explains, “Originally the project was much more portrait-based and built around these two sites I had designated in Illinois because of what they represented in the larger picture, but also their specificity and their industrial and historical lineages. But I didn’t want to make another project where I was just going to a place, titling the project with the town’s name or whatever; I was much more interested in expanding the concept of documentary.” Shea recreates a town that represents many towns’ stories. “I wanted to recreate that mythology, kind of like the vague idea we have about America that at one point things were really good, and industrially we were really prosperous, but then something happened.”
The term “archival impulse,” first coined by the art historian Hal Foster in an essay in the Fall 2004 edition of the art journal October, can be applied to any artist who mines documents and objects from the past in order to transform “excavation sites” into “construction sites”—or, in other words, to create a more balanced and fair-minded history from a biased past. In her series “Archival Impulse,” photographer Ayana V. Jackson, who splits her time between Paris, New York and Johannesburg, is concerned with reconstructing the history of black bodies as captured by white photographers and photojournalists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “I’m reclaiming the legacy of those images,” she says. “I’m attaching new meaning to them.”
Jackson recreates images of nude African women, starving children and colonial servants she culled from many sources, including the Duggan-Cronin archive in Johannesburg, an extensive collection of photographs of migrant workers and “natives” in South Africa taken by an Irishman who worked for the De Beers diamond company at the beginning of the twentieth century. She uses herself as the subject, taking self-portraits in her studio using natural light and the timer on her camera. To make group shots, she clones images of her body in Photoshop and collages them over backgrounds; often these are travel landscape shots she took in Rwanda, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco and France. Jackson’s point that black bodies in photographs have historically been relegated to the realm of “savage”—and in turn, “sexual,” “pitiable,” and “primitive”—comes across strongly, and evokes outrage. In Jackson’s images, there are no “others”—there is just the artist, and the discomfort in seeing a black woman pose in a manner that could be considered exploitative.
Adam Golfer carries a deep, sincere interest in the history of Israel and the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, which he opposes. As a born-and-raised American, however, Golfer has lived outside the conflict, and as an artist he’s not interested in contributing to the raft of oversimplified projects or stereotypical media depictions of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, he says, “I’ve tried to use my family history as a way in to talk about this, instead of just pointing fingers, and that’s been the only way for me to remotely deal with these things, is to personalize [them].”
Golfer’s book combines his original images, family photographs, archival material, and texts that are fictionalized accounts of his experiences in Israel, the West Bank, Germany, the U.S. and the Baltics, where his family originated.