…and what about…

•April 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

My final project for my documentary photography class is exploring the world of a special needs person. There are some reservations I have about completing this assignment but first, I’ll give you some background.

How did I come up with this topic?
My mother is a caretaker for special needs people. This means she is a paid employee of the state and she is a 24/7 caretaker for two mentally challenged elderly women. Throughout my life, I have been involved in my mother’s work because, well, I have lived with these women for twelve years.

Looking back, it seemed I have a normal life, but when others hear about my childhood, I get some awkward looks. Something about it seems…unnatural.

So I am trying to tell the stories of these women. I want to visually communicate to others that these women as are happy and confident as anybody else, even if they are unaware of their disability. Anyways… who REALLY decides what a disability is?

So during this project I need to be sensitive. I need to be aware that others may misinterpret my images for their own sick humor. One of my fears is that I will inadvertently “abandon” these two women. They cannot give consent to having their picture taken with an educated understanding of my intent. What if I make a mistake? I would have made them vulnerable to the judgment and discrimination of ignorant audiences. There is an MTV show called “How’s Your News” and it ridicules the disabilities of special needs individuals as they try to cover news stories. To me, it is hurtful that the entertainment industry is making money at the expense of mentally-challenged people.

I hope people will be able to see that these women are wonderful individuals and their “disabilities” only heighten their passion and amiable innocence. But… what if I do “abandon” them? How would I redeem them?

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New Video on personal site

•March 12, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Check out my webpage with my new video, “Photo Diaries”

This is a class assignment aimed at learning how to create video images to convey a concept. This video visually explains how photographers abandon their subjects, and tries to interpret how the emotions of both parties are affected through visuals and voice over.

Quotes to think about…

•March 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

documentary photography is…

“an approach that makes use of the artistic faculties to give vivification to facts”
-Walt Whitman

“…the whole idea of documentary–not with words alone but with sight and sound–makes it impossible to see, know, and feel the details of life, to feel oneself part of some other’s experience”
-Walter Sussman

“a document, when human, is the opposite of of the official kind; it is not objective but thoroughly personal”
-Stott

“to let the subjects, the living participants of social reality, speak to you fact to face. Having looked at a documentary book, you could no longer be ignorant of them. You had seen their faces”
-Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor

“In order to ‘give meaning’ to the world, one has to feel involved in what he frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression. One must always take photos with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself”
-Henri Cartier-Bresson

“One must always take photos with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself” What does this mean? When we take photographs, we always try to do it with the utmost sensitivity and respect for the subject in the photo. How often do photographers shoot their subjects with the intent for exploitation? Well, maybe photojournalists fall under this category in certain circumstances, when the motivation is strictly monetary… but documentary photographers engage in the lives of their subjects. Whether it is just a moment or for months, the photographer will at some point feel a connection with their subject… that is why they open their shutter. With all this said, what responsibilities lie on the viewership? The media, the publishers, the public… in what sense could a photo be taken out of context and exploited? Who is the abandoner? The photographer, or the middleman?

My boss, a documentary photographer, just launched a new website called socialdocumentary.net: this is the url for a tv interview on Channel 5… check out what he has to say:

http://www.thebostonchannel.com/video/18754964/index.html

Exploitation versus Exploration

•February 18, 2009 • 1 Comment

Unlike photojournalism, documentary photography is meant to be long-term; that is, conducting research, practicing honesty, and cultivating relationships. Many documentarians justify their work by “giving their subjects a voice” but to some extent, I disagree. Of course, there is a difference between snapping a photo of a stranger without their permission compared to engaging in conversation with the subject. My boss, a documentary photographer, said to me: “give the subject a little bit of yourself and you won’t seem so distant.” Distant. Is it the distance between the photographer and the subject that results in unavoidable abandonment? Does the camera separate us even more? Am I actively abandoning the subject as I am taking the photo, or is it an after-effect as viewers make quiet assumptions about the subject, based on the image I created? If abandonment in photography is unavoidable, should the photographer feel guilt?

I think the amount of guilt depends on the viewership. Publishing the photograph to the web (as I have done) or selling the photo to an ad agency (which I have not done) could result in more viewership to [possibly] prejudiced audiences, exploiting the subject to a range of assumptions without the subject’s permission. Can abandonment be measure on a scale, or is abandonment simply one degree of hurtfulness, inflicted by one person (the photographer) on another (the subject)?

Merrimack Flower GirlFurthermore, is abandonment even felt by the subject? For instance, I did a photo interview with a woman who works at a flowershop earlier this week. I didn’t lie to her: I told her it was a school project and we engaged in friendly conversation and enjoyed ourselves immensely during the shoot. She seemed to love having her picture taken, even though I was only offering a photographic view into one aspect of her life, and leaving the rest to assumption. I can’t tell you what her birthday is, or her wedding anniversary, or if she even has any children…I can’t tell you about any of her most proud moments in life. All the audience knows is that she works in a flowershop…still, she didn’t seem to mind.

Food for thought: what about photographing conflict areas? How far can one go before exploitation occurs, and the subject feels the hurtful feelings of abandonment?

History of XXth Century Photography

•February 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

In the article, History of XXth Century Photography, Claude Cookman (2002) writes about portraiture photography and adds support to my argument about abandonment in photographs. Cookman reflects on the different portraiture between Arnold Newman and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In controlling the frame, as Newman has done in Igor Stravinsky’s 1946 portrait, Cookman claims Newman has embraced Stravinksy’s contribution to twentieth-century music, but has neglected to offer accounts on his character. This leads into Cookan’s discussion on the importance of environment. He quotes Cartier-Bresson in The Decisive Moment:

If the photographer is to have a chance of achieving a true reflection of a person’s world–which is as much outside him as inside him–it is necessary that the subject of the portrait should be in a situation normal to him. We must respect the atmosphere which surrounds the human being, and integrate into the portrait the individual’s habitat–for man, no less than animals, has his habitat

In other words, one way to help escape the act of abandoning your subject is to set the subject in an environment that connotes personality and character. However, Cookman goes on to argue that controlling the photograph opens a variety of interpretations. It is my belief that leaving a photograph open to interpretation contributes to abandonment. It is not fair to leave the subject’s portrait vulnerable to the audience to decipher the subject’s personality. Even a caption does not do justice to an individual life full of meaning. How then, does a photographer take a picture and keep the subject from unintentional (or intentional) abandonment?

Social Documentary and the abandoned

•February 3, 2009 • 1 Comment
A man sitting solitude in Beverly's Dunkin Donuts

A man sitting solitude in Beverly's Dunkin Donuts

Here is a picture…. some say a picture is worth a thousand words but how many of those words are truth and not ignorance? When I was shooting this man in a local Dunkin Donuts I found out three facts: He has lived in Beverly most of his life, he lived in California for two years, and was in the service for eight years. How have I abandoned him? I have left the rest of his life for interpretation by the audience. I have abandoned his right to tell his own story from beginning to end. I abandoned him in that Dunkin Donuts without knowing his name. I am beginning to see documentary photography as an abandonment if not done thoroughly and correctly. When people take photographs, those photographs are typically of something or someone who is important and meaningful to the photographer. As an amateur documentarian, I feel like I am abandoning the subject’s right to share his or her life… and I certainly cannot do it myself.