Archivi categoria: alexthompsoncolumn

Photo Books: The New Photographic Ritual

Moving down the aisles that are carved between each row of seats, the line slowly edges on. A choir of no more than three people — woman and two men — expel their voices gently and slowly, serenading the churchgoers as they inch forward toward the pulpit where they receive their bread and wine.

The communion is a ritual in Catholicism that occurs at the height of the mass. It exists in a ceremonial way to cement the beliefs of the Catholic church between those who gather at each mass. It is unremarkable and unsurprising yet it remains an event of significance. Catholics understand it’s importance and, like most rituals, it plays a pivotal role in helping those who participate to understand different traditions, stories and values. Traditionally, in a ritual, every person present must participate. The act of the ritual requires the whole necessarily because it carries the tradition and maintains the sense of community through interaction and representation.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a small library of photobooks. Few of them collect dust and are rarely viewed. The majority, however, are often spread throughout my house and office. I find myself continuously looking back to them, attempting to dissect what integral information I missed the last time. Maybe I interpreted something wrong, or I want simply to experience them all over again. Photobooks are more than just books of photographs that happen to go together or follow the same theme. There is a sense of narrative experience that is revealed within the pages of these books. It comes to life in the editing, the design, the paper choice, the ink; the physical things help to bring it to life-like wine or bread.

Sometimes I buy photobooks full of images I don’t – can’t – understand. Such was the case when Delaney Allen’s inaugural book Between Here and There arrived at my doorstep. The thick cardstock that forms the outside of the book with a typewriter font stamped onto the front cover is peculiar enough but the images inside perpetuate that sense. A snapshot-like image of a girl, blonde haired and ecstatic with bulging black sunglasses leads the viewer in. A close-up image of water with light refracting through it creates a rainbow while flares and dust settle around the edges. A cave; light peaking gently out of the far-end carries the viewer through the narrative. Of course, you must allow these images to lead you, to let them consume you and take you on the journey and to tell you the story they want you to tell. Further enhancing this effect are emails between Delaney and his then girlfriend. They break the flow of images but not in the way you would expect. Finding them hidden between caves and oceans they carry the narrative while forcing the viewer to maintain their own sense of curiosity and to form images in their own head of the events described. The combination forces you to question whether the images in your head were ever in the book.

Surely it can be understood, then, that the importance of the single image in this book is a moot point. There is no one single image that stands out rather, a collection of images that form an entirely new world. This new world that I so eagerly live in – one that I can escape to whenever I want – is the only point worth discussing. It is not a world given to me but one that I create of my own volition and is a direct product of the ritual nature of the photobook. My persistence in tracing back and forth the images as they relate to each other, trying desperately to understand what story they tell and how they relate to me. By sheer participation I have joined them in the collective act that is the photobook as ritual. My role as the viewer allows this story to be told and to be lived, to transcend the confines of when it occurred, if it ever did.

Photobooks have not always been as common as they are now. Yes, photographers made them, but they persisted to be a sacred element in the trajectory of the photographer’s career. The accessibility and availability did not exist for the amateur, hobbyist or emerging photographer to make a photobook. Recently, however, we have seen the rise of photobooks and zines in many forms. Photographers are frequently self-publishing large monographs of long-term works, approaching boutique publishing houses to produce limited zines and small-run books, or simply reigniting a DIY ethic where Xerox machines and home printers transform into a workshop for homemade books and zines. The photobook adds an unexplainable element to the significance of the image in our lives.

Photographers don’t, and haven’t been able to, heighten the significance of the photobook all alone. The collaborative nature of the format – the designers, editors, publishers, printers and audience – ensures that it is ever-evolving. Furthermore, the inclusiveness that the photobook provides is a glimpse into the ritualistic nature that it embodies. All of the participants of the bookmaking process work together to understand the narrative, to allow it to exist on a fundamental level that transcends just photographs in a book and rather, provides a platform for them to be understood and to live in the real world. Photographers look to books as the final form of their projects. The image in book form provides an interaction that every single person who comes in contact with it, regardless of their role, will interpret differently. This allows these images to live almost forever. Like a ritual, the photobook suspends in time the ideas and narratives expressed by the images, allowing them to be absorbed by viewers forever.

