Encounters and Engagement
My Approach to Travel and Documentary Photography
Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem 2007
While there are many subjects for travel photographers – and of course each travel photographer has his or her personal interests - to me, travel photography is fundamentally about encounters with, and an engagement with, people. Photographing how people live is – to me – the heart of the matter. I find that my photography of landscapes, architecture and so on comes as a side-effect of my focus on people and their social context. That’s because we see ourselves – and our own societies - clearer after experiencing an engagement with another society which is effectively at a different place in time as well as space. Just as the Impressionist painters of the late nineteenth century elevated ‘ordinary’ aspects of life and ordinary people (bars and cafes, picnics by the river, mothers and children, dancers, prostitutes) so the contemporary travel and documentary photographer is interested in the ‘every-day’. There is – literally – a picture round every corner. Street-photographer Robert Doisneau was surely correct to say, ‘The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street’.
I admit to having a child-like excitement when I travel and photograph – a sense of wonder helps the photographer see.
Over 60 years ago, Bill Brandt put it better than I can, ‘It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country. Most photographers would feel a certain embarrassment in admitting publicly that they carried within them a sense of wonder, yet without it they would not produce the work they do, whatever their particular field. It is the gift of seeing the life around them clearly and vividly, as something that is exciting in its own right. It is an innate gift, varying in intensity with the individual’s temperament and environment’.
People-based photography requires sensitivity and an understanding of the values, customs and norms of a community. Photographing in Morocco is quite different to photographing in Cuba and India is different again. At root, I find the camera is like having a dog or small child with you – handled correctly it is a great way to make contact with strangers. Some people will get a high from scaling mountains – mine come from the challenge of walking down an unknown street and looking for that ‘engagement’ I talked about earlier.
It takes time – it’s best of all if you can be ‘embedded’ in the community – living with the locals, returning time and again to the same spots. Talk to people, explain what you are doing – expect to be rejected sometimes – be friendly and open, show an interest in the activities of the ‘street’ , buy fruit or market goods to break the ice. Just make people feel that it’s OK for you to just be around. Be confident in what you are doing. Simply explore – wander – expect the unexpected. ‘If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, it's already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.’ (Eve Arnold).
Respecting the communities you photograph is of paramount importance, especially since many countries which we find very attractive for photography are extremely poor and conditions of life very tough. I have enormous admiration for people struggling in often desperate circumstances and never ceased to be amazed by people’s generosity, resilience, courage and friendliness. No more so than the wonderful Arab family I lived with in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem (in the shadow of the separation wall) in the winter of 2007. Travelling ethically and contributing to the developing societies is an imperative. It would be wrong to minimize the many complex issues that arise when individuals from ‘affluent’ societies visit developing societies – not only cultural values clash but the relationship of resources and power is uneven. I intend to explore the issues in a later article – and to draw up some guidelines.
Images matter – to the individual that makes them they become a part of their biography – a vivid memory bank – some become iconic – you can remember every thing about the time and place where you were. Images hang on your wall and inside your mind. You wonder where Murbarek the camel driver is or whether Sana the Arab girl is married yet.
One photographer has been beautifully poetic in describing what he does, ‘I am blessed with the awesome responsibility of creatively interpreting the fleeting events of our lives. For me, it is all about gently catching personal memories of a given place and time and precious moments spent with special people. It is all about handing these moments back to be gently cradled in our memories and shared with others, eventually to become our legacy’. (Michael Davis).
So what are our aspirations? Sam Abell’s answer cannot be bettered, ‘We are seeking to present an image that arouses the curiosity of the viewer or that, best of all, provokes the viewer to think - to ask a question or simply to gaze in thoughtful wonder. We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make. It is the kind of picture that makes you want to pick up your own camera again and go to work’.
That’s why – once hooked – you can never stop – our photography becomes a vital form of creativity and expression.
Images below: Aida Refugee Camp, 2007