On documentary photography and some current exhibitions

There’s certainly some good photography around in the UK just now. Especially if you can get a little bit off the beaten track.

I had the pleasure last week to go to the opening of ‘Landscapes of Murder’ by Antonio Olmos at Rich Mix in London: a poignant and powerful reminder of the problem of violence in London. The work is presented as a series of landscapes of everyday places and street scenes: ordinary, familiar and unremarkable locations that serve only to heighten the tragedy that has happened in each. Reminiscent, of course, of Joel Sternfeld’s work ‘On this site: landscapes in memoriam’, Olmos photographed the site of every one of the 210 murders that took place in London from 1st January 2011 to 31st December 2012. One telling difference between the two series is that as a news and documentary photographer Olmos visited each site very shortly after the murder took place: after the media had left, but whilst emotions were still raw. Here we have lone bunches of withering flowers, torn remnants of ‘Police: do not cross’ tape, groups of once tough looking teenagers drawn together in their grief all amidst shoppers and motorists going about their daily lives. Life goes on in these landscapes, but there is always a disturbing reminder that life has been lost here too.

It is the very ordinariness of each photograph that makes them all the more shocking: a powerful and fitting expression of the senselessness of murder on the streets of London.

Friends of Negus McClean gather near the spot where he was murdered on Sunday Night. McLean was stabbed to death by a gang of youths on Westminster Road in Edmonton, North London. McLean is the 4th teenager to be stabbed to death in London in 2011.

Friends of Negus McClean gather near the spot where he was murdered on Sunday Night. McLean was stabbed to death by a gang of youths on Westminster Road in Edmonton, North London. McLean is the 4th teenager to be stabbed to death in London in 2011.

At Rich Mix, London until 30th May: http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/the-landscape-of-murder/

Book available here.

On a connected theme as part of the Look/15 photography festival in Liverpool is American photographer Richard Ross’s heartbreaking series ‘Juvenile in Justice’: a compassionate and powerful portrayal of a justice system that has gone very, very wrong. Ross has photographed teenagers and young people (as young as ten!) held in detention centres in 31 US states. In each photograph the face of the youngster is blurred, obscured or photographed from behind, magnifying the sense of isolation and fear they must feel. Accompanying texts in the young persons own words are desperate.

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Both extraordinary and important bodies of work – documentary photography at it’s very best.

I fear sometimes that photographers can get too obsessed with the ‘idea’ or ‘concept’ of what they are doing or otherwise overplay the process – photography about photography. There seems to be a lot of naval gazing going on these days.

If, as photographers, we want to document and communicate, then surely we want our work to reach and connect with as wide an audience as possible. If we require that the viewer has a degree in visual anthropology or is extraordinarily well informed about the latest movements in contemporary art then we may be doing our subjects a great disservice. This is not to say that documentary, art and conceptualization can’t all work together and there are some fantastic examples of new and innovative approaches to what is essentially documentary photography where the results are challenging, engaging and very rewarding. I’m thinking here of Max Pinckers’ work ‘Will They Sing like Raindrops or Leave me Thirsty’, a small selection of which is at St Georges Hall in Liverpool as part of Look/15. The work is a mesmerising mix of Bollywood theatricality and keenly observed documentary interwoven with old torn newspaper cuttings – all telling the story of the ‘Love Commandos’, a small group of men in New Delhi whose mission is ‘to help India’s lovebirds who want to marry for love’, often against the wishes of family and the tradition of arranged marriage. A fine piece of work and well worth looking out.

Another compelling work that uses differing approaches is the intensely personal series ‘When I was six’ by Phil Toledano which was shown recently at the Format Festival in Derby and is available as a book from Dewi Lewis. The title refers to the death of Toledano’s sister aged nine when the photographer himself was six. Many years later after his parents died, Toledano discovered a box of his sisters possessions that his parents had neatly packed away after her death. The work takes the form of a series of still lives of items from the box and imagined ‘landscapes’ of outer space that occupied the young boys mind in the years after her death. Beautiful!

So, there it is: a very small selection of some great work that’s out there just now. There are myriad ways of making powerful documentary work, but please, please, please, make it both accessible and compelling.

I’ll finish with some words from Michael Craig-Martin, the great cheerleader for conceptual art and the Young British Artists. In his new book ‘On being an Artist‘ he writes:

“I dislike jargon intensely and cannot stand people who think that complex ideas need to be expressed in a way that is obscure or rarefied. I believe the opposite is the case.”

Here, here.

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