Can We Still Learn from Controversial Works in Photography?
I would like to begin by introducing myself. I am a self-taught photography enthusiast. For a little over five years I have been pursuing the discipline of photography. Till about 16 years back, I had little or no interest in visual arts of any kind. My interest in visual arts began when I watched movies like Mask or Titanic. The art of storytelling through compelling visual imagery caught my imagination. I spent two years of my life learning 3D animation and VFX, purely as a hobbyist.
A Little Bit of History
Almost a decade back, I watched a documentary on National Geographic about their empaneled photographer – Steve McCurry – walking through the rustic areas of Afghanistan. They were hoping to find Sharbat Gula or popularly known as the ‘Afghan Girl’. Her photograph had appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985.
An image that had such a profound impact on me, that I had to see more of his work. The more I went through Steve’s work, the more I felt that I must pursue photography as an art form. But, I had severe doubts whether I had it in me to be a ‘photographer’. I am still trying to figure that out for myself.
Circa 2011, the intensity of my discussions with friends and my wife on taking up photography was at its peak. I watched an interview of Steve McCurry on YouTube, and got the much-needed nudge to buy a bridge camera. One of my close friend’s advice to join a local photography club (Delhi Photo Enthusiasts Guild or DPEG) was an equally motivating factor. I took the plunge.
Since then, I have been following works of many other iconic photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Robert Capa, Raghu Rai and many more. While I have been studying their work and other materials to improve my photography. Steve’s work remained a constant source of inspiration.
The Difficult Questions
Over the last few weeks, I have been reading various articles on Steve’s work, some highly critical (Teju Cole) and appreciative view by Allen Murabayashi. Then came up the controversy around heavy ‘photoshopping’ of his work. These recent developments posed some overbearing questions for me. Should all of this have an influence on the way I look up to Steve’s work? Should I, as a photographer (an enthusiast, not a professional), review my learning from his work? Even at an emotional level, is my inspiration that laid foundation to pursue photography questionable?
Honestly, I could not find a consummate answer to these questions. And I remained in an unknown space for the next few days. In the midst of all this, I asked myself why, why do I pursue photography? Answer was almost instantaneous – it is a window of self-expression. How I see an event, as it happens before me, and what it makes me feel. Capturing that event through my eyes first, and then my camera, I become part of it for posterity. More so, it’s very personal, and it belongs to me as much as the subject(s) constituting the frame.
Then, I began to get an answer to those heavy and bothersome questions. Steve’s work is his work. Yes, he may have done that work as a photojournalist for a magazine or a newspaper. That exceptional influenced their audience in a certain way. But, does it make the work as personal for the magazine/newspaper and the audience, as much as for Steve? While the question is debatable, in quite likelihood, the answer is no. For one simple reason. That work is his creation, simply because he was there irrespective of the geopolitical, weather and other environmental conditions. He made the effort to look at those events and continued to capture more such events without getting complacent. Can we dispute that? Undoubtedly, no.
An Enthusiast Photographer’s Perspective
I respect that photojournalism has to carry the heavy burden of depicting the truth. I call it a burden because the greatest of philosophers could not define what ‘truth’ is. Haven’t we read/heard enough debates about high standards of ethicality that journalism or photojournalism should always uphold? Steve or his team should be held accountable if they have been involved in breaching these standards. But, we must also remember that the purist and pragmatist impasse has prevailed in every discipline pursued by man. And it is important to have this debate. Because it helps de-clutter the discipline, uphold creativity, and find the next masterpiece hidden in this chaotic world.
But (there has to be a ‘but’), I request you to look at those works once more. Would you term those photographs as so bad that they can’t be an inspiration to a budding photographer or an enthusiast? From a photojournalism perspective, an edited image may change the ‘truth’, but does it cease to be an art form? Can we not try to learn the difficult and unquestionably relevant techniques of composition from those photographs? Can we not still go back to those works of art because they still resonate in the heart and mind long after we first encountered them?
As an enthusiast photographer, who is still learning, I just want to put forth a thought – Critique every photograph worth its salt, but don’t ridicule them. After all, we all need works of experienced photographers to guide us every now and then.
Authored by Shivendra Lal