Debating ‘Who’s afraid of home?’, and the importance of narrative

June 21, 2011 · by David Campbell · photography, politics

Last week’s post on photojournalism’s ‘foreign fixation’ and the relative neglect of the big domestic stories prompted a debate in both the post comments and on Twitter, especially from Marcus Bleasdale.

Feedback is one of the great virtue’s of social media, and I always get a lot from people’s responses. Because I think this is a really important issues, I’ve put the Twitter debate together using Storify so you can read it below (be sure to click on ‘Load More’ to see the whole stream). At the end, I’ll summarise what I think are the main points that I take away from this conversation.

Here are my conclusions:

  1. There are numerous great photographers working on the ‘home’ front, we need to find ways to see more of their stories, but that is not something that is going to be achieved solely by commissions from mainstream media
  2. This is definitely not a call for less attention abroad; its a call for more attention to ‘home’. I certainly don’t want people to ignore or walk away from the big global stories, and there is much to do to make them better too
  3. The use of ‘home’ as a category has its problems. Its relative to the photographer’s identity or location and can change over time, and the dividing line between home and abroad is increasingly blurred
  4. The major issue, then, is less the geographic location of the story and more the fact we don’t see enough work on ‘the big domestic issues’ – the economy, healthcare, education, unemployment etc – that are always cited as the major electoral concerns. It is, therefore, more about social issues than domestic space per se
  5. One of the biggest challenges is how to portray those big social issues, and that means dealing with the essential question of narrative

For someone developing a visual story on social issues, the most important thing to ask is ‘what is the story you really want to tell?’ Answering that can mean working through these questions:

  • what is the issue?
  • what will be the events/moments?
  • if needed, who are the characters?
  • what is the context?

I think Nathalie Parès of NOOR made a good comment on the original post when she observed that “more than a fear of photographing at home, I would rather talk of a certain difficulty of being original on these topics…” That is something best addressed by articulating the relationship between story, event and issue. This requires knowledge of the context above all else, and that demands research because not everything that drives photography is visual.

14 Responses to “Debating ‘Who’s afraid of home?’, and the importance of narrative”

  1. There is I think good reason to consider this in relation to our potential audience. Its not enough that the issues we try to highlight are considered within the photographic community. If we take the UK as an example then the public at large want to see the interesting and the unusual. I say this while making it clear this is not to trivialise the importance of all the great work that is being done. Its quite a different thing to illustrate unusual and largely alien cultures and then show ‘life at home’. I, like many photographers, have focussed on home but am always aware of the challenge to gain attention amongst people who are living the life. Lets face it why would you be interested in seeing more of what you see every day? We need then to consider the audience and come up with more creative ways to reach out to them and engage. Thats not to say we skew what we do but we do need to keep in mind the audience and if we are to succeed that means going beyond those who are interested in photography or visit galleries.

    • Absolutely Graham. This is all about engaging the wider community, which is why the posts are talking about the big social issues that people readily identify. I also think that audiences are interested in seeing ‘the everyday’ because nobody sees every thing every day.

  2. There are plenty of photographers tangentially focussing on domestic issues (in the UK) but it’s only up to a point.

    The dynamics and intricacies of issues such as the deskilling and de-contracting of education, class cleansing through benefit cuts, the dismemberment of the voluntary sector and the rhetoric of the Big Society are tremendously difficult to get a hold of. And to photograph these things, you need a direct understanding of the key discussions and ideas – and these discussions are not the most exciting discussions going. You also need to spend a lot of time in the field – and spend a lot of money – and the answers that you find might not be as politically black and white as you hoped. Who’s going to buy that?

    That does not fit with documentary photography’s sometimes one-dimensional perspective. It doesn’t fit with the Spectacle side of photography, nor does it fit with perhaps the biggest reason people get into photography – not to help people, but to travel round the world and have exciting times in exciting places and make exciting pictures. And there are more exciting places than the Voluntary Sector or adult education or benefit offices to hang around in. Places with better food and weather and music. Which isn’t to say that great work hasn’t been made in those kinds of places.

    It would be interesting to hear what you, and others, identify as the major issues in the UK and then see what work if any matches up. It would also be interesting to hear what student photographers are doing to respond to the current climate because the answer, I suspect from my own experience, might be not much.

    • Colin, thanks for that and apologies for the tardy response. You hit a number of nails on the head. In combination with Gary’s comment below, I think you have outlined a major part of the challenge. Debating what the major issues are, what work matches up, and why there isn’t more is the key. Perhaps it relates to Gary’s point – the need to subvert photography to the story…

  3. Dear David,

    I fear that the premis of this article is a little too UK/USA centric, despite your qualifiers. I would also suggest that its not the messenger who is the problem, it lies deeper than that.

    I think you may want to look at the effect of market forces further. The unwillingness of a domestic media market to support the production of the kinds of domestic stories you would like to see in the countries which you refer to – the UK and the USA is possibly of more consequence than the motivation of photographers.(1) I think a close reading of the press in both these countries will show that they reflect the interests of their populations well – which is to say they are full of sports and celebrity. They are not driven by what photographers produce.

    I think blaming photographers for the inadequacy of coverage of serious social issues in the UK and the USA is missing the point and I am not sure you are fair in highlighting the agencies you refer to who may physically be located in Europe or the USA.(2) The photographers who these agencies represent are domiciled worldwide and that is where they photograph. These agencies are not domestic media organisations. They have no obligation to the USA or the UK and they were not formed to document social issues in either country. In the case of VII or Magnum I don’t believe either has a stated political agenda. The photographers appear to reject collectivised thought and set their own agendas and the agencies consequently serve the function of market representation for photographers who are interested in a wide variety of issues and subjects in the countries where they live.

    Photographers are not generic, they should not be considered as such. In my experience they are a diverse group of people from a wide variety of backgrounds (not wide enough – but more on that later) who use photography with different outcomes in mind.

    Surely if we want more focus on issues that are systematically under reported we should – at a national and local level – encourage people with interest and knowledge in and of those issues to take up photography and we should encourage in our culture the obligation to document. We cannot leave this to profit driven media organisations or well meaning freelance photographers. We should be encouraging communities to tell their own stories – in words and pictures – from an early age, starting in our domestic education systems and in local community centres and eventually at a national level and it should be paid for by society. We should not leave the documentation of what will become our own historical narratives to chance.

    In addition to encouraging community documentation and education up to the high school level we should look at how photography is taught in institutions of higher education. One of the problems I see in the education of photographers is that we are largely educating photographers. Photography is or becomes their principle focus and that has long term negative consequences. There is insufficient thought and reasoning in the genres of outward looking photography and it appears to be becoming increasingly introspective and driven by the needs of those who concern themselves only with photography. We should be educating our smartest people from diverse backgrounds with deep and sound knowledge in politics, the humanities, economics, social sciences, science, the environment etc etc to use photography, so the photography is subverted to the story not the vice versa.

    On a recent trip to Burma I read the the local government newspaper every morning and it was filled with news of grave problems in the UK and the USA, so these issues are getting attention elsewhere. I imagine that the newspapers in the UK and the USA had stories from Burma at that time. Obviously this was a deliberate attempt to diminish the reality of Burma’s own problems by emphasising those of others…….. perhaps there lies an answer to the question you ask: “who’s afraid of home”.

    With warm regards,

    Gary

    (1) The motivation of photographers is is subject to much speculation by your readers – and elsewhere – it is hard to take seriously generalities that photographers like “to travel round the world and have exciting times in exciting places and make exciting pictures”. I have met a few photographers who could be described that way, but more who could not.

    (2) In the interests of disclosure I co founded VII.

    • Gary, thanks for reading and the thoughtful comments. The two posts were quite overt in their ‘euro-centrism’ because I wanted to make the point – just as Stephen Mayes did in his 2009 World Press lecture – that there is scope to see more stories from the ‘home’ front.

      As the debate went on, I think the issue is the relative lack of stories on the big domestic issues facing ‘our’ societies. You rightly point out the various elements of the media economy that do or don’t encourage these stories, and I try to avoid casting these issues as matters of individual blame.

