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
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.