When Photographs Talk of Change

When in the early 1990s, I finally went back to university to study art history with a focus on photography, there was no doubt that the female photographers dominated.  This was in part because the school that I attended was a very pink school (I say pink, because when I was growing up, it was customary for the serious feminists to wear a pink-dyed headscarf, and for them to be referred to as being ‘pink’).  In addition to being a university run by a strong group of feminists, it was politically quite far to the left of centre, and so one could argue that the pink became red and sometimes it was hard to determine the exact shade. 

One thing is very clear:  Female photographers were central to my first serious ventures into the world of photography. Add to this the egalitarian nature of photographing – after all, as Chef Custeau would have said, had he been a photographer and not a chef: “Anyone can photograph.” There is a level playing field for the photographer – any photographer – to create a good, or even a great image.  Sure, there were, and still are, barriers to entry, from a commercial point of view, glass ceilings, and so forth, but the image itself is available to anyone.  Back in the day, if you could lay your hands on a camera and some film, you could create.  Today the average phone can do the trick. I hope that my time spent in a left-leaning school, in the company of women photographers has stood me well in my own work, trying to be humble and appreciate great work, whatever the source. 

I have thought often about those days and all the images that moved from the projector to the screen, while the talking heads pointed out particular qualities and characteristics that were important to pass the upcoming exam.  The list of female photographers; famous, well-known and less-well-known, was long. 

Personally, I am drawn to work that has an ephemeral quality, where the photographer, the printing, the paper and the image come together in splendid whole, capturing an elusive fraction of a second in time.  When this is successful, there is nothing like it.  You can have long discussions about the technical aspects of all the steps that go into making a great photograph, but at the end of all this, only one thing remains, the gift that the photographer presents to you, or me, the viewer.

Photographs that really work have this extra quality that you cannot put your finger on. For me it is a whole movie with a great soundtrack condensed and concentrated into a single frame on a small piece of paper, brought to life by the vision of the photographer.  There can be no lengthy description, no deeply articulated justification for the work.  There is the work.  The single image.  The story that I get to write in my mind is mine, and mine alone, as I look at this humble piece of paper with blacks and whites and all manner of greys in-between.  

I am drawn, in particular to a quote by Jürgen Schadeberg, who very smartly points out that: “there are certain moments we do not see unless we photograph them.”  This goes hand-in-hand with what Edouard Boubat has said many times: “”The photographer sees the same show that everyone else sees. He however stops to watch it.”

I cannot pretend that these seemingly simple observations apply to all photography.  Sometimes elaborate sets are constructed, lights are erected, timers engaged and subjects distracted by little birds on the end of toy fishing pole to encourage that particular smile, or a whole phalanx of assistants mill about eagerly anticipating the second when the maestro will press the shutter, before moving on to the next frame.  But, this is not my kind of photography. It doesn’t speak to me.

When I really pay attention.  When I really see.  There are gifts everywhere.  One of my all time favourite photographs, and yes, by one of those hardcore feminist photographers, is by Abigail Heyman.  There is something very familiar to those of us who were around in the 1970s, who might have seen this exact scene play out any number of times, without really noticing it.  But, as Boubat and Schadeberg both suggest, there is genius in stopping, watching and recording. 

Heyman, Abigail – Supermarket 1972

There is a time, a context, and a reality captured in this photograph, which on one hand is simply a 1972 snapshot at the supermarket, but there is genius in the composition, the generational play, the bleak future of the young woman in the foreground, who appears to be working on nothing more than becoming her mother, represented by the older ladies just behind her.  A vicious cycle to be repeated over, and over again.  But in this photograph I see a message of hope that the cycle can be broken. The photographer uses the mundane to put forward a new idea, a new vision, and a different future.  There is a streak of defiance in the young lady’s eye, and a brighter flower on her dress.  By pointing to the mundane and sad mediocrity of the suburbs in 1972, a simple message is delivered.  We don’t all have to become our parents.  God forbid.  We can break the cycle.  Make our own reality.  We can change the world!