Lee Grant – Photography Blog

Reality Gnaws

with 2 comments

So, my little lass Pia is sick at home for the fourth day running. I thought to photograph her in this surreal state because when she’s like this, she really isn’t the girl we know (not even her brother’s fart and bum jokes are helping, which is something because our family has a known history of the giggles when it comes to poo humour) 😦 Suffice to say that I couldn’t quite bring myself to take photos. It didn’t seem the right thing. Which then led me to thinking that some photographer I am! Wussing out on my own reality! (Somehow I don’t think I’d manage that well in shitholes like Iraq. Man, I hate confrontation!) Which then led me – in a strange off-kilter way – to further think about how we associate images of hardcore realities with the kind of people who make them. Does this mean then, that only tough photographers can shoot tough stories? That their stories are somehow edgier than others?

Obviously there continues to be photographers who trade in the Jesus complex by saving the world, one photograph at a time. Take James Nachtwey for instance, as a classic example. Not to diminish his work in any way, but there is little doubt that his style sits squarely in the tradition of early photojournalism as espoused by such agencies as Magnum or Blackstar (when they actually did shoot war) et al:

Chechnya, 1996 – Ruins of Central Grozny

Afghanistan, 1996 – Mourning a brother killed by a Taliban rocket

Now compare Natchwey’s work to that of British photography duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin:

Suicide bomb disguised as a watermelon (from “Chicago”)

These images are a selection from their book about the Israeli military’s training camp dubbed ‘Chicago’:

“With the obliteration of the centre of the Jenin refugee camp, the Israeli military realized that it had to push its engineering corps to improve its ‘art of destruction’. As a part of these efforts the military began to upgrade a small mock-up town it called Chicago (in homage to that other bullet-ridden city). Located in the Tze’elim base in the Negev desert, it was to become the world’s largest mock-up oriental city erected since the filming of Ben-Hur.” (from the article Ghost town by Eyal Weizman)

So, really, here are two ways of telling similar narratives of war. Personally, I’m drawn to the Broomberg-Chanarin images. Whilst they aren’t taken in the ‘thick of battle’ or at the ‘frontlines’, they speak more to me of the futility and weirdness of war. Sometimes when I’m faced with images like Natchwey’s, I feel powerless, even guilt and shame for not understanding the horror of another’s tragic experience, and I look away. But with the Chicago pictures (as an example), I feel angry and outraged but my focus is completely drawn in. Maybe it’s the daggy cut-out Muslim city? I don’t know. Then again, perhaps it’s simply the very human traces of misunderstanding and self-deceit that project themselves in these quite [quiet] extraordinary photographs?

So, I’m back facing my earlier musings about the edginess of reality (whatever this might prove to be). I’m not sure that the Broomberg-Chanarin pictures are edgy in the sense of heroic-edgy. Sinister and chilling perhaps. But is this edge? I’ve been trying to unravel this idea of an ‘edge’ in my own documentary practice, though I do not photograph war, violence or post-conflict. Whatever it’s called I can’t quite put my finger on it. Martyn – my supervisor – is pushing me for more than what I currently have (“I need more of an….. edge”), but he is only seeing the images I’ve laid out in front of him. What he hasn’t seen yet is the rest (I do tend to work in series) which is sitting in wait in my mind’s eye, and for the right moment…. in you guessed it, real-life.

I suppose I am wondering whether a work can be deemed irrelevant if it doesn’t have this so called ‘edge’? And if I can’t capture it in photographs, does this then mean that my gaze is edgeless?

Mmmm, reality doesn’t so much bite as gnaw……. at least in my world.

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Written by Lee Grant

August 5, 2008 at 9:29 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Be very careful! Claiming they’re there in your mind’s eye is a strategy Stieglitz adopted to retrospectively validate the shifting fashions of his practice! “…he had seen the image complete in his mind’s eye before he even had his camera in his hand” says Geoff Batchen (with some critical irony) in Each Wild Idea p88. A bit of a scam, as Batchen discovers… Now if your ideas are so far ahead of contemporary practice that their edginess cannot yet be recognised…

    Nigel Lendon

    August 6, 2008 at 9:42 am

  2. Mmmm, I think I like the idea of your latter point!
    I’m not sure however that I meant it the way Batchen suggests Stieglitz did. It’s less about justifying the work in the context of shifting fashions as it is of simply making the time to get out there and physically image what I see everyday.
    Perhaps if I was a cyborg with an inbuilt eye camera……. Now that would be way ahead! Then again, this would completely change my approach since much of the way I photograph involves an exchange of sorts, at least in my portraits.

    Lee Grant

    August 6, 2008 at 10:07 am


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