In celebration of such extraordinary and widespread publishing efforts by photographers, the Aperture Foundation, in October 2015, published a manifesto of self-publishing titled Self-Publish, Be Happy. This book serves as a bible of sorts for those who live the DIY ethic and endeavor to make their own photobooks (a relatively new concept given technological advancement and increased accessibility to professional-grade printers). Even still, the celebration of self-publishing isn’t to say that a photographer should completely avoid the traditional route for publishing a major body of work, but instead, this book showcases some of the many methods of bookmaking and speaks to the fact that each project demands its own methods for expressing its ideas.

Photographer Stacy Kranitz’s images live within the pages of her latest publication, Speak Your Piece. This book is much more a representation of a place than it is attempting to tell a set story. The typical boundaries of a book don’t exist. Kranitz experiments with the relationship between text and images but in an unexpected way. Many of the pages do not feature images at all which, at first, seems an odd choice but the lack of images and instead flourishing amount of text – all taken from a local paper with a column that shares the same name as the book – allow the viewer to define their own relationship in much more abstract terms. It leaves the viewer attempting to decipher who these people are and a craving overcomes you to know them. In a single quote, it is impossible to know them but it allows a brief glimpse into their lives and the things that make them tick. The simple act of you reading their letters – letting them speak their piece – allows them to move past the confines of time and space, enhancing their voices in a way that puts you there, with them.

The shared experience fills you with a sense of place. The looking over and over again at the images and text within these pages places you within them. It makes me think back to being told stories as a child. We were told these stories in a commanding way, as if they were biographical accounts of someone’s lives, but once they were told they were left and they simply existed. We discussed them, changed them, lived within them. I’d argue the same thing happens when peering into the lives of Stacy’s subjects who live between the pages of her book; although you read the stories as told by the subjects, the incompleteness forces upon you the duty to fill in the blanks, forming your own stories as you go, in fact becoming a part of the story.

Living within the image is a common trope in speaking about photography but it holds true at every turn. Staring long enough at a photograph prompts you to make up your own stories about them, as if you are there in the picture, not as a camera but as a part of the scene. An effective ritual does the same by placing you within the context of it – the story and events that it represents.

The first time I looked at Bryan Sheffield’s book, Lord God, I thought it was simply a record of trees across the United States. Sure, it is that. It is also a celebration of them, of nature, of the beauty of it but in a mysterious way that only Bryan could convey. The flash-lit images thrust you into the personal space of the trees. If it’s possible to find a candid moment in the life of a tree, he does it. The journey these images take you on is like no other. The viewer is sharing their existence with these trees each time this book is opened.

I’d imagine the only way to explain the mystery of looking at this book is by comparing it to a walk through the forest. Slowly, you move down the path, between the trees and bushes. The cool autumn air brushes your hair across your face but you remain unmoved. Your hands caress each trunk as you pass by it. These trees have been here for years; growing, living, stretching out across the landscape beneath the earth in web-like formations that go on for hundreds of feet. It’s like they are all connected to each other and in that moment of reverie, you too are connected to them. The forest speaks to you. Even if you decide to look up and away from the trees printed in ink back onto themselves, it becomes impossible to ever leave that forest because it grows deep inside your mind.

Within the confines of a printed book or zine, images take on a life of their own. The viewer interacts with them differently. Upon gallery walls, surely the viewer takes in the images in just as substantial of a manner, but there remains a separation between the viewer and artwork. The physicality of the image in printed form and our ability to truly interact with it lies only within the confines of a photobook. The viewer controls how the images are absorbed, experienced, the pace, the meaning, the story. More and more, this is becoming a viable option for photographers wishing for their projects to truly live within this world.

While the photobook industry has admittedly become oversaturated with books and not all of them holding deserving bodies of work, the importance of this medium cannot be ignored. The celebration of the book has changed photography’s role as an art form into something more experiential. The book has woven photography into the fabric of our lives. These books fill the shelves that line the walls of our homes, sit in piles upon coffee tables in living rooms around the globe, and sit forever open in our minds.

