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february 2015

What photography has taught me


by Hans Durrer
Next Left: The Brown Sisters, 1986, Cambridge, Massachusetts; part of a photo series by Nicholas Nixon

It was in 1999, while studying at the School of Media, Journalism and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, that I developed a serious interest in photography. This was due to my photography tutor, Daniel Meadows, who after almost thirty years of teaching hadn't lost his enthusiasm.

My Master thesis was on documentary photography and that is still the photo field I warm to most. Dorothea Lange's quote: "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera" defines my main interest well.

  Documentary photography means to go out into the world, to confront yourself with what is out there — and then tell us about it, with pictures, and with words. It can also mean — and that is one of the most intriguing aspects of photography — to document time.
  One of the most impressive, and touching, documentary projects I've ever come across is Forty Portraits in Forty Years by Nicholas Nixon who makes me see, and feel, a reality that I'm rarely aware of. The passing of time, that is. Understanding is a feeling, Robert Adams once noted, and never has this been more obvious than when spending time with Nixon's portraits of the Brown Sisters.
Next Photography (thinking about photography, that is) has taught me to question what I'm shown, and, especially, what I'm not shown.
  When, after what has come to be known as the Charlie Hebdo attacks (for there were also the hostage-taking and killings at a Jewish supermarket as well as the murder of a policewoman), photographs showed "world leaders" (gimme a break!) such as Hollande, Cameron, Juncker, and Merkel leading a solidarity march of more than one million people in Paris. TV-shots revealed a very different perspective on the event. The Financial Times Middle East correspondent Borzou Daragahi twittered that the politicians "didn't 'lead' Charlie Hebdo marchers in Paris but conducted a photo-op on empty, guarded street."
  Gerhard Matzig of Süddeutsche Zeitung argued that there was nothing wrong with this photo-op, that it was necessary because of security concerns, that it did not contradict the sincerity of the politicians. Well, I'm not so sure whether a photo-op, sincerity, and politicians go well together.
  On the other hand, Matzig is right, politics has always also been "gesture, symbol, posture." In other words, calculated. Just think of Churchill's famous victory sign, Brandt's genuflection in Warsaw. Mitterand and Kohl joining hands at Verdun. We all know these photographs are staged. Yet the Paris pictures are a completely different story for it was not obvious that they were staged. Their purpose was to make us believe the politicians were part of, and leading, the crowd. These pics were not fakes, they were lies.
Next Photography is about feelings. I like, I don't like. Sadly, there it often stops. For to just give in to feelings is not always a good idea. Nobody knows that better than addicts.
  Socrates once stated: "The unexamined life is not worth living." And, while I'm not too sure about that, I do tend to agree — for my interest is in the examined life. And, in regards to photography, in the examined photograph.
  Photographs trigger emotions. We shouldn't shy away from them — as many photography critics do (prefering to ponder rather abstract issues not necessarily related to the photos they claim to write about) —, we should confront them.
  Photography has taught me that looking is not enough, that seeing is necessary. To be able to see, we need to now what we are looking at. And, this requires curiosity. And the courage to ask the kind of questions that children ask: what is this, and what is that, and why is this so and that not so.
  What we see in a picture, we bring to it. The more the photographer tells me about his picture and his picture-taking-process — what do we see, where is it, when, what made him choose the picture, what mood he was in when taking it, what obstacles he had to conquer etc. etc. — the more likely it is that I will see what he did see.
  Take Janos Stekovics' portrait of the identical twins János and István Lukács. He met them in 1985 in the Hungarian countryside, when they were in their sixties, and chronicled the final phase of their lives. I felt profoundly moved by looking at these pics, experiencing melancholy and affection at the same time. And when I read that "István was more gregarious, János was more of the silent and stoic type; István preferred to keep the house, and János cared mostly for the animals. Neither ever married," the photographs evoked again new feelings (and put a sympathetic smile on my face) that without this information I wouldn't have been aware of.
Next "Without a reference point there is meaninglessness. But I wish you'd understand that without a reference point you're in the real," Sharon Cameron penned in Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain.
  One of these reference points is time. "In the real," time however does not exist. The magic of photography is that it allows us to see — time, that is — what we know does not exist.

  • Cameron, Sharon (2000), Beautiful work. A meditation on pain. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
  • Frank, Priscilla (2015), "Heartbreaking portraits capture two identical twin farmers at the end of their lives." In: The Huffington Post, 30 January, 2015.
  • Lange, Dorothea (1978), A photographer's life. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
  • Matzig, Gerhard (2015), "Ein gestelltes Foto darf Geschichte schreiben." In: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 13 January, 2015.
  • Minot, Susan (2014), "Forty portraits in forty years. Photographs by Nicholas Nixon." In: The New York Times Magazine, 3 October, 2014.
  • Withnall, Adam (2015), "Paris march. TV wide shots reveal a different perspective on world leaders at largest demonstration in France's history." In: The Independent, 6 February, 2015.
  2015 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes