Featured Post

Pinned Post, A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

On "Conversation"

This post here is responding to a post on petapixel, written by Simon King, which post you might read here. I will provide a summary of sorts, so reading it might be more of a checking-my-work situation.

There is, among a certain subset of "documentary" photographers, something of a trend to trash more or less everyone else doing documentary photography with accusations of "not doing the work" and of being exploitive or violent or whatever. This is, usually, badly argued to the point of being nearly copypasta, and transparently little more than a whinge to the effect that "major museums are not buying my photographs of homeless people even though I am awesome and did do the work." King's piece reads a bit like this, but upon a more careful read, he's actually doing a better job.

King starts out by doing something somewhere between pointing out and complaining about the occasional refrain "I am starting a conversation around <issue>." This is indeed a thing documentary photographers drag out sometimes to justify uninteresting pictures around social issues we all know about already. Visualize, if you like, bog-standard photos of homeless guys panhandling. The scruffy hair, the outstretched cup, the insanely cranked local contrast. You know the ones. Well, sure, this is a stupid refrain.

King argues, more or less correctly, that you're not starting a conversation at all. The best you can do is join an existing conversation (but more on this in a moment.) He proposes, and this is where the argument is quite sound, that to join an existing conversation you should probably listen in for a bit and enter smoothly, rather than simply barging in with whatever dumb idea just popped into your head. This is a pretty cogent analogy/argument for "doing the work." He took rather a lot of words to get here, but ok.

He gives some examples, and notably lands on Minamata which, to my surprise, he correctly describes not as starting a conversation, but as bringing a conversation to a new audience, into places where the conversation was not being had. Mostly, people think the book broke the story, which it absolutely did not. It didn't even break it in the USA, but it did transport the conversation to a new audience in a meaningful way.

This is a pretty good observation on King's part, but unfortunately it undermines his previous, fairly cogent, argument. The point here is that while yes there is a conversation ongoing, about let us say homelessness, and while you might could contribute to the ongoing discourse, that's not all there is. You could also find a new audience, people who have never really thought about it, people who don't know much about the issue, and offer them more or less the standard primer, as a way of... wait... starting a conversation there. There's always someone who doesn't know about whatever the thing is, and there's sound work to be done bringing a contemporary primer, phrased in ways that resonate with that new audience, to those people. Just like Minamata did.

What if every shitty instagram account of shitty pictures of homeless people opened just one person's eyes a little? What if it moved one person to donate $10 to the local food bank? Would that be enough? How much good does a photo have to do to be justified? Ultimately, who cares even if it does that much? Virtually no photographs move the needle on anything. Almost zero of the photographs that get published on the front page of a national newspaper move the needle on anything. It doesn't seem to actually matter much.

In the end, this only matters if you think photos are somehow doing some harm. If they're literally just rectangles of tone and color blobs, who gives a shit? Oh no! It failed to start a conversation! Yeah, the french fries I ate the other day didn't either, and nobody's complaining about those. Yes, it's annoying when goobers make more or less false claims about the weight of their photographs, but to an extent they're trying to justify their pictures because a bunch of puritan assholes have told them they must.

Generally speaking, the homeless guy with his hand out wasn't harmed by this photo, or by any of the other 150 photos of him that people have taken (he's very picturesque.) Those photos need no justification, and our contemporary obsession with justifying photos isn't doing anyone any good. Just let them be pointless rectangles of tone and color blobs. Nobody cares, nobody's getting hurt, nobody's losing anything. It's just some guy with a camera.


  1. hooo hoo!! [stone seal]

  2. The photos accompanying the article are completely random, as someone helpfully pointed out in pp comments. Otherwise the whole thing may as well have been compiled by ChatGPT from countless similar.

    1. The photos all seem to be fetishizing the "no identifiable people" meme that has eaten the brains of people like Simon, so we get a lot of null photos of people's backs.

      It think the argument is a *little* better than ChatGPT could do! But it can work wonders, so maybe not. It definitely recycles all the textual tropes from Those People, though.

    2. I get that the author is VERY SINCERE. So there's that.

    3. Hi David, the photographs for this article are purely to illustrate the general idea I'm discussing. There's no overarching project to source from, so I chose from ones I felt were "conversational" in the way I described. The fact they feature mostly backs of heads is genuinely coincidental, and a look at my other work will (hopefully) show that there's no deliberate agenda towards that style.