We live with this art in ways that are impossible as simply a single image anchored on the wall (or even embedded on a screen as a digital apparition, for that matter). Moreover, the true ritualistic nature of the photobook is proven in its transcendence of time. Each time we pull apart the pages of these books we again experience the story and it becomes a part of our consciousness.


You can find the archives of Alex Thompson’s column here.


About the author: Alex Thompson is a documentary photographer living in California’s Central Valley. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His work focuses around environmental issues and the social consequences of environmental degradation. His work has been featured in publications like LA Weekly and The Guardian US and he is currently working on long-term projects documenting the effect of extraction in Wyoming and life in communities along the SF Bay-Delta. You can find his work at www.alexthompsonphoto.com or on Instagram @alexthompsonphoto.

Photography and the Road: The American Way

highwaykindfeat

A few weeks ago, I walked outside of my house and nearly stumbled over a package. It was flat, rectangular, and large. Excitedly I read my name on the postage. “This is it,” I told myself. Quickly, I ran inside and removed the scissors from a drawer in my kitchen (the one that for some reason refuses to stay on the rails, no matter how many times I fix it) and sliced the package open.

What I saw was a book I had been waiting on for weeks. It was a recent release from the Aperture Foundation, a book that received numerous accolades from the photography community. The photographer even had a short essay published in The New Yorker, a version of the essay in the back of this book.

As I pulled back the cellophane protecting it and discarded the garbage, the cover was revealed. The smooth white text reflected in the morning light and threw itself at me, forcing my attention to it. I scanned the cover and silently rejoiced at the beauty. The cover resembled an open grain wood, oak maybe. I slid into a chair in my living room and slowly spread apart the pages, absorbing each photograph, and let myself fall into them.

Justine Kurland’s latest book Highway Kind is transformative in every sense of the word and transports the viewer not only into her world, complete with her son Casper, but into the world of transients and train-hoppers, commuters and travelers.

The book opens up with a photograph of her son playing with toy trains at a table somewhere in the mountains. A nondescript location. Casper, her son, has his attention taken away from him for a moment while a train passes in the near distance. His infatuation with trains is apparent and works to lead the viewer across distances throughout the book and understand the relationship both he and Kurland have with the road and with each other.

Waiting for Trains While Playing with Trains, 2009. © Justine Kurland
Waiting for Trains While Playing with Trains, 2009. © Justine Kurland

The theme of trains is common through the early part of the book and they clearly work metaphorically to induce a feeling of unstableness, transience and adventure. Whether they creep like a black snake on the dry desert floor or are camouflaged among rocky, mountain grades, they keep the viewer on their toes, awaiting the next destination.

Like a Black Snake, 2008. © Justine Kurland
Like a Black Snake, 2008. © Justine Kurland

A favorite set of images of mine that comes late in the early section of this book is of a train approaching a mine sat between two mountains. The visceral image reminisces of a brief stop along the way. Immediately following this photograph is another of Casper playing with his toys. The ground is dark, coal-like, as if the family is taking a break as the train loads up; they, too, are transients.

The images, when viewed together, seem kind of odd in the sense that the usual comforts found in other photographs in this book do not exist here. It maintains an otherworldly feel. But, maybe that’s the point. Photographers have married a level obsession with the American road with the way it conveys youth, freedom and adventure ever since Robert Frank embarked on his famous book The Americans. Whether the photographer is Stephen Shore, Walker Evans, Alec Soth or, now, Justine Kurland, the tradition is carried.

I often wonder why so many photographers are drawn to the road and almost as much, the American landscape itself. There remains a quintessential mystery cloaked around this country’s society that can only be found when you move within it, as a part of it, on it’s network of highways and nearly-hidden roads. The familiarity, the kitsch-ness, the friendly scenes that are found repeatedly in new places are most likely to blame yet there is also an undercurrent of society that continually impresses and attracts us, one that refuses to be discovered by those unlike the.

These curiosities hide behind mountain passes, in the desert, or within the small towns that dot the open road. They expose themselves only to those willing to discover them. Usually, these curiosities go overlooked yet photographers continually return to them and provide them a brief platform on which to be seen.

