This rambles a bit. I have tried to rein it in some, but, it's still wandering around.
A brief preamble to begin. I had a moment of crisis when I realized that, in effect, I am demanding that non-western photography be to a degree incomprehensible to me to be "truly non-western" which you could certainly read as way to be a racist dickhead, Andrew, with your stereotype of the inscrutable east. I thought about discarding the idea as just that, but I cannot. It's not that the east is inscrutable, it's that I am ignorant. Not, I hope, much more than the average person, but I don't know everything, I don't grasp your culture in any meaningful or complete way.
So, I am sticking to my guns. If some non-westerner shows me photographs that are easy for me, I am going to treat them as (probably) essentially western photographs shot by a non-westerner.
But this begs the question, is there any such thing as non-western photography? Or is it all just pictures, sometimes of non-western stuff, sometimes of western stuff, but all pretty much the same thing? It seems silly to parse the photograph apart from its contents, but I think there's something to be poked at here. Various cultures famously have different ideas of personal space, for instance how close you should stand to a person you're conversing with. Perhaps this, I imagine, might manifest in how photographs are framed, or similar. A photograph that feels extremely intimate to me might, I imagine, seem a trifle removed and distant to someone else.
Surely other, less obvious, aspects of culture might inform the overall aesthetic, the "look" of the work? Or, more obvious. Could not African traditional art inform the photography of an African?
It is certainly true that there can be cultural barriers (indeed, there often are) in grasping the content of a picture. This is mostly what I experience. Still, I feel that there may be essentially photographic things that could throw my understanding off as well.
Another aside before I start looking at pictures. Art photography, in my mind, has to take a position, it needs to make a statement. You have to want to express something, and the body of work should be judged largely on the basis on how well it says what you want it to say. Documentary photography needs to be more objective, obviously, we're trying to tell truth here after all. Taking too strong of a position will slant the story (and all too often it does).
Still, it seems to me that there is some strong overlap between simply telling the story, and taking a position.
The difference between photojournalism and the artistic photo essay is, perhaps, that the former tells a true story with true pictures, and the latter need not.
A recent piece on another matter which I read cites Ritesh Uttamchandani as one of India's great, but unsung-in-the-west, photographers. Looking through the work, I see, obviously, that the content is non-western. The people don't look like me, the land and the buildings don't look like Bellingham, WA, USA. Do the photographs look different?
I'm not sure. I see stylistic echos of Raghubir Singh, but I could just be imagining things. I also see, in Uttamchandani's "Ceilings" portfolio (under short stories) what looks like a nod to Eggleston, but it could simply be that the guy was shooting ceilings (he was) and one of them happened to be red. Or did he see the red ceiling, and pass through Eggleston to I should shoot these ceilings? Does Uttamchandani even know who Eggleston is? I don't know, but I certainly read a reference to the Eggleston picture, and perhaps that's what matters.
In any case, in both the work of Singh and Uttamchandani I see something stylistic, a sense of space (yes, that sounds lame, and it is, sorry). I don't know if it's an accident, my personal prejudice, or something essentially Indian. Maybe they both just like wider lenses than I do.
If it is just wide lenses, is that an Indian choice or a personal preference, indistinguishable from the personal choices of a westerner? How would I even know?
I've mentioned Singh before, here where I noted that he seemed to be to be showing me a more real India than Steve McCurry (not that this is a stretch). I get the same sense from Uttamchandani's photographs. I am willing to accept that India actually looks like that. Now, Uttamchandani's work suffers to my eye from being documentary in nature, he's not taking any position on anything. Even the "Ceilings" work, which strikes me as an attempt at Art, the sort of place where one might make a comment or take a position, he does not. He's simply documenting ceilings (and, incidently, illustrating a somewhat narrow view of human sex. Do prostitutes really look at the ceiling all the time during their work? I admit that I don't know.)
Even though the text suggests that Uttamchandani has some strong opinions about Bal Thackeray, his pictures again of the man's funeral again appear to me to take no position, make no statement.
While, in a sense, this is what you want from documentary pictures, in the end I think Uttamchandani's unwillingness to take a position means that he's not even telling a story. His work seems designed to illustrate the stories written by other people, which I think is literally true.
Anyways. I feel strong western influences in these pictures, but also that sense of space which comes from somewhere. A western influence is expected, I guess. Photography isn't really old enough to have a huge backlog of history to draw from, and much of that history is western. Uttamchandi might well and reasonably have shot an homage to Eggleston, why not? But perhaps there is also something essentially Indian here, apart from the content.
And, in closing, if Uttamchandani is a mighty photographer, one of the truly great from India, I am not really seeing it. But then, I could be missing it, couldn't I? That's kind of my point here.