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september 2011

The good photograph


by Hans Durrer

Left: Unidentified child prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, photographed before execution at the Tuol Sleng torture centre by an unknown photographer

Photography is a truly democratic medium — anybody can take a good picture. Even chimpanzees can do a good picture, David Bailey once said. And then added, smilingly: "But I can do two." Right. But consider this:

In January 2005, a team of Malian and U.S. photographers guided twenty-two sixth graders from Mali in an exploration of the power of photography through camera basics. Then the students put to work their newly acquired skills and portrayed the people and traditions of their community, two small villages 500 miles southwest of Timbuktu, Damy and Kouara. Forty-nine black and white images from the project were on display at the Fowler Museum at UCLA from 19 December 2007 to 11 March 2008 in the exhibition "Visual Griots of Mali." Some of these impressive shots you will find on Visual Griots of Mali - Student Gallery.

  It looks like it does not seem to take much to take good pictures — sometimes a bit of guiding will do, sometimes you won't even need that.
  So what then distinguishes a photographer from someone who simply is taking good photographs? Working on the images, I remember the angry comment of a student. And the preparation that goes into the picture taking, I would add.
  But that surely isn't picture taking, that is picture making.
  Well, quite some say, all photography is picture making: what you choose to focus on, what to frame, what film you use, what angle, what light you select etc.
Next Not so, others argue, this is nothing but the art of taking pictures; making pictures is different, it comes after the picture has been taken, and means to photoshop, or to be working on a negative.
  Whatever you want to call it: it is possible that an amateur can shoot a perfect picture. So what then is the difference between a good shot of an amateur and a good shot of a professional? There isn't any. Nevertheless, in real life there are only few amateurs who sometimes come up with a good shot.
  Since anybody can take a good photo, what then makes somebody a photographer? Well, said one of the students during a workshop on visual literacy in Nykarleby, Western Finland: I can also bake and occasionally come up with new creations yet I wouldn't call myself a baker because of it. Put differently: A baker's life revolves around baking, a photographer's life around photography.
  The point is not what somebody is potentially able to do, the point is what (s)he does.
Next I must admit that I'm often not terribly interested in what a photographer wants to show me, what his intention was, or what goal he pursued. I'm more interested in what a photo does to me. In this respect, this picture above is singular. It hit me, it hurt me, I felt irresistibly drawn to what Roland Barthes called "this mark made by a pointed instrument." How come? I can't really say but I guess it has something to do with the fact that I grew up in the time of the Vietnam War and always had great sympathy for (and romantic notions of) Southeast Asians. Then I learned that it shows an unidentified child prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, photographed before execution, the date is not known. It was taken by an unknown photographer at the Tuol Sleng torture center.

  I can't recall another photo (except the one of Kim Phuc) that left me so deeply moved. And, how do I explain that? I surmise it has probably less to do with what the picture shows and more with what I bring into it. In other words, it has to do with the pictures (the film, really) it conjures up in my head, and with what these pictures create — feelings of pity, and of helplessness, the wish to have been able to protect the girl as well as anger, contempt and revulsion towards her executioners.
Next But is this picture a good photograph?
  To me it is — because I can't take my eyes off it, because it touches me deeply, because it makes my mind wander, and wonder. And, because it is one of these rare pics that have left their mark on me, that have become part of my visual memory, and that continue to accompany me.
  But couldn't a bad photograph have the same effect?
  Only in theory.
  2011 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes