I come from a tradition of classical story telling with my photos. It’s the way documentary photographers have emphasized both content and moment in the stories each of their photographs tell. My friend and colleague, Sven Creutzmann, comes from the same tradition. And this—you may call it traditional visual language—is what we teach in our workshop, like the one in Cuba earlier this month.
We are not stuck in the way we see photography and of course let each student develop his or her own voice. At least that’s what we try to stress for ourselves as well as the students and that’s really our focus. Even though we believe in the classical use of visual language, I think it’s fair to say that we are both open to other approaches in ways of shooting and expressing oneself.
Nevertheless, over the last many years, we have seen a shift in how for instance award winning documentary photography are less and less accentuating the clear story telling, and we have both been puzzled by this change. In documentary photography, a more artistic or ambiguous approach has become more prevalent. Personally, I like photos that are open to interpretations, in which the message is not clearly set by the photographer, and where there are layers of understanding embedded in the photo. However, the photos that win these contests have quite often baffled both Sven and me.
It’s the postmodern or even post-postmodern school of young photographers that are now dominating the spearhead of photojournalism. It’s a kind of photography that is often described as deconstructed in which traditional rules or guidelines are broken in order to create a new visual language. Again, I am one who promotes not following any rules or established guidelines. However, I have found a lot of this new photography rather boring, drab and uninteresting. As I wrote in my post The Emperor’s New Clothes? a couple of years ago, the postmodern approach is often plain and boring—almost as intended—but is raised to the sky by pretentious acclamation.
I admit. This sounds like an old, outdated photographer ranting about times that are changing. And maybe I am. Still, I have always been one to push myself and try to go into unknown territory. So, after Sven and I were done with this year’s photo workshop, we decided to sit down and figure out what this new visual language is. We looked up a bunch of award winning photographers and tried to deconstruct their deconstructed photography. I tell you, the result was quite surprising.
To quickly sum up what we found: One aspect that we took away was the fact that a lot of the photography we looked at for us would have been mistakes we wouldn’t have selected and certainly not submitted to any photo competitions. Furthermore and to be more specific, we found that these photos often put elements in the foreground that are unsharp and add a visual disorder to the imagery. Photographers who shoot with this new visual language move further back or move out of the story (whereas I always teach that you cannot get close enough). They seem to capture in-between-moments where Sven and I have trained ourselves to be able to capture the peak of a moment. They use less wide-angle lenses and they often shoot reflections or through windows or openings. They often include weird details or something that is not quite clear what is and often the composition is static or symmetric. Their photos are often simplified and does not try to build a story, at least not in a classical sense, and part of this is that they often do not include moments at all (not only off-moments as already mentioned) nor people. Finally, we found that many of these photos are heavily worked over in post-production.
One thing that puzzled us was why some of these approaches were used, until a friend of us who is not a photographer, told us that maybe it’s to leave more open to interpretation instead of showing a clear-cut story, simply to be less clear. Of course, that is at least part of it.
Deconstructing is one thing, though. After having done so, Sven and I went out in the streets of Havana and tried to shoot with this new visual language as a template. At first, it felt a little weird and uncomfortable, but it didn’t take long before both of us got a sense of freedom in our shooting. The next couple of hours we completely lost ourselves in the process and captured thousands of photos. We had fun, we felt inspired and it was simply liberating to do something completely different.
Even the result took us aback. I am not saying this is amazing work, by far. But it certainly gave me a different perspective (you can judge by yourself). I think I am more open to the new visual language. Furthermore, I am sure I will pick up what this lesson taught me. It won’t shift my photography completely, but I have gotten a new tool in my photographic tool box. I really enjoyed this new visual language. Of course, by now what is new has already moved ahead to a new place. But that’s OK. I will just have to repeat this exercise every so often.