Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe © 2010
The other night I was watching the news images from Haiti and discussing with my wife Geraldine how the reporters managed to deal with the fact that they were watching death happen yet reporting it calmly to the world. This essay discusses topics on the fringes of that subject.
I have never been comfortable pointing a camera at people anyway and when I decided to study documentary photography as a module for my City & Guilds course it was a real challenge. My first projects were inanimate – a run down area of Coventry and the infamous Ring Road. A project that provoked thoughts about intrusion was of a WWII aircraft wreck in the Peak district. My reason for covering it was that it had recently had a monument built next to it by my brother in law who was working with young RAF officers undertaking a community project but it still felt awkward. Incidentally one of my images was a selective toned picture. I wanted to echo the colour of the surrounding peat so I used a sepia tone for the main images but I wanted the concrete of the monument to be black & white. I used a technique where I painted a mask onto the print before toning to protect the area I wanted unchanged. The whole process took several hours – nowadays I can do it in about 3 clicks and some mouse moves in Photoshop.
Then my tutor said that I had to approach social documentary issues and include people. I choose subjects where people were enjoying themselves – a climbing competition (Which got me invited to cover a National event) then workers in a drinks factory (yes they did enjoy their work!). I have never got close tackling edgy subjects but I have thought a lot about it.
It seems to me that recording the social condition is essential to a wider understanding of our world and as long as it is done with respect for the subjects and retention of their dignity I admire the people who do it. I was brought up with Life magazine and the images of the Vietnam war definitely carved my view of the American intervention. I was a fan of Don McCullin who was a renowned war photographer of that period and in my own work I adopted the gritty high contrast & grain approach to my climbers.
I have been to several funerals and reflected on the great opportunity to capture so many family and friends paying tribute to a life and wondered why we don’t capture that as an object of homage whereas we generally over do weddings. Is it OK to record happy times but not so sad times. I have great admiration for those to whom it is work to record such events – the Wooten Bassett parades are a current phenomena that has produced some very powerful messages. But I can’t do it.
I had a look at Flickr and searched for groups including ‘car crash’ There were 574 results and nearly all the first 20 were specifically for sharing graphic images of such incidents. I didn’t feel like visiting any of them or indeed going on to the second page of results. How do forensic photographers deal with their work?
One image that made an impact on me the very first time I saw it many years ago was by Dorothea Lange depicting a mother & her children in the dustbowls of America and her work was a cause for change in the governments attitude to the farmers. (it was also the making of 35mm film photography – they all used Leicas) If publishing such images benefits the wider society then it must be worthwhile.
In conclusion I would say that there is a place for documentary photography that involves people who are suffering but I prefer to leave it to professionals and if I ever got the opportunity to discuss their work with one I would leap at the chance.
Writing this has helped me clarify my own views I hope it helps you clarify yours.
© January 2010
|To see any of the Landscape
diary items that you have missed please visit the Archive