Each of these projects demonstrates the persistent authority that photographers have always relied on – that a camera allows you to step into communities and situations and take a look and also to step back, reflect and comment. Contemporary documentary photography is not a unified form but neither is it a defunct or endangered area of photographic practice. It is simply that its contexts, visual styles and the motivations of the photographers are various. The dissemination of contemporary documentary photography now relies on a number of contexts and is spread between magazines (its traditional environment), books and art galleries.
Projects created for all of these contexts are represented in this exhibition. The motivations of the photographers whose work is shown here suggest the range of emotional forces – political, humanist and aesthetic – which drive documentary photography.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are the creative editors of Benetton ’s Colors magazine. Photographs from two assignments undertaken during the last six months are shown here. These appeared in issues of Colors, addressing mental health and the penal system, alongside related documentary projects by other photographers from around the world, commissioned by Broomberg and Chanarin. Their photographs make clear gestures towards the heritage of documentary photography. They use a large format camera, which requires a tripod, and makes the taking of photographs a slow and conspicuous act. The sense of activity being slowed for the camera makes references to nineteenth century photography both in terms of process and style. It also serves to detach their photographs from the conventions of photojournalism. There is a sense that Broomberg and Chanarin arrive 'either too early or too late' and not within the usual media-driven time scale at a site of social crisis. These photographers talk about the constraints and contradictions of working in this way in the interview excerpts below.
Listen to Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin discuss working within the community in the following audio clips
Harlemville is a small community of people in northeast America that lives in accordance with the writings of the early 20th century philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Clare Richardson first visited Harlemville in the spring of 2000, initially to spend time with a friend who was studying biodynamic farming, Steiner’s agricultural practice. Richardson was immediately taken with the impact that this community’s beliefs has on the rearing of their children - in particular, the emphasis that was placed on mobilising the imaginative world of each child and the importance of story telling and play in developing this capacity in them. Richardson stepped into this community without being conscious of the connections this rarefied existence had with her own childhood or photographic practice, but both elements became her links with Harlemville and the basis for the friendships that she formed.
'I always kept my camera in my bag but often I wouldn’t take it out for days. I’d find that I’d spend three days with the Harlemville community and though I might not have taken a picture during that time, when I did, the relationships I am forming are evident and come through in the pictures.'
Listen to Clare Richardson discuss the origins of the Harlemville project in the following audio clips
Dalliendorf is a small village in the north east of Germany. Albrecht Tübke came to Dalliendorf with his family when he was ten years old and lived there for a decade before moving to Leipzig to study photography. When he re-visited Dalliendorf as an adult and no longer an inhabitant, the landscape, homes and people of the village seemed to him to have undergone only minor changes since his childhood. Returning to Dalliendorf created emotions in him that combined his present with his remembered relationship with this place. Aged 26, Tübke began making photographs in the village as a way of marking his dual experience of Dalliendorf. There is a level of detachment in the way in which Tübke chose to present the village and, in particular, the portrayal of the villagers. This approach acknowledges his position as a photographer stepping back into Dalliendorf. But what also emerged, for Tübke, was the realisation that this level of detachment had always been part of his relationship with this place.
'I knew then that I had always been a guest in Dalliendorf, and not a villager. Taking these photographs was me getting the message. This documentary project was an intense reflection on what Dalliendorf is but also on the essential and sensitive quality of photography to reflect your past and who you are.'
Listen to Albrecht Tübke discuss how he relates to the people of Dalliendorf as a photographer in the following audio clips
Deirdre O’Callaghan’s Hide the Can series is the culmination of four years of spending time and photographing in Arlington House in North London. This hostel is home to mainly Irish men in their fifties and sixties who came to London as young adults to earn money as manual labourers. Deirdre O’Callaghan moved to London in the early 1990s, as did many young Irish men and women, in search of work and her initial affinity with the residents of Arlington house came from their shared economic migration. But it was equally her differences from the men – her age, her gender and, of course, her choice to enter the lives of Arlington House - that became the keys to this documentary project. Taking these photographs created a routine from which the communication between O’Callaghan and the men was created. Her role in providing the time and the excuse for the men to reflect on their lives was confirmed when she was invited to document their holidays to Ireland arranged by the House. Hide the Can is a traditional version of humanist documentary photography, one in which O’Callaghan attempts to give a dignity to the men of Arlington House and show her empathy for a forgotten generation of migrant workers.
