I don’t recommend that many photo books as ‘must haves’ for serious photographers but “Magnum Contact Sheets” is one of them. Released a while back as a monster sized edition the £100 or so price tag put many people off. It has now been released as a compact edition (but with 16 more pages bringing the total to 524!). Once you’ve finished looking at all those lovely images and seeing the thought processes of the photographers you can always use the book as a handy step. Buy your copy whilst you can get hold of one!
When looking at photographs I often find myself wondering just how the photographer was able to get access to the subject. What form of coercion was used to get the subject in the frame? For me, access has always been the trickiest element at the start of any photography project and failing to get permission meant that several of my promising leads turned to dead ends.
So how have the professional photographers dealt with this tricky issue? Bruce Gilden simply puts his ethics to one side. He openly admits that he almost steals images of his subjects. That’s his style though, and this ‘offensive’ use of cameras captures the subjects in a way that makes them look abnormal.
Magnum photographer Antoine D’Agata takes and shares drugs during the process, he is not always behind the camera and can be seen in many of his images. He goes from merely being an observer to being an active participant. Transactions therefore don’t just mean cash but could also include services, food, clothing or drugs.
W Eugene Smith’s series on mercury poisoning makes me wonder, ‘what did he get from doing this work, what sort of transactions took place?’. Although I couldn’t find much on the internet it is clear that by choosing to fight a ‘moral’ battle Smith is able to portray himself in a positive light as a humanitarian. Similar ideals apply to much of the work of Nachtwey and his project on sulphur mining.
Susan Meiselas was working on a project to document the female workers in the Marrakech market. This series dealt with the issues of money and visibility. The subjects were offered a chance to take either a copy of the print or a small amount of cash. When they were displayed in a gallery the cash amount was displayed where the portraits had been taken by the subject. This makes the transaction far more open and becomes an important element in the the final project outcome.
Such transactions are less obvious in the work of Boris Mikhailov and his book Case History. Did he pay the homeless and poor subjects in his images order to exploit them? In the beach swap portrait series Front by Trish Morrissey the exchange was social. Morrissey used her approachable nature in order to secure the images she was after.
With all these series it is important to consider where the images are intended to be shown and for what reason. Is there a different value system in place for a gallery instalment vs a magazine spread?
Barbara De Genevieve’s Panhandler project has come under some criticism. She openly admits that she paid male homeless people to pose naked (after getting a free night in a hotel, food and some money). Is this any less honest a way to capture images than Di Corcia’s Hustlers? Philip Lorca DiCorcia ‘Hustlers’ series is taken of rent boys. The titles of the works reflects how much it would have cost for a sex act with the subject, and was the money that was exchanged in order to secure the portrait.
A lot of photographers hide the coercion and intervention between them and their subjects. In order to get a better insight we must often turn to ‘behind the scenes’ shots taken during the process. A photo of Richard Avedon taking a photo of a plant worker is a good example. The particular set up of this scene goes some way to explaining the shifty look of some of the subjects. By using a large camera and a team of several assistants it is difficult for the subject to know who is taking the photograph and when the shutter is being released. This shows the ‘transaction’ taking place, one where the photographer is dominant and the subject servile.
Taking a photograph can involve far more than just the simple transaction of the promise of a few free prints. The different levels of transaction and the steps that photographers are prepared to take are fascinating. In my future work I would like to tackle this issue and make the transaction a key element.