    4. Simon, thank you for responding. I think you needed to either go 'all in' in illustrating how you apply your thesis to a photographic project, or not include any pictures. It's not at all clear how the ones you've used relate to the idea of "conversation." Captions might have helped. It's also entirely possible that I am too stupid to see your point!

    5. You're right, I could have made the connection clearer - but in a way it wasn't really important for this article to feature imagery because it wouldn't have been about any of them in perticular. If I'd submitted it without images I don't think it would have made a huge difference but I'd worry about people not wanting to read a straight up essay without some form of accompanying graphic element. I also worry about relating my points back to my work as examples, I prefer to discuss what I'm going for in the abstract but not in a commanding way.

      I'll look at doing more in the future to make the visual and text mesh a bit better, as I understand how it was jarring in this instance. Thank you for being candid with your feedback!

  3. I may be unfairly reading your argument.

    Generally, I see the following: Someone takes some pictures of people, probably vulnerably people. Someone else takes exception to this on the grounds of "harm" being done. The photographer then (or perhaps pre-emptively) attempts to justify their photos be claiming to be "starting a conversation" about some injustice, so the harm is balanced by the good! Your remarks seem to go pretty directly to that last.

    My larger assertion is that, in almost all cases, no such justification is necessary. Indeed, it may be undesirable, akin to explaining your pictures.

    I like the way you have shaped your argument, ultimately. If a photographer, for *whatever* reason, justification or otherwise, wishes to be part of a "conversation" your remarks are very much on point.

    My counter is that as a photographer, I am also free to make no such claim. One is permitted (usually) to simply put the pictures out there, with no attempt to justify or explain. 'If you guys wanna have a "conversation" about my photos of some homeless guy, go for it, but leave me out of it.' is a perfectly good position to take.

    1. I don't think your interpretation was unfair as such, just coming from a different context than it was written in. From what you've stated I can understand why you'd think my piece was a critique of photographers finding themselves on the back foot in online discourse.

      From my perspective I wanted to unpack a buzz-phrase I hear a lot but don't really feel lines up with the reality. In that sense it was more a semantic analysis than moral condemnation - but I think it may still guide some in a more intentionally driven direction.

      I understand there is discourse around what harm photographs can cause or contribute to, but wherever you draw the line isn't it better to draw it and know its there rather than stumble over it? To be able to explain yourself at each step, rather than have your first introspective moment of self analysis while staring down both barrels of a twitter thread?

      You're right that no justification is necessary, but I'd add the caveat that in certain contexts is becomes necessary.
      If I share an artistic composition and someone asks what it means I may or my not have an answer, and will say as much. If I share a journalistic image and someone asks me what religious ritual is taking place if I don't have an answer then I haven't done my job. Some of my photographs are decorations and others are explainations.

      You are right that photographers are free to participate as much or as little in the wider context of photography discourse, political discourse, cultural, etc etc. All forms of discourse. For some of those my ideas will possibly help their intention, and others may reject that entirely - that's fine, but at least they've thought about it and made that decision, instead of just going along with whatever they see everyone else doing and saying.

      I appreciate how much thought you put into your own writings, and time you've put into replying to me in the comments here. Your last point here about "go for it, but leave me out of it" is one that I'd be interested to hear more thoughts on but don't want to take up more of your time in this comments section.

      It seems that you are saying the art and artist are separate to an extreme degree, where the photograph/s "shed" the photographer (entirely?), leaving the creator of the work without much responsibility for what they've made? Have I understood that right? Do you have any posts where you discuss that idea specifically? I'd say again that it's contextual to the genre - a fine art landscape photographer shouldn't need to answer what the meaning of their black and white volcanic rubble "means", but I do think a photojournalist should be answerable if actions like staging, manipulation etc are suspected.

      In both cases people are free to ask questions and the photographer is free to answer or ignore them - but as above there's a difference between not explaining the artistic meaning of a landscape and the tangible meaning behind why the same person appears in your images in many different scenarios and uniforms, almost as if they were a hired model on a set. (I've realised this feels like a huge tangent from the original starting point)

    2. TL;DR: "One size don't fit all."