After Weston, 2010. © Justine Kurland
After Weston, 2010. © Justine Kurland

America is so complex and full of life that a different approach to the same subject is often full of surprises. Photographers are always seeking interesting characters to attach ourselves to and photograph, whether that interesting thing is the way they move through the world or maybe there’s just something visually appealing about them that we can’t put our finger on. We just know that they’re important enough to photograph.
Take, for instance, Kurland’s subject Cuervo. He has an air about him that resonates with a friendly expectation. When he’s introduced in the book, we simply see a man riding a mule and pulling two others behind him.

We know little more than this and the fleeting train in the background leaves us feeling that he’s just arrived. He moves toward the camera as the sun is falling, gently looking over his shoulder at his animals. The next page shows another photograph of Cuervo, titled Cuervo Writing Me a Shopping List. He sits down on the left side of the frame, in the shadow of snow covered mountains, flanked on the right by branches that form a dome shape and within it, his tent. Obviously this is his living space. We don’t know much more about Cuervo other than what these visual clues provide. Possibly, he is a transient or perhaps he lives here permanently. The landscape is barren and the snow, along with leafless trees, forces me to be overcome with a sense of loneliness.

Kurland’s book is filled with these images that evoke a sense of uneasiness, like every moment is fleeting: a young child in the backseat of a car, Casper at a campsite, Casper in the car, a train moving through hills, a couple at an auto repair shop. In many of the photos of Casper, I imagine a mother in the distance yelling for her child to return to the car. It’s almost as if there is a steady sense of urgency. Then, all of a sudden, a moment of calm arrives. It’s an ethereal image: Casper stands in a small opening along a rushing river. It’s late morning, maybe, with the sun just angling over the horizon and lending it’s soft golden hue to the scene. It reflects and refracts, through Casper’s hair, off of the water and the trees, finally settling over the forest floor like a warm blanket. Casper is standing in a field of pinecones, nearly naked save for the diaper he wears. He drinks juice from a jar with enthusiasm as if there is no more juice left in this world and he must enjoy it while he has it.

I constantly return to this image in the book but not for its technical prowess or particular visual beauty. What draws me in is the context in which this image exists. Among the photos of transients and trains, the hustle and bustle of constant travel and the unsettling feeling of never really getting to know a place, exists this image of brief reprieve. Casper is finding a moment to fully enjoy himself and escape all of the needs of his mother and the world. The unwavering beauty of the natural world serves as his backdrop and lends itself to the present sense of serenity. The photograph leaves me wanting more. It leaves me wanting to find my own Eden in which I can step away from it all while at the same time being as present as ever with the world around me.

As you move through the book, the peacefulness you yearn for gently peeks out. A man with a beard sits in the fork of giant tree with his eyes closed. A couple sits in a field of overgrown grass and wildflowers, having a picnic in the shadow of Interstate-5. A young girl plays an accordion, in the distance a group of men, quite possibly related to her, seem to have a party. A women sits on the trunk of her car, Colorado plates, looking just out of frame with tires piled all around her.

Fix a Flat 2013. © Justine Kurland
Fix a Flat 2013. © Justine Kurland

Casper, much older now than when he was in the forest, leans against his mother’s car blowing spit bubbles.

Justine Kurland, Spit Bubble, 2013. © Justine Kurland
Spit Bubble, 2013. © Justine Kurland

Toward the end of the book, a man with hair like Casper’s but much, much older, looks slightly upward and out of frame. He’s wearing a black faux leather jacket and a silver heart-shaped locket hangs from his neck. His fingers are wrapped tightly around a Coca-Cola can, overlapping each other. From his eyes pour a multitude of emotions and thoughts I will never understand but his presence is of the present. He maintains an air of peace about him that maybe only a life on the road can provide.

These feelings of serenity are combatted by Kurland time and time again within these pages. The repetition of trains is unsettling, in the least, constantly berating me with the sense that I am on the move. Their beauty is unwavering, the way they wind through mountain passes like fish swimming upstream or like the way the tail of a mermaid might flow effortlessly in the stillness of the deep sea. The trains seem to connect us to things we might otherwise ignore. A cowboy, drunk and on his horse, has a moment with his steed that breathes an air of genuineness and sincerity into the image. Piles of junk sit in the background but the peaceful demeanor of the horse as it lifts it’s head up, being pulled by the cowboy, is one that will be difficult to forget.

