Exercise: Marcus Bleasdale

Brief

Read the interview with Marcus Bleasdale in Eight magazine (V4N3, Dec 2005).

Response

Continuing the tradition?

Under the heading Continuing the tradition the course notes introduce Bleasdale (b.1968) with:

“Photographers working on long-term documentary projects, often funded by grants and awards given by philanthropic organisations, still find in B&W their preferred medium of expression.” (course notes: 38)

However, Bleasdale does not demonstrate that B&W is his preferred medium of expression: while the course notes highlight his 2003 B&W series on Congo, One Hundred Years of Darkness, of the nine project currently showcased on his portfolio website, eight are fully in colour. This somewhat diminishes the point of his inclusion in this section.

He’s still clearly “embarking on committed and deeply engaged projects” but his choice of colour palette does not seem to be a major factor. So once again, I am left wondering when the course is actually going to address in any meaningful way, what is special about B&W photography in a documentary context? (A separate research blog post on this is being built up and will be published  shortly.)

The informed photographer

What’s really interesting about Bleasdale isn’t his aesthetic preference but his broader approach to his work. He describes himself as: “a documentary photographer who uses his work to influence policy makers around the world” (artist’s website 2016).

As a former banker he is deeply interested in, and knowledgeable about, the economic underpinning of conflicts, researching the sources of financing – which is how he ended up covering mining in Eastern Congo, for example.

As noted in the Foto8 article, Bleasdale wants to show his work to those that are in a position to make changes: mining companies, financiers, governments. So this isn’t just howling into the void about how terrible the situation is, or preaching to the converted (as a lot of documentary photography has done over the decades) but rather a kind of highly targeted activism.

To me this speaks to the value that can come out of someone coming to photography later in life, with experiences that can be brought to bear on their practice that a career photojournalist may not have.

Documentary photography issues

The article asks some very intelligent questions on the practice and ethics of documentary photography to which Bleasdale offers sensible answers. I personally found the questions themselves to be more interesting and thought provoking than the responses, and found myself wishing I could ask a number of other documentary photographers the same kind of questions. I paraphrase some here along with Bleasdale’s replies:

  • Do photojournalism and conflict go hand in hand?
    • MB: they can but don’t always need to; some photojournalism is about e.g. poverty or natural disasters rather than conflict
    • His answer takes the word ‘conflict’ at face value, meaning war, but in the wider sense the majority of photojournalism is about some kind of conflict: poverty is class conflict; natural disaster is man vs nature; etc
  • How do you square working for a human rights organisation and exhibiting with a Swiss bank?
    • MB: this is how to get the images in front of the people who are in a position to change the situation
  • Can the average viewer ‘read’ a photo or series of photos?
    • MB: yes: single images have been instrumental in e.g. raising awareness and therefore funds for aid agencies: “the one moment of clarity or the one question raised by the work that touches people” (Foto8 2005)
  • How do you square the trade-off between showing the hardship and representing people with dignity?
    • MB: treats subjects with all the dignity they deserve but sometimes dignity is something that the subjects have lost and it’s valid to show that – but more importantly, treat them with respect and don’t just take their photo, talk to them, help them out
  • How much do you shoot to a brief if commissioned by e.g. an NGO?
    • MB: shoot what you want and steer the edit towards the brief if necessary

Sources

Artist website http://www.marcusbleasdale.com/about/ (accessed 18/04/2016)

Foto8 Volume 4 Number 3 https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/vol4no3 (accessed 18/04/2016)

 

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