text of speech given in Miyazaki

at the documentary photo festival a week ago I was asked to give a speech about photography. In the light of that, and how inspiring people found Yann’s images last night I thought I would post the speech here. Its a tad long for a post but maybe it might make sense:


Rio Helmi / Miyazaki City, May 2008

I have been asked so many times why I got into photography. Looking back 30 years, I see that actually what ‘made up my mind’ was something I wasn’t really conscious of in the normal sense of the word. It was something deeper that drove me and became clearer to me as I grew into photography. So I look at it from the perspective of my own history, and the history of photography – of the way our world is now.

For most people, sight is the most important of the senses. We orient ourselves according to it, and we are affected intellectually and emotionally by what we see.

The old saying “to see is to believe” is true, even if what we see is not what we think it is. It is a fact that this is probably the most exploited of all beliefs. Photography is the most powerful visual media in human history – once upon a time we used to say that a photograph never lies. For a short time, we believed that the purity of the process of light recorded unto photo sensitive materials could not be manipulated, that it would record exactly an objective truth. For a short time, as a boy, I believed this too.

But then this illusion about a true “objective” form of expression started to fall apart. Even the most banal photo represents a decision made, a point of view if you like. Even when someone copies another’s pictures it is a choice they make.

It would be impossible to calculate how many photographic images have been shot since Niepce’s first photograph in the early 1800s. Imagine trying to calculate how many paper negatives, glass plates, daguerrotypes, how many rolls of film have been shot just by professionals alone since photography began. And then the number digital files shot in the last decade would probably be even more than all that!

Yet certain individual images do stand out.

People talk about style. The inner mental and emotional condition of the photographer is what creates style. And it begins with what the photographer chooses to shoot, how he or she chooses to shoot it and process it, how he or she then presents it. He or she may be a product of his or her era, but the fact remains that the photograph is not objective.

Even just the medium has a big influence on what we see – for example, compare the ‘look and feel’ of the primitive, monochromatic emulsion Niepce used to make the first photograph with the RGB digital capture of today.

I remember when, as a boy, looking at early images of street scenes shot at very slow speeds – many minutes at a time. I remember reading how that was the reason the streets looked empty – everybody had been moving too fast for the emulsion to record. That was when I realized there are many “truths” in photography.

Then there is the “truth” the photographer sees, and the “truth” the viewer sees. For the viewer, one’s emotional response differs according to the effect, one’s era, and so on. There is nothing fixed about how an image touches us – except for the fact that it does inevitably create some kind of reaction.

Here in Miyazaki’s Art Museum you have a painting by Man Ray. But Man Ray was actually much more famous for his photography, and especially the photographic images he manipulated. So much so that a term was coined: “Ray-o-gram”. These were images which clearly sought a deeper response from the viewer, obviously Man Ray recognized how powerful it can be to express the “realistic” in a very personal way. This was in the early 20th Century.

When I discovered Man Ray I was electrified. When I discovered Henri Cartier Bresson I was hooked.

Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, photography is still the most powerful visual media, and therefore one of the most exploited – think propaganda, advertising, media campaigns and so on. It is the sharpest of double edged swords. Indeed the photographer is literally one of the most exposed of all professions. And of all photography, documentary photography is perhaps the sharpest of all.

Generation by generation, we share a certain visual lexicon. We remember magazine covers, we remember images on the internet. Even the moving image – tv, video, film – hasn’t replaced the still photo. A moment captured and presented, imprinting itself on our consciousness.

We respond, across cultures and linguistics, to an international visual language. While it is true that not everyone reacts the same way to the same image, but iconic images force their way into our shared communication and perceptions. There are images which make us uncomfortable, there are images which make us feel sad, there are images which us feel happy.

And there are images which stay with us: the mushroom cloud of atomic bombs. The Fabulous Four Beatles. Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blowing away. Che Guevara and his cigar. Mao Tse Tung’s shiny face. New York’s Twin Towers beginning to crumble. And much more.

In addition, each of you has a personal list as well. My own list is pretty long. I spent hours as a boy looking at photographic images in magazines and boo
ks – Life, National Geographic, etc. I still love looking at images from all eras, from Steiglitz to Liebowitz, and from all walks of life, from published to family albums. Inevitably, without thinking, I draw inspiration from what I have seen.

In truth all creative work has an aspect of unconscious collaboration, it is something which comes into being in dependence on others as well as its creator’s vision. If anything this provides depth of meaning as well as an historical context for the work

When I taught photography to Communication Science students, the first thing I would do at the beginning of the course was to ask everyone to close their eyes and to imagine the world without photos. First eliminate all id, license, and passport photos. Then eliminate all family photos (including anything of grandparents and for those young enough great grandparents). Then erase all photos in newspapers. All advertising photos. You are beginning to ‘get the picture’.

Another question I am often asked: “What makes a good photograph?” I understand why someone would ask this question. There is so much out there. There are so many theories. The answer is a question: Where does it take you?

It has become clear to me now that images form a bridge between the outside world and our inner worlds. Images are the modern magical symbols. Like it or not, every photographer who shows his or her images to others has some effect on what is happening in the world.

To make that work in a meaningful way, to make the pictures really touch the heart, you have to know what it is you are shooting – at least what it is for you. There has to be a readiness to be involved in some way. There is no room for “objectivity”, for distancing yourself.

Speaking from a practical point of view, documentary photography can be the worst paid of all photography. And I have done my share of commercial work. But pay isn’t what drives the authentic documentary photographer. It is the desire to touch what is in front of him, to take it in, to share it, and to have others touched by it. I have always been drawn back to the magic of this process.

The documentary photographer’s art is to become the mirror, the looking glass through which the viewers can step, finding places in their hearts they have forgotten or never knew.

There is no perfect camera, there is no perfect lens, no perfect technique. There is only the perfect moment, and the perfect heart for it.

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