Research point: Senses of place

The course notes ask us to “Do some independent research into the work of some or all of the photographers discussed in this project”.

In particular we are asked to consider the following points:

  • Compare and contrast the strategies that these photographers adopt in conveying a sense of local identity.
  • Do you think this type of work is easier or harder if you come from the place that you’re documenting?
  • Can you find any evidence for the view that ‘the same geographical space can be different places at the same time’?”

Alex Webb

Webb is actually mentioned in the precursor section of the notes, on reflexivity and authorship, but his work provides a good segue into this research point so I’ll talk about him here.


Webb is a great example of both self-expressive photography and the use of colour to evoke emotions. His work is clearly a personal vision of a place rather than a neutral, deadpan chronicling of it – and this can be problematic for some viewers who don’t understand the concept of subjectivity. There are a number of user comments on the Magnum web page on the Istanbul project like the following:

  • “did not like it, there is something missing, you need years to live in Istanbul to understand what is missing”
  • “I did not like it, either. I am from Istanbul and it is not such a city as it is reflected in all the photos.”
  • “This is just a bias version of İstanbul. Like journalists, photographers must be neutral.”
  • (and many more)

These comments perfectly illustrate the problematic nature of trying to depict a ‘sense of place’ when others will have very different ‘senses’ of the same place. To the second question posed by the course notes above, these responses suggest that this type of work is not ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ depending on insider or outsider status – it’s merely different.

Jens Olof Lasthein

To me Lasthein’s work initially stood out not for the content or the colours but for the aspect ratio – all his images are wide, almost panoramic, and it makes for a distinctive cinematic look. The sense of place he conjures up is, to western European eyes, mostly a sense of extreme poverty. I have seen many projects of this nature and am not seeing what is particularly distinctive about these, subject matter-wise – it’s the look, the aspect ratio, his unique way of seeing that makes this work interesting. In this respect it fits the category of self-expressive documentary photography.

Marco van Duyvendijk

All of van Duyvendijk’s online portfolio is organised around places, so it seem to be a specialism of his. The course notes direct us at his Mongolia work.

His work is a mixture of posed portraits, more candid shots, landscapes and a few more abstract ones such as the frosted window above. Like the others here he uses colour well to convey emotions. It’s difficult to know how well he has captured a sense of the places he has photographed, as they are all unknown quantities to me – and as noted above, a sense of place is a subjective thing anyway.

Philip Cheung

For his West Bank work, Cheung said “I want to understand the place, the complexities of this conflict.” (BJP August 2011, p.21), but quite honestly I’m not sure how this set of pictures achieves that.

As he wanted to depict the ordinary daily lives of the citizens, he avoids imagery that depicts conflict or its aftermath. So he does end up giving a sense of place, but one that it incongruent with the version of reality that most outsiders hold in their minds. This might satisfy the first half of his statement above (understanding the place) but gives no sense of the complexities of the conflict. In a way his objective is self-contradictory – showing the place as ‘normal’ does not explain the conflict. To me this project came across as less an example of self-expression but rather of conscious positive bias – maybe even self-censorship.

Summary

“Compare and contrast the strategies that these photographers adopt in conveying a sense of local identity.”

Though the balance varies between the photographers, they all use a combination of people shots and environmental/landscape shots to evoke a sense of place – as the character of a place is not just its geography but its people and how they interact with the place. Some (Webb, Lasthein) are more self-expressive while others (van Duyvendijk, Cheung) a little more neutral.

“Do you think this type of work is easier or harder if you come from the place that you’re documenting?”

The Alex Webb comments above kind of answer this – it’s not ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ depending on insider or outsider status – it’s merely different. And will be received differently by different viewers.

“Can you find any evidence for the view that ‘the same geographical space can be different places at the same time’?”

Yes – a sense of place is highly subjective. That’s the major point I’ve taken away from this research.

Sources

Alex Webb http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/istanbul (accessed 25/07/2016)

Jens Olof Lasthein http://www.lasthein.se (accessed 25/07/2016)

Marco van Duyvendijk http://www.marcovanduyvendijk.nl/mongolia/(accessed 25/07/2016)

Philip Cheung http://www.philipcheungphoto.com/The-West-Bank (accessed 26/07/2016)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s