I like writing just as much as I like photography, and in fact have been doing it for much longer. I always scribbled, even as a child, and as a child I often wrote poetry. I don’t do that much these days, and I don’t usually share my poetry for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s often intensely personal and more than I feel willing to share publicly, and the second is that I sometimes cringe at some of the poetry I read online and am a little worried that my own efforts might create the same effect.
(Many years ago we went to the opening of an art exhibition where someone read some of the worst poetry I’ve ever heard. Since then, we refer to this kind of thing as Vogon poetry – the Vogons were characters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide books who liked to torture their captives by reading them their exceptionally bad poetry. Bad poetry is so much worse than any other kind of bad writing!)
I’ve just joined a writer’s group – which is quite challenging for me as it mostly does involve writing poetry – and as the evening progressed I remembered what strong analogies there are between writing and photography. On a simple level, for instance, picking up a pen doesn’t make you a writer any more than picking up a camera makes you a photographer. And we wouldn’t doubt that the ability to write with perfect grammar and spelling says little about how good the writing is, so why do so many people think that technical perfection in photography makes a great image? However, just as our writing will benefit from being able to spell and write grammatically, so will our photos undoubtedly benefit from technical mastery, even if it’s not enough by itself.
Taking a more sophisticated view, documentary-style photography could be compared to a non-fiction book, with each photo a chapter and the whole creating a ‘true’ story. Like writing, the way the story is told depends as much on what’s left out as what’s included and there are many ways to tell the story. There are also many ways to read it, and our own filters often determine how we absorb it. Truth is malleable and not the objective thing that many people would like it to be and documentary isn’t so far removed from fiction, even when based in an external reality.
But how can that be? Picasso is often quoted as saying ‘art is a lie that helps us realise the truth’ and it sometimes seems that fiction can be more ‘true’ than non-fiction. The best fiction is not just a story, but reveals a truth to us about the world, our place in it, and how we react to it. And although the world in a fictitious book has come straight from the mind of the author, the stuff in the author’s mind has come from what they’ve actually seen and experienced (even if some of that experience may have come second-hand). Think of any great novel, and it’s great not because of its story or even, necessarily, its writing, but because of the larger ‘truth’ that it tells us.
Photography is probably the only art that must have something real – in the sense of something you can point to, something tangible – as a starting point. This has given it an uneasy and unique relationship with the notion of truthfulness, and it’s what’s responsible for promoting the outrage some folk feel when they learn that a shot has been significantly Photoshopped. Because photography needs the ‘real’ as a starting point, it’s assumed that the final print should do nothing to deny or hide that reality. And of course, photography has a history of being used to prove or record what’s real – photographic evidence – so it brings that baggage to the party.
But suppose that, like a work of fiction, a photograph that’s fictional – ie, created out of the mind of its author – might be one that’s more truthful than a straight shot could ever be. Last week I went to an exhibition in Nottingham called Inside the Outside. It’s a joint exhibition of ten photographers, most of whose work is far removed from what we might regard as objective reality. But from a personal point of view I think their work is far more powerful, and says far more, than a straight representation ever could do. Look, for example, at Rob Hudson’s work Towards the Sun, of which he says:
It is fictional because it plays with metaphor and allusion. It’s not about a place, so much as it is a reaction to a place. And it’s not even about photographing into the light, save where that, itself, is a metaphor for some form of hope.
You can clearly recognise what was in front of the lens when Hudson took these photos, but you’d find it hard to identify that place from them even if you found yourself in it. As he says, it’s not about that particular place, it’s about his own truth that emerged as he spent time in that place and it’s probably a truth that could only have been shown through this fictional approach.
Recently, I was reading an article and interview on Nick Brandt’s latest work, Inherit the Dust, in B&W Photography magazine. It’s an amazing and moving body of work, in which Brandt places life size photographs of threatened African animal species in the spaces that they once moved and lived in but which are now taken over by some of the worst examples of humankind’s impact on the land. For example, one shows a huge and magnificent elephant standing in the middle of what is now a wasteland covered in rubbish.
In the interview Brandt was quite vehement about the life size shots actually having been placed there and not constructed in Photoshop. He refers to this as preserving the ‘fundamental integrity’ of the scene and referring to the Photoshop possibility as ‘faking things’. If these shots were made for the purpose of recording the scene, or if the people in the scene were interacting with the giant shots, then I could understand it, but neither of these is the case. (Actually, in one image there is some interaction from two young children, but in the others people are carrying on as if these giant images weren’t there.)
While I admire the achievement of overcoming the technical difficulties of transporting and erecting these huge images on site, I don’t think I’d have found them any less powerful – or less truthful – had they been composited afterwards digitally. In fact, on first viewing I assumed they had been. To me their truth isn’t dependent on the way they were created, but on whether or not the photographer produces images that get his message across successfully, and Brandt could have done that either way.
Truth is a strange concept – we think of it as having objectivity and being a singular thing, but in fact there can be many truths. Truth and fiction are often referred to as opposites, but the worst kind of documentary or non-fiction can actually lie or obscure truth, and the best kind of fiction can reveal it.