I was struck by a recent post by David, and his quote from Josh Metzeler about getting to the right place to take pictures:
I’d like to say one very important thing about photojournalism (that may or
may not have anything to do with my image here) that I repeat over and over
to my students at Western Kentucky University. I show them some of the
most famous pictures ever taken – icons of eras in history, amazing moments
in news or daily life, and I stress to them, even to the beginning students,
that they are absolutely technically ready to make nearly all of those images.
If I could pop them into nearly any of those scenes right now, I think most of
them would make a great photo. But, what they can’t do quite yet, and what
we all work on throughout our careers, whether as students or seasoned
professionals, is the ability to get ourselves physically in place to take those
It struck a chord, one that also resonates in the content of recent posts about education and young people, the value of interaction, and the subject of the post published before this one – racism.
I’ve recently been scanning some old work and revisiting some past experiences, and with the clarity of hindsight reflecting on the ways that my outlook on life has been shaped by the experience of getting into the position to make some of those images. But whats also important, and I think indivisible from that experience, is how the images themselves have been able to carry with them some value as they and I continued on through life.
I went to Africa when I was 17, for several months travelling alone, hitching and curious (this was the 70’s: apartheid, civil war in Rhodesia, and I got in about all of it and into some situations I should not have, and saw some unpleasant stuff).
In Swaziland I wandered across the open rolling hills and came to a little village miles from anywhere and was greeted by a group of raggedy children and a great friendly interaction took place. In the middle of this a woman and child emerged from a hut and she bade me hello. We talked and she asked where I came from and I said “Scotland, do you know where that is?” to which she replied “yes, I do, I’m studying law in Edinburgh at the University” !
That was not the answer I expected and she delighted in the surprise on my face. As we talked she told me she was one of King Sobhuza’s many hundreds of grandchildren (according to the Swaziland National Trust Commission, King Sobhuza II married 70 wives, who gave him 210 children between 1920 and 1970 of which about 180 children survived infancy. When he died he had over 1000 grandchildren.)
She graciously agreed to pose for me outside the hut, and we exchanged contact details so she could give me a shout in Scotland. (Sadly in the intervening years I’ve lost my diary with all the names and contact details I recorded during this period.)
From Swaziland I went to Lesotho and met some more fine people, did a lot of talking and great deal more listening, and took several images of children and young people which I was quite pleased with as a novice photographer, although at the time, with film, I had no idea what I’d got until I got home.
Fast forward a few years and I was (bi)cycling through the southern USA, and found myself stalled out in Texas in the winter. Through a school teacher I’d met I took a chance and offered to give a slide show and talk to a Social Studies class of 12 – 14 year olds in a South Texas rural school. These were predominantly African American children. Many were from low-income families, although not all.
I showed them images from my home in Scotland and some from my African wanderings, and to the teacher’s dismay the images of impoverished rural African children elicited a rather callous and obviously racist response from the audience. A chorus of raucous giggles accompanied by comments such as “ho ho look at the poor niggers” and “he’s got his jersey on backwards and one arm of it is missing ha ha ha ha ha” and “man thats a snotty nose like a car crash (snigger) and “whoa look no clothes, just old raggedy blankets on these coons” ” and so on and so forth.
Until the following image came up.
And there was silence. Nothing. Not even a murmur. And then one child asked why there was no headstone or name on the grave, only a number.
And so I talked on about poverty, infant mortality in Africa, life expectancy, lack of schooling, drought and famine, and the complex reality of some people’s lives. And there came the unmistakable sound of uncomfortable buttock shuffling.
The next day the teacher told me the class had been quite affected by the images, and that after I left there had followed a prolonged discussion about child poverty, and that a couple of the children had been quite perplexed and a little distressed by the realization of the situation that others of their age had to tolerate. Many of the class were undoubtedly living close to the poverty line as defined in the USA, but even they could see the vast gulf between their experience and some of the children I’d portrayed.
Now this is not important work, nor will it change much about the world, but thats really not the point. The point is that being there to take the images changed me, and because of those changes, subsequently using these images in a specific way might just have subtly shifted one or two rural Texan children’s world view. That might not be much in the greater scheme of things. But its something.
It’s taught me never to underestimate the people you are pointing your camera at, and to be aware that the story they have to tell you might be very different from the one you ignorantly assumed they would relate. And it also taught me a valuable lesson about photography and its power to communicate.
And so to return to Josh’s quote.
I wholeheartedly agree – you cant beat being there. And there’s a lovely lovely word that describes the cumulative effect on you of at least making the effort to ‘be there’.