Drunk Cowboy 2007. © Justine Kurland
Drunk Cowboy 2007. © Justine Kurland

In-between moments like this surprise me regularly within these pages. A favorite image of mine is of a camper in the woods, sitting by a small fire on a makeshift bench, playing the violin.

Packing Goats in the Marble Mountains 2011. © Justine Kurland
Packing Goats in the Marble Mountains 2011. © Justine Kurland

This picture transports me to a place with an air of emotion that speaks like a metaphor to the calming potential of the road and the American landscape. I think that’s why so many photographers have such an intense obsession with the road. We find kingdoms in the most unsuspecting places and meet people with the experiences to make our travels worth it. The American landscape offers infinite possibilities that often go ignored by mainstream media but are integral to the very fabric of our society.

The voice of the photographer has acted like an anthropological record of American ways of living, following each dead-end road, dusty highway, and crossing every bridge to reach the fringes of our society in order to make our view whole. In the life of the medium, photography and the road have become synonymous with each other because this combination powerfully shows us parts of our world that we might otherwise forget is there at all.


You can find the archives of Alex Thompson’s column here.


About the author: Alex Thompson is a documentary photographer living in California’s Central Valley. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His work focuses around environmental issues and the social consequences of environmental degradation. His work has been featured in publications like LA Weekly and The Guardian US and he is currently working on long term projects documenting the effect of extraction in Wyoming and life in communities along the SF Bay-Delta. You can find his work at www.alexthompsonphoto.com or on Instagram @alexthompsonphoto.

A Matter of Perspective: The Privilege of White Males in Photography

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“Yet to an obsessive his obsession always seems to be of the nature of things and so is not recognized by what it is.” Those words, written by art critic John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing, annotate one part of his understanding of the history of oil paintings: it’s obsessive tendencies toward showmanship of what one has, and the relationship between property and art.

A wealthy patron of the arts may have commissioned an oil painter to depict their life by painting their property – a room in their house full of their many collectors items. Of course, embellishment of the truth was allowed because the important idea was to create a sense of envy in the spectator. The subject of the painting wished simply to convey a sense of dominance; a sense of superiority.

Now we look at oil paintings in museums and galleries and sit in awe of the technical prowess provided by such works. It feels so realistic, the way the light sweeps in through open windows while the scene unfolds nearly unopposed to the charismatic beauty of the world around them. The subject sits aloof to their own dominance.

Photography mimics this same sense of beauty in the mundane. Street photographers scour the streets of cities waiting for the sun to begin it’s descent and create pockets of lights like a stage for their subjects. Rather than overtly attempting to convey a sense of dominance over the viewer, photographers, specifically those who walk in the documentary tradition, wish to convey their own experiences and leave them as tokens for the audience.

Honoré Daumier once said photographs describe everything and explain nothing. What a photograph describes to the viewer depends largely on who the photographer is. No two people share the same experiences in the same way. So, when a photographer encroaches on a scene, and in the instant in which they trigger the shutter, their experiences become etched into that photograph forever; like memories.

We often collect these memories – photographs – in books and albums, on gallery walls, in magazines and social media, in a nostalgic effort to relive the past. Memories are radically powerful in this form – we can learn from them and in how others absorb them. When we share photographs, we provide the viewer an opportunity for empathy. Empathy helps us to be more understanding and the more of this there is, the better the world will be.

But, it is a matter of perspective.

Point of view will always reign supreme in shaping this world. That is why the reality of it is so damning. Throughout the life of this medium the same point of view has always commanded dominance: the point of view of the straight white male.

In a history of photography class that I once took, I learned about some of the most important voices in the history of the medium. From photography’s noted inventor, Louis Daguerre, to some of the most iconic photographers we can remember — Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Ansel Adams — to more contemporary practitioners like Alec Soth, Bruce Gilden, David Alan Harvey, and Elliot Erwitt.

