In her series Missing Pauline Magnenat has photographed “places where people who disappeared without ever being found dead or alive were seen for the last time. Sometimes, belongings were found later on – a shoe, a skateboard, a jacket – sometimes, there was nothing but the inexplicable absence, the unsolved disappearance.”
Photographing absence is a recurring theme; absences of different sorts.
Jessica Ingram‘s A Civil Rights Memorial documents marked and unmarked sites of hate crime murders of African Americans, as well as Civil Rights triumphs such as interracial communities.
Kalpesh Lathigra‘s Transmission pairs eerie landscapes with portraits of the individuals who transmitted HIV at those sites. Directed at unremarkable spaces, I found myself feeling both hollowness and anger, which is almost inexplicable except for fact of the tragic witness.
Mari Bastashevski‘s File 126 documents spaces left absent by abductions in the Northern Caucases.
Likewise, Dalia Khamissy‘s The Missing photographs those left behind after the disappearance of approximately 17,000 people during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990).
Gustavo Germano‘s The Absent – Ausencias deals with those disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War by asking people to pose in the same locations for photographs that previously included their now absent friends and family.
Even the way Will Steacy photographs Philadelphia at night asks the viewer to mediate on what once was. These Means Streets depicts “the loss and despair that prevails in urban communities to reveal a modern day portrait of the American inner city.”
To photograph absence or aftermath is, partly, to photograph time. It is to make a statement about time. It is to make a visual note of changing times and of changing attitudes, territories, and agreed histories.
There are hundreds of photo projects that wrestle with time. Many of them are listed in this discussion thread on the Develop Photo Facebook Page.
The majority use of photography is a vernacular use.
Vernacular photography (more than professional, purposeful photography projects) is about arresting or preserving time … and usually influencing and warping our perception of things through time; that image we untagged, that exposure we dodged and burned, those negatives we destroyed, that really good picture we circulated everywhere, that lie, that laugh, and that great hairdo.
We are manipulators of time.
For the most part, playing with time through photo is fun (and so it should be), so it stands to reason that more gravely serious content and themes, such as those in the six photo projects listed above, will jolt us.
But, there is a difficult truth in visualising suppressed histories and presenting photographs of absence. A photographer must trust viewers are ready to meet her or his work with openness and rigorous curiosity.
If a portfolio is about absence, then it is also about explanation and subtlety. I hope that the importance of projects about humanity, and its loss, are not themselves lost among the photos of holidays, cappuccinos and cats. My problem is not with fluffy images of that type, but with the prospect of them dominating our visual experience and edging out the education that can come through photos and stories of people beyond our daily experience.
Mishka Henner & Liz Lock published a blurb book called Photography Is, which is a collection of over 3,000 statements about the medium extracted from their original context without a source in sight. I was reminded of the book reading David Campbell‘s succinct The Difficulty Of Talking About Photography.
Ironically, it is Henner & Lock’s pilfered and reordered words, that mirror best our disparate, frustrating and ever conflicting thoughts toward the photographic medium. I think our expectations are a scatter-shot too.
Campbell asks, “What, if anything, connects stock photography, fashion photography, art photography, news photography, conceptual photography, documentary photography, amateur photography, forensic photography, vernacular photography, travel photography, or whatever sort of photography?”
What? Our responses and our choices, surely. We should be able to say we control these entirely.
We choose our viewing experiences. We can repeat ad infinitum the snaps we’re used to, or we can run headlong toward subtlety; toward difficulty.
Is your photo diet samey and fattening or is it lean, moderate and varied? How do you consume images? These are questions we should ask ourselves if we are to (as Campbell phrases it) figure out “what a photograph does, how it does it, and who does or does not want it to work in particular ways.”