      This morning my daily newspaper has a headline “Austerity engulfs UK high street,” and the analysis of economic disaster is paired with a story on the protests in Athens. Both are major issues of the day and would benefit greatly from compelling visual stories. The first is no doubt hard to do, while the second is too easily illustrated with riot images. But addressing those sorts of things is what I wish there was more of.

      I think you’ve identified in your comment a compelling analysis of why we don’t see (relatively speaking) as much on these and other important issues:

      “One of the problems I see in the education of photographers is that we are largely educating photographers. Photography is or becomes their principle focus and that has long term negative consequences. There is insufficient thought and reasoning in the genres of outward looking photography and it appears to be becoming increasingly introspective and driven by the needs of those who concern themselves only with photography. We should be educating our smartest people from diverse backgrounds with deep and sound knowledge in politics, the humanities, economics, social sciences, science, the environment etc etc to use photography, so the photography is subverted to the story not the vice versa.”

      Amen.

  4. The problem is educating photographers to be photographers, or you could also say it is educating photographers who want to be ‘photographers’. Documentary photography courses don’t cover politics, economics or the environment in any substantial way and I don’t think they should. But photographers do need the motivation to examine and learn about these issues deeply, both at the more informal and student level that I am more interested in and at the more professional, journalism-centred level that Gary is interested in. The danger is if they don’t then that we get misrepresented images that don’t deepen our knowledge of anything but rather blur and confuse what we see.

    And as David says, sometimes photography is not really suitable for a story – the localism bill in the UK (which is where I live so that’s why I’m writing about it) is a huge story that is going to destroy local services across the country – but how you photograph it, I don’t know. It would be good if somebody tried. I would but I can’t afford the film.

    At the student level, I don’t think there is too much of an interest in the more mundane but major stories developing. When I ask people whay they are interested in becoming photographers many are interested in becoming photographers ‘because it is an interesting job’, “because I want to travel the world”. It’s glib and superficial I know and it shouldn’t be taken seriously but it is part of the package that we see from the outside. It is a particular image of a photographer, one reinforced by films and the media, an image where travelling the world and going to dangerous places is part of the job and part of the attraction. Being a teacher or an accountant or an estate agent doesn’t hold that attraction.

    • Colin, I agree entirely – as someone who spent 20yrs teaching politics and geography at university – that photography courses should not aim to cover those areas. What photography courses can do is teach people the importance of the story, and the centrality of research, context and narrative in the construction and understanding of a story. No body can cover all bases, but if you know what the bases are, there’s a chance for richer work. And if there’s an openness to collaboration with people who have different skills, then that richness and relevance can be delivered.

  5. I agree that you need to get all that in, but shouldn’t the approach be somehow visual – the primary reason people get involved in photography courses is because they have visual interests. The problem is photographers need to know about making pictures, making narratives, presenting those narratives in printed, electronic and book form. They need the context for the story, the political, economic, religious, cultural, sociological and environmental perspectives – and then they need to learn how to present themselves, how to get their work shown, seen and sold in a rapidly changing market.
    .

    I enjoyed reading Tamar Garb’s essay on South African photography in Figures and Fictions – she details the evolution of South African out of the ethnographic and exotic, into the political arms of ‘struggle photography’ into something vibrant, dynamic and transcending many of the assumptions that we make about how to photograph. Perhaps we could learn something from this, but what that something is I do not know.

  6. David,

    At VII we began a project this year that addresses this, with the idea being that each of us would find a household or subject within a mile of where we live and spend a year documenting their lives or issues around that household. Folks are doing it with video, stills, smart phones, film based photography, on subjects very personal, in their communities or even based on the itinerant life photojournalists often lead. Stay tuned! Best, Ed

  1. [...] claims I am highlighting. Being ‘local’ means potentially easier access to ‘home‘ and can thus be the starting point for original stories. But being ‘local’ is [...]

  2. [...] Blog: June 2011)I’d also recommend going back to David Campbell’s earlier post ‘Who’s Afraid of Home?’ to read some of the commentsPDN: 4 Questions to Ask Before Donating to a Charity Photo Auction [...]

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