All of these names are some of the very best and I can bet that at the moment you read those names, you could visualize some of their most famous images. Eggleston’s famous color images, such as that of a blue and white tricycle, paint chipping away, in front of a suburban home, evoke a feeling of enduring childhood. Adams’ images whose painterly black and white quality throw the viewer into the scene – the Snake River or the Yosemite Valley – and perpetrate a sense of an infinite Eden awaiting your personal exploration.

"Memphis (Tricycle)" by William Eggleston (left) sold for $578,500 in 2012. "The Tetons - Snake River (1942)" by Ansel Adams (right).
“Memphis (Tricycle)” by William Eggleston (left) sold for $578,500 in 2012. “The Tetons – Snake River (1942)” by Ansel Adams (right).

The simple beauty in Soth’s images that rival the overwhelming emotions evoked by Adams’ will most definitely stand the test of time as a document of the often overlooked, the ignored, the culturally deemed insignificant aspects of modern American society. Finally, the compulsory inquisitiveness generated by the in-your-face images of Bruce Gilden – photographs of Triads on the streets of the city, wearing suits and smoking cigarettes with a mixed reaction of surprise and arrogance.

What I mean to say is, while the above mentioned photographers are unequivocally important, their voices are not the only ones that matter. Photographers like Eli Reed, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark and their contemporaries – Andre D. Wagner, Ruddy Roye, Lise Sarfati, and Chien-Chi Chang – have all been able to grasp onto their own success but are an exception.

Their voices, however, are magnificent and beautiful, poignant and descriptive. They show us a world that emanates with their experiences. Wagner’s photographs, poignant moments describing everyday life in Black America. His images – like the one of a young black girl holding the hand of a nun-like figure, looking back curiously at the photographer, while two older children, presumably her siblings, walk ahead with no regard to the scene unfolding behind them – famously capture what many Americans would otherwise ignore: Black America.

Photo by Andre D. Wagner
Photo by Andre D. Wagner

Wagner’s personal experience reflects throughout his images and provide us, the audience, an opportunity to reflect on what the Black experience is.

From Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick’s ongoing project, Empire that looks back on the remnants of the 200 years of British Empire that colonized the continent including Bangladesh in contemporary time. Photo by Sarker Protick / VII Photo
From Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick’s ongoing project, Empire that looks back on the remnants of the 200 years of British Empire that colonized the continent including Bangladesh in contemporary time. Photo by Sarker Protick (sarkerprotick.com) / VII Photo

Ruddy Roye, another famous black photographer, uses portraiture, and the power of brief but intimate connections, to draw his audience into his images. A young black man dressed in a coat, wearing a hood, is standing in the middle of a cotton field with his hands up.

Photo by Ruddy Roye, selected by TIME as Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2016.
Photo by Ruddy Roye, selected by TIME as Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2016.

His eyes are locked onto the lens and pierce the image and make contact with my own. The image is a common trope – “hands up, don’t shoot” the protesters say. The cotton field in which the subject stands is a testament to not only the past of Black America, but also speaks pertinently to the now.

Old Man. from Ether, a photobook by hispanic photographer Joe Aguirre that explores the quiet moments, the in between, the parts of our experience that we just don’t seem to have words for. Photo by Joe Aguirre (joeaguirrephotography.com) / Burn My Eye.
Old Man. from Ether, a photobook by hispanic photographer Joe Aguirre that explores the quiet moments, the in between, the parts of our experience that we just don’t seem to have words for. Photo by Joe Aguirre (joeaguirrephotography.com) / Burn My Eye.

Lise Sarfati, with her beautifully poised project She, shows a side of humanity that is often ignored. The book is more than a project full of portraits of women. She is a testament to the female experience. By avoiding the common trap of depicting women in art as some form of Madonna, Sarfati draws the viewer in and allows them to experience, with her, this moment in these girls’ lives.

This working method is not unique, however, to this project. Across Sarfati’s bodies of work are the same themes and the same working process. Her approach is near-objective, save for her genuine interest in her subjects and their friendships, and it quickly becomes apparent that her intentions are pure. What Sarfati shows us is that her experiences, and the experiences of her subjects, are worthy. Her photography radiates with a certain stealth as she searches for the anchor in her subjects, the moments that speak to who they are and represent them, with little regard to the photographer’s agenda.

