I received a note from Mahesh Bhat, a photojournalist based in Bangalore and a well-wisher of Tiffinbox. If you remember, Mahesh went out to Perpignan last year. Nevermind that I turned green with envy for him being there in the midst of such great photojournalism, but the man happened to strike up many great conversations with some incredible photographers.
Find below one email exchange Mahesh had with Pakistani photojournalist Asim Rafiqui:
There are a couple of things about photographers that bother me, I thought I should share with you. You know magazines routinely publish lists of most influential people from different walks of life, lists of people whose work and ideas inspire us. They feature politicians, academics, actors, film makers, musicians, business people, activists, writers … but never photographers. Why is that; is it because our work does not influence anyone? Or is it because the media is such that photography is always seen as mere illustration? Or is photography something that is meant to be glanced rather than remembered and mulled over? Can photography books never attain the status of fiction say? What do you think Asim?
Another thing is that why we photographers are always contacted at the last moment? (even for features) Most of the time we get very little time to work on stories. I wonder if they rush their writers as well?
The question you ask about the influence of photographers of current society and culture is a good one. Today when lists of the ‘most influential’ are produced, they are no more than celebrity lists. And photographers are usually never celebrities. Richard Avedon perhaps, Herb Ritts, and a few other celebrity photographers sometimes do make it to the list, but in general we are not seen as influencers of culture. And there is something to that. Susan Sontag had some poignant points in her recent book ‘Witnessing The Pain Of Others,’ made a point that photography is unable to set a moral compulsion without an appropriate political or cultural context already present. It can help create one, but it cannot in and of itself, be the impulse for one. I will not elaborate on her arguments, but only point out that she too realized that photography reflects but rarely ever defines a society.
I remember [John] Berger talking about how the most famous photographs and the greatest photographers often evoke memory through their images i.e. their pictures remind us of something in the past, or capture our ideas of the past that we now wish to preserve. [André] Kertesz, [Henri] Cartier-Bresson were brilliant in picturing the cliches of Paris in the 1920 and 1930 and even today the best known photographers capture best what we believe the reality to be and that we can see confirmed in their images. So even Berger seems to think that photography is about memory, and not about creating the future.
In fact, it is a common fact that most people cannot relate to photographs that get their timing wrong e.g. photojournalistic pieces of no catastrophes that have as yet not been declared as such by editors and politicians. Sudan and [Olivier] Jobard’s work comes to mind – he went out too early and no one would publish the work.
So I think that photographers are not influencers of the future, but documenters of the past or of the current. The other problem is that photography, like journalism, has no intellectual tradition. So unlike painting, literature and so on it lacks the history and depth that is often associated with valued pursuits.
I don’t think it is the media; after all there are many photographers working outside of media. Dayanita singh who is doing more and more outside magazines and so on comes to mind.
That being said, i think that some photographers who cross over to art more explicitly can be considered as major influences. I am thinking about Alfredo Jaar who has had a major influence and I think is absolutely brilliant. He is a photographer who is more now an artist and has publications and exhibtions that are massively attended. I would say that he is in fact recognized as a major influence in modern art circles.
So that was not an answer, but just comments.
As for editors – well, magazines use photography as illustrations. Editors are not photographers. They do not understand photography. They have no interest in it and they cannot do it. And besides, editors fight for control and any chance they can get to marginalize someone else they will take it. This is an old batter – read Eugene Smith arguing with his Life editors and you can see that this goes back to the early days of photojournalism. We will not change this regardless so there is no point in waiting :)
Thank you so much for writing such a detailed reply! I really appreciate it. I agree with you completely that photography has no intellectual tradition. Perhaps that is the main reason why photography is seen as an art that does not define a society. Perhaps we photographers are really to blame. But I do believe that there has been a lot of thought provoking photography has been done by many photographers that has the intellectual rigour of say great prose. Salgado and Robert Frank are on the top of my list. Raghubir Singh and Raghu Rai have influenced many… I love your work “Trapped in someone else’s dream.” I feel that it’s very sensitive and profound. What would have been the reception by editors and critics if someone had written a book on the same subject or a feature film on that theme? I am sure that you would have been a celebrity by now!!
But photography is always been seen as a tool to illustrate – always a means to an end. I guess we photographers are to blame for it. We have always remained in the periphery and never really in the main stream of the art or literary world.
I’ll comment on this lively exchange in a day or so, but I feel compelled to [tinge of irony ain’t it] publish this, yes, intellectual exchange that both Mahesh and Asim feel doesn’t exist in photography circles.
Would love to hear from you all about what you think. You know where to leave your comments.