Listen to Deirdre O’Callaghan talk about the Hide the Can project at Arlington House in the following audio clips
In 1982, Roger Ballen began photographing the homes and people of small town South Africa. Ballen’s first photographs were strongly led by his desire to define an aspect of South African culture. This reflected his position as a newcomer, stepping into a marginalised community, foregrounding the socio-economic position that his subjects held. But in recent photographs shown here, taken in towns on the outskirts of Johannesburg and Pretoria, Ballen has moved further and further from attempting to document a culture. His photographs are powerful and complex because of their extreme aesthetic contemplation of a subject that we assume to be worthy of visualisation purely for its social meaning. Ballen’s recent photographs suggest a passion for texture and composition. The starting point for the construction of an image could as easily be a dot on the wall, a dog’s tail, or the teeth of the subject.
'The purpose of photography has changed for me. I am no longer an outsider trying to pick up interesting details of a place. Right now, I’m only looking at one place – the interior of my mind. And from that, I step outside.'
Listen to Roger Ballen discuss the evolution of his work in the following audio clips
The subject of Tina Barney’s photographs is the relationship between family members, paused and magnified through photography. Barney’s representations of familial dynamics began with her exploration of her own elegant and affluent family in North America. In recent years, Barney has extended her investigations to families in Europe and, in 2001, to English subjects connected by blood, marriage and friendship. The English carries the hallmark of Barney’s approach – her continued anthropological fascination with how relationships are disclosed through spatial connections and gesture performed for her and her camera. For this series, Barney sought out subjects who were drawn from the English upper class. The quality and colouration of interiors, and the sitters’ dress and demeanour, eloquently describe this rarefied sphere. The English is not, according to Barney, a critique of the British class system. As Barney points out, she would have photographed other strata of English life if this was her primary agenda. Instead, The English is a revealing document of an aspect of English society and the relationships within a family, as seen by a photographer who stepped in from another, connected, world.
Listen to Tina Barney discuss working within families in the following audio clips
Donovan WylieAfter settling in London in 1997, Donovan Wylie embarked on a photographic project exploring an aspect of his background in Northern Ireland. The project is primarily focused on his memories and close relationship to his uncle. Out of this comes a re-examination of a background, a Protestant rural background, in the context of the 1970s, when Wylie was a boy. Combining his grandfather's diaries, extended family's scrapbooks and snaps, as well as his own photographs, Wylie gives a subjective view of a history that shaped him and the environment from which he came.
'This project was a strange mixture of not "looking" and then being taken by what you see and feel at a particular time. This seems to be the most exciting thing about making pictures – that they come to you.'
Listen to Donovan Wylie discuss working with archival images and photobooks in the following audio clips
Allan Sekula's Freeway to China project explores the contemporary maritime world, focussing on the ports of Los Angeles and Liverpool. For this exhibition he has selected two photographs, both taken in Liverpool, and a passage of text from the total eighteen works that make up Freeway to China.
Since the early 1970s, Sekula's photographs and writings have influenced critical debate about the meaning and ideology of documentary photography. His pairing of the experiences of text and photography in this exhibition is illustrative of one of the main tenets of his approach – to construct a relay between writing and image. Both mediums resonate with political, cultural and personal connections through, in this instance, the comparison of the port of Liverpool with that of Los Angeles, where Sekula was raised.
Listen to Allan Sekula discuss working in maritime cities and the connection between word and image in the following audio clips
This content was originally created to accompany the exhibition Stepping In and Out, on display at the V&A South Kensington between 5 September 2002 and 26 January 2003.