Part of an ongoing project by Italian photographer Sara Zanella documenting America Society that follows the direction of much of her other work focusing on travel as a catalyst to photograph the many cultures within a society. Photo by Sara Zanella (sarazanella.com)
Part of an ongoing project by Italian photographer Sara Zanella documenting America Society that follows the direction of much of her other work focusing on travel as a catalyst to photograph the many cultures within a society. Photo by Sara Zanella (sarazanella.com)

Finally, Chien-Chi Chang, a Taiwanese photographer and also a member of Magnum. Chang offers a very unique perspective in his photography. Shooting in a style that, until recently, has been disregarded as amateurish and unprofessional, Chang approaches his subjects and his projects with a kind of intensity that reflects life in Asia. Heavy contrast, shadows, reflections, slow shutters – all tools he uses to help convey a sense of restlessness that many experience. When looking at his work, I get the feeling that I’m right in the middle of the scene. My head is turning quickly as I try to comprehend all that is happening around me.

These images are quickly juxtaposed with his most recent publication, Jet Lag, which features calm and well-composed black and white images of travel. There’s a certain solitude in this work that you don’t find in Chang’s previous work that I think speaks to him at a point in his life. Is he spending less time in Asia? Is this Chang’s attempt to find peace in a world outside of what he has fervently photographed since the 1990s? The contrast we see between this work speaks to his unique point of view as an outsider. It speaks to what it is like to see the world from a Taiwanese point of view and helps the viewer to better understand the complexities of our world.

[Case Study 40154] - The Case Study project by Filipino photographer Mark Rosales is, by definition, a record of research in which detailed consideration is given. With this project, Rosales hopes to learn something from each photograph. Photo by Mark Rosales
[Case Study 40154] – The Case Study project by Filipino photographer Mark Rosales is, by definition, a record of research in which detailed consideration is given. With this project, Rosales hopes to learn something from each photograph. Photo by Mark Rosales (bazaarinruins.com)

But why must we reduce the accomplishments, the vision, of minority photographers to just one or two names to represent them all? True, it is, that the widespread availability of the photographic method has led to an uprising, regardless of race or ethnicity. Until recently, accessibility to professional photographic equipment was a major roadblock to the aspiring photographer. The high cost of materials along with the need for proper training on use of cameras, film and darkroom equipment built a barrier between those who could afford it and those who could not.

This image, taken by German photographer Sarah Pabst is part of a larger, ongoing body of work in which she examines Home, Family and WWII.  Photo by Sarah Pabst.
This image, taken by German photographer Sarah Pabst is part of a larger, ongoing body of work in which she examines Home, Family and WWII. Photo by Sarah Pabst.

What becomes obvious very quickly is that the demographic who was able to afford an interest in photography is the demographic who maintains most of the praise in the photography world still to this day. This creates a narrow perspective that is representative of only one experience. Even if photography were a truth-telling medium that exposed to us our world for what it really is, we cannot honestly believe that what we are shown speaks to the diverse reality of the billions of people on this planet. The single voice that demands we look at the world in one way is the same that, for thousands of years, has entrenched their dominance the world over.

But that way of thinking is no longer valid. With the democratization of photography – through mediums like Instagram and Snapchat – we have slowly started to zoom out and look at the world in a more interesting way. This willingness to understand the world around us from a less traditional approach will start to bridge the gap in our understanding of the “other”. Knowing that our experiences are each as vivid and intense as the person’s next to us provides us with compassion and empathy for their realities.

By recognizing the work of photographers who do not fit the standard “straight-white-male” demographic, we see the world in a truer way. There are many perspectives in the world, billions, and it is imperative to our society, in understanding the human condition, that we approach the world from as many as we can.

One point of view is not more valuable than another. We all live life with the same density of experience. –Teju Cole


You can find the archives of Alex Thompson’s column here.


About the author: Alex Thompson is a documentary photographer living in California’s Central Valley. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His work focuses around environmental issues and the social consequences of environmental degradation. His work has been featured in publications like LA Weekly and The Guardian US and he is currently working on long term projects documenting the effect of extraction in Wyoming and life in communities along the SF Bay-Delta. You can find his work at www.alexthompsonphoto.com or on Instagram @alexthompsonphoto.