All stories are shaped and reshaped by those who tell them, those who hear them, and that which inspired them. No story exists in a vacuum, there is always an intersecting framework of contexts by which a narrative can be understood; even when the story is about someone “outside” of society, it is still a story existing in the context of societal discourse.
This underlying idea means that there is always depth to explore in even the seemingly simplest and most straightforward situation. The role of the storyteller can be interpreted and embodied in many ways. The way I see it a storyteller is primarily a translator, if effective they convey location, character, struggle, triumph, and belief, in a way that may cross boundaries between communities of communities, magnifying differences, and similarities, sharing an understanding, reaching out and helping others to reach out as well.
An idea of community beyond simply sharing a geographical location or commonalities offers a lot more to a photographer working to document that layer beneath the surface, the web of connections and interactions that contribute to fostering behaviors and cultures. There is so much more to a community than just people going about their daily life. The problem to solve for a storyteller in this context is to map out and convey the depth to someone who may have never encountered that way of life before. A similarity may not appear as such to someone who cannot get past the differences that may only be skin deep.
While this is the way I currently see this topic I know that the other members of the collective I collaborate with may interpret things differently, and in different contexts. That’s part of why working collaboratively is a healthier way to process such stories, as it allows for multiple perspectives rather than an auteur-like approach as may be the case with solo practitioners.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, box-ticking approach to these unique situations, no catch-all correct way to go about telling a story. There are values we share, even if our expression and manifestation of those values differ in theory and practice. These values offer direction for the way we approach the documentation of community. Empathy is key, and trust follows from this: without trust, there can be no intimate access to actually tell the story in the first place. Earning trust when many photographers have a social media agenda rather than a humanistic one can take a long time, absent of any camera presence, and ideally should be a two-way street. If someone does not have a level of trust with those they photograph it will show in the images. A betrayal of trust on either side will also affect the way the photographs ultimately represent that collaboration.
Awareness of our own perspective is a good first step, as it means understanding our starting point for approaching something unknown. As an outsider to a community recognizing which aspects we find interesting, which stand out to us in some way, means that we can spend time learning about those and then concentrate on what is likely the real heart of things, not just the aspects that stand out to us as outsiders. Photographing “what you know” seems like a good way to produce an echo chamber, a feedback loop of confirmation bias. Avoiding this as best as possible means that for specific audiences we can present aspects they may also find interesting, or maybe even deconstruct stereotypes in the process of offering whatever insight the project is about. In this way, even a familiar community can be offered new perspectives and insight.
The photographer’s perspective does hold significance, whether that perspective is based on ignorance, research, participation, immersion, or upbringing within the set of ideas inherent to the work. This context frames the work we make, which isn’t always about an insider’s perspective. The work we do does not prevent any insider from also producing work; there is room for everyone to tell things from their perspective, and all perspectives are valid according to their purpose. There are always many ways to see and interpret, which is why seeing and interpreting in collaboration as we strive for is a worthy way to process and represent these stories.
Photographs made from contrasting or even conflicting viewpoints can be taken holistically to provide even greater depth and understanding than one view in isolation.
Recently we have produced a zine from a short time working during a Foundation Stone laying ceremony at the Milton Keynes Murugan Temple. Sagar and I worked on this, up at 5am in order to arrive very early and document throughout the ceremony, leaving only when everyone else has also left. We helped to set up around the temple grounds, and I worked on some still life and contextual images while it was quiet.
As devotees began to join we worked around them, careful not to get in the way, but with a good understanding based on prior experiences at pūjā ceremonies which meant we could navigate and pre-empt events, often positioning ourselves in advance, or very close to proceedings while knowing that we were not obstructing.
Sagar’s communication and participation with this community beforehand meant everyone knew we would be present, and everyone was comfortable knowing they could approach us at any time if they wanted to speak about anything with us. Sagar elaborates on this in the voiceover to a video made of some short clips I made during the event.
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Knowing your audience and writing for them may alienate someone you didn’t have in mind when producing a piece of work. We try to offer as much as possible to anyone who may pick up and flick through a publication, without excluding as best as possible. Someone deeply involved in a culture may use idioms or make a photograph of a symbol that to them has obvious meaning but to someone else is open to interpretation without some kind of guidance from the authorial voice.
Many communities do not have a dedicated documentarian working specifically to produce this kind of long-term story. For example, in a place of worship, the community is there for their personal and collective service, not to observe themselves in that space (although again there are always exceptions, community to community).
Outside of community events where someone may take photos on their phone, or hire an event photographer, an archive of imagery will not exist without an attending long-form documentary photographer, with that specific agenda. Even an event photographer will be producing event photography, not community photography; the style and eye are very different. The non-participatory observer is free to dedicate their eye to the task at hand; their attention won’t be divided between their agenda and the politics of the community dynamic.
Empathy is essential, even when photographing someone whose way of life goes in opposition to the photographer’s. Even if producing a story that is critical of a person that critique should be grounded, and not based in ridicule, such as accentuating features into a caricature. Whether we are photographing working or affluent class stories we will navigate in a similar way, engaging with people, and knowing when to take no for an answer, understanding boundaries all of which become aspects of the finished work itself.
We frequently discuss amongst ourselves with updates on how different pieces of work are going, and share when we have fresh scans of unseen negatives. Through this semi-peer-review process we debate our opinions on different ideas, and further each other’s understanding of things we have seen and learned, framing and reframing, looking at ways things could be interpreted and misinterpreted. We try to identify any beliefs we may need to lampshade within the text or meta-text of a publication, in order to clarify the perspective or context something may have been made within. So far in our limited early publications, this has luckily not been necessary, but there are a few upcoming stories I think may include some peripheral guidance.
The learning process is different for everyone, and there will always be hurdles and failures to learn from. Coming from a position of ignorance or preconception on some of the ideas we are working with a question someone asks may contain an element of that ignorance. Of course, it’s better to appear ignorant briefly while you are being educated than to not ask and remain ignorant, but we are always careful with our communication. We also accept that not all of our questions will have satisfying answers, or that the answers may not be available to us at that stage. If we find in review that there is a serious gap in our understanding, which will impact our reader’s ability to understand, then we will do our best to fill that gap in or out of the context of fieldwork.
A good story reframes and distills reality into a consumable narrative, and will offer in varying degrees education and entertainment. Photographs work fantastically to amplify an idea, especially in a particularly iconic set of imagery, but it has to be amplified in a way that is finely tuned; no crackle, distortion to the best of our ability. Working collectively means we can keep each other in check, cross-referencing each other and seeking out ways to refine for clarity so that the eventual message is clear to someone who is reading our work for the first time, having their first contact with the community we documented via our pages.
We are not tourists when working, there is no lack of patience and care for a story we believe is worth telling. We try not to make superficial snapshots unless it can be justified in the work, and we do not work as a PR company, showcasing a space and people in order to sell tickets. That sort of thinking pulls the lens away from a people and more towards an atmosphere, which can tell a great story but loses sight of the community roots to a humanistic documentary approach.
In practice one of us will identify a project to work on, a story to tell, a character to highlight, through a process of practice research, which we are constantly engaged in. Pulling on that thread, we will reach out, either as a group or as an individual. We explain ourselves and supply past work where necessary to demonstrate possible directions and out. From here things can move in any number of directions. In pulling threads, we will always find ourselves somewhere unexpected, and make decisions based on that. We will try and work with at least one other person if working closely in the field, or afterward in review, in order to peer assess each other’s methods, highlight gaps, ask questions we feel may have been overlooked. Realistically the questions we find ourselves asking are a good indication of the kind of questions others will ask when looking at the work, so answering these is key.
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