Thursday, 24 September 2009

Noorderlicht 16 pt 2: the whole story?

"Point of no return" Noorderlicht at the AA-kerk, Groningen, September 2009

There were several series presented at Noorderlicht that were documentary on places or events. Three stood out for me for a common reason I'll discuss:
Julian Germain's "Steelworks" looking at the impact on communities in the North of England brought by the closure of traditional heavy industries;
The headline show "Point of no return" curated by former Magnum president Stuart Franklin, a collection of work by Palestinian photo journalists focussing on the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza;
finally "Belgrade belongs to me" - work by three photographers (one Serb, two Dutch) looking at recent life in Belgrade, Serbia.

All three were presented in heavily political terms - respectively: the destruction of communities by Thatcherite policies, the death of innocent civilians by an occupying force (and Franklin's introductory essay had to be withdrawn under threat of legal action by AP, very much a political act in itself) and the poverty and lack of support left behind by NATO attacks in Serbia. So much, so common - especially on these particular themes.

But there is always more to any story. It was the last of these shows that really got me thinking on this at first (although I'd mentioned something along the lines looking at Germain's work), reflecting back more on the others later. When I visited Serbia a couple of years ago, and briefly Belgrade, I noticed something rather different than the grim picture being presented by all three photographers in the show. Indeed there is poverty and many grim neighbourhoods - understandable a few years after war. But I also saw a country and city under development. New buildings, a clean and metropolitan centre, possible hope for a better life in the coming years. And the history of the place - Belgrade's old Citadel showing the scars and reconstruction from centuries of warfare, a country strategically placed between Europe and Asia with the fertile lands provided by the Danube as it runs to the sea. But I don't intend to denigrate the work or view presented but there is rather more to the whole story, I feel. I also felt the photographers were focussed on despair wrought by personal experience but anecdote doesn't make for balanced evidence.

Likewise the work from England. Indeed many communities, dependent for many years on single industries, were devastated by their closure. But then strong unionisation, a lack of development in working practices and eventually uncompetitive behaviour played their part, as they have in other heavily industrialised parts of the Western world. Blaming the outcomes on a single set of policies is a popular and partisan approach to the subject. Not that I want to present either view as right, or indeed that any of that is my point. But stories such as this are more complex and I think it takes a strong care to be able to provide counter-point, especially to one's own views.

Which leads onto the Palestinian work. Shocking images for sure. A grisly display of destruction and dismemberment rarely, if ever, presented by Western news media. Ordinary people caught up in the middle of fighting, children killed, families displaced. But I was given to think: was this just a small slice? There was work presented by 11 photographers and yet several of the images were alternate angles from the same scene & subject. Was the story that narrow that repetition was necessary?

It is a notion that certainly comes up often: what is objectivity. I think a simple (and possibly simplistic) answer is showing all sides. Being able to argue for both cases. Challenging accepted wisom or group-think. It is something I try and practice often - the ability to see all sides of an argument, to play Devil's Advocate where necessary. I think it is necessary to informed debate, helps one more clearly formulate one's own views and hopefully leads to more considered decisions. Unfortunately I don't think I see enough balance in documentary photography to help. Sometimes the photographer needs to show us what he avoided as well as what he targetted.

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