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january 2020

Changing times, or how I used to see photography and how I see it today


by Hans Durrer
Next Photography became prominent in my life while pursuing a Master's degree in Journalism Studies at the age of 46. When writing my thesis on documentary photography, one of the works I warmed to most was 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men' by James Agee and Walker Evans, a book that, interestingly enough, I had acquired twenty years earlier but had no real recollection of. While my thesis progressed, I also became aware of the fact that as a youngster I had entertained the idea of becoming a photographer — something I had almost completely forgotten. Differently put, quite a lot of things seem to lie dormant for a long time before eventually coming to the surface.
  Right: Donald and Melania Trump on hospital visit at El Paso, August 8, 2019 (official White House photo by Andrea Hanks)

In 1999, the only photography that interested me was documentary. And, especially photojournalism, "pictures with words", that is. This had doubtlessly to do with my enthusiastic and extraordinarily supportive thesis supervisor Daniel Meadows, but also with the fact that I understood documentary to essentially be storytelling which at that time I held very dear. Yet even then, I wasn't a fan of sayings such as "a picture tells more than a thousand words" for I do not think that pictures tell stories, I happen to believe that what we see in pictures we bring to them.

Take the above photo of the Trumps for instance: If you simply look at it (without any prior knowledge regarding the circumstances of the shot) you might think that Donald and Melania Trump pose as godfather and godmother of a baby who probably had successfully undergone surgery at the University Medical Center in El Paso. Well, the photo caption tells another story: "Melania Trump holding the 2-month-old son of Jordan and Andre Anchondo, who were among 22 people killed in a mass shooting in El Paso. Posing with her and President Trump were members of the Anchondo family." It goes without saying that reading the caption changes the way you look at this photo.

Next In order to understand this press photograph, trust is needed — you need to have confidence in the photographer and in the one who wrote the caption. And, while I do not doubt the veracity of the above caption (the self-obsession and total lack of empathy of the Trump couple makes you want to throw up), I feel like pointing out that trust, in today's media world, is a rare commodity. I'm not talking of "Fake News" courtesy of Donald Trump (he produces it whenever he opens his mouth), I'm talking about Fox News and all other media that are so partisan that we should refrain from calling them media, they are in the propaganda-business.
  We all know that once trust is lost it is hard to regain. My trust in most of the media has largely vanished for they are, apart from repeating what official spokespersons say, providing too often nothing but a platform for persons and issues that I do not think should matter. And, they do it solely for profit (needless to say, they would surely dispute that). A side remark: there isn't actually much difference between CNN and Trump — both are praising mainly themselves.
  The fact that the current US-president is probably the best known person on the planet is largely due to the media that seemingly comment on each and every fart of this clearly deranged man. But, hey, shouldn't they cover "the most powerful man of the world"? Of course not, they should cover the ones whose lives are affected by the decisions of this government.
Next What we can more or less decide in life is where to turn our attention to. Mine has shifted from what the media think is important to what I deem relevant — what I see, what I hear, and what I feel. Also: Don't get too attached, was one of the Buddhist lessons that I thought to have learned during my time in Thailand in the 1990s — only to forget it again.
  Left: Mishima, Japan, April 2019; photo by the author

After writing on photography for close to twenty years, I've started to regularly (almost daily) take pictures — and Dorothea Lange's "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera" took on yet another meaning. Nowadays, my interest is in the surface of things, in what pleases my eyes. Richard Rorty comes to mind who once penned: "Existence with all its horrors is endurable only as an aesthetic fact."

To photograph helps me to to see what is. Nothing has to be created, it only has to be looked at and framed. Really looking at something means to calmly let things be. As St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said. "Wear the world as a loose garment, which touches us in a few places and there lightly."

  2020 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes