“One of the questions I have had since I first began photography was not so much ‘what can I achieve through photography’ as ‘what can I become through photography?’ and this is something that I have held dear as I carry out my work.” – Sohei Nishino
At a recent photography gallery opening a man stopped next to me in front of a black and white photograph. Turning to me, he said that he really didn’t understand why anyone would take a photograph of such a subject. He continued by telling me that this type of photograph was actually so uninteresting that he looked at it for only a matter of seconds before turning away. Anything, he mused, must be better than this.
As much as photography is a part of all of our lives, like any profession or individual pursuit, it means more to some than it does to others. As much as we would like to sell ourselves the idea that what we as photographers do means something – that what we do will change the world, albeit in a small perhaps all but insignificant way – in all probability the photographs won’t mean much at all. Like a proud mother wanting to show everyone (and anyone) pictures of her newborn, photographers often seem to have the same compulsive desire to show their work, believing that this action in itself will validate all their efforts and persistence on a project. The problem with this however, is that the ego is given free reign to direct the photographer, and to an extent, the photographs that are presented.
The more I think about photography, the more I want to stop thinking about photography. The more I allow myself to intellectualise the medium and what it represents, the more the feeling becomes lost and my mind starts to rationalise and argue the attributes of subject. When I look at photographs, I am actually looking past what has been recorded by the camera, I am looking at the object itself and I am stimulated by something new, made by machine and controlled by human hand; it is the photograph that interests me, it is the photography that I am looking at.
Ego is something I have always felt uneasy with. It took a number of years for me to be able to relax without having a camera with me at all times; the ability to record something personally inspiring, so immediately and internally moving that the need to photograph it – to make something from it – was all consuming (social media definitely has a role in the growing impulsive desire to ‘share’ what we do with others). Admittedly, most of these moments happened late at night in bars with friends while rather intoxicated, and most of the pictures have never seen the light of day. The ego, possessed by one’s own desire to be creative and to be the messenger of vision, only serves to hamper the growth of us as individuals and as artists. Without being able to outgrow one’s own ego and our quest for accomplishment, we will never be able to achieve the heights of greatness that we expect from ourselves, and are indeed capable of. The basis of such growth must begin with personal and intimate awareness of our own existence.
Photography is especially prone to luring its practitioners into a false sense of importance. With the greatest of intentions, a talented photographer can go out into the world and photograph it at length, find an arresting subject, have the best gear and be in the right place at the right time to capture the afternoon light just so in their pictures. Yet with all of these elements falling magically into place, it is so very easy, so shockingly easy, for the work to remain uninspiring, and well… unmoving. So what is important when it comes to photography? The argument that photography can change the world has been made, so too has the case against it. I agree in earnest with one of photography’s most well known users, who states ‘I’m a serious photographer but I would never expect my work to change anything.’  Arguing that photography is instrumental in actual change inherently supports the theory that the world is in a state of non-change without it, which is undeniably untrue. Everything is in a continual state of change and development, whether photographs are made or not. Photography is, at its core, an internal pursuit rather an external one.
Wherever we are in the journey of this life, we repetitively make decisions that take us in a direction. Yet at the same time, there is only one direction, the one we have already taken in the past, the one we can look back on and discover what it actually is we have done and where exactly we have been. In essence, the individual story, as well as the collective one can only be viewed in light of what has happened, rather than what is happening or what will happen. Photography acts as a beacon of our past achievements as well as our past failures. Photographs obviously have the ability to recall visions of subjects and places to viewers, as this is the guise under which most photography is presented and received. But more importantly photographs and photography describe periods of personal involvement and experience that are most significant to only one person, the photographer. I appreciate that photography has the capability to move and to inspire viewers; needless to say that I am often moved by photographs that I see, whether in a book, on the web or on a gallery wall – however what moves me about a certain work will inherently relate to my own awareness of life as well the emotions and experiences that I have to draw on, more than the subject of the work itself.
In somewhat of a paradox, photography inadvertently and consistently imposes significance on moments of apparent unimportance, while important moments intended for reproduction (often with great intentions) can fail to reach the level to which a photographer has aspired. One can argue what is and what is not important, however let us (for the sake of argument) decree all moments equal in importance and unimportance in this instance. The work of Gilbert Bel-Bachir has always moved me and I have had the pleasure of looking at prints in his apartment, listening to him talk passionately about philosophy and music, and how important photography is to him. Bel-Bachir is not intent on relating a place or people to the viewer through his work. I actually believe that this photographer (like others who have practiced photography for a great number of years) has reached a certain level of enlightenment that allows him to be almost neutral in the making of his photographs. How does one go about balancing neutrality and ego, walking the acute line of subjectiveness and objectiveness? Bel-Bachir’s work from China, while made from life, does not wholly represent it; rather I see his work as an exploration of personal experience. Bel-Bachir’s being there is what permitted the creation of the work, and from it he has made something with photography rather then merely having recorded what was happening.
Simon Norfolk’s sepia-toned portraits of groups of people in Afghanistan also attain a certain balance of objectiveness and personal awareness that ask as much as they offer. Norfolk has acted as both photographer and director for the production of his images; his reference to photography within a particular photograph is especially fascinating. Numerous artists have referenced the medium of photography in their photographs, including Walker Evans, William Eggleston and Araki Nobuyoshi, yet Norfolk’s formal portrait of soldiers holding both guns and cameras seems so fittingly appropriate to the last decade of war and how it has been experienced by the wider world. Norfolk’s series began in response to work made by John Burke, a photographer who worked in Afghanistan in the late 1800s, Norfolk having reinterpreted some of the sites that Burke photographed as well as documenting new aspects of contemporary life in the country. This image in particular is so arresting not only because war has been such a mainstay of our recent collective history, but the way in which images of conflict have been delivered to the global audience have themselves become an issue of newsworthiness; in today’s online environment, the camera is seen equally as powerful as the gun as a tool of control. I have no doubt that my interpretation of this work relates to my experience as a press photographer as well as my current interest in world affairs. Others will bring their own histories to this image and engage with it in different ways.
A common attribute of notable work is that it offers more than a simple mirror of the time and place in which it was made. Whether photographs have been directed, such as the portraits made by Norfolk and those made by Sarah Rhodes, or they have been made without direction like the work of Hannah Lucy-Jones and Toni Greaves, the viewer’s reaction will depend greatly on their own private personal history. No singular response should have priority over another, yet what has no place in photography is the dismissal of work due to a lack of interest or willingness to engage with it. Dismiss one thing and you dismiss everything.
While all responses to a work are unique and valid as contributions for discussion and debate, any given reaction to it can never equal a photographer’s own development through the making of the work. Acting primarily as a discourse between photographer and the world, the true meaning of photography (and all art) lies in it’s making. This in itself is what is most important. As individuals, we have an incessant desire to create, and as long as we are making things for ourselves first, expanding personally on our unique journeys through life, then we are doing something worthwhile, something of value and something worth celebrating.
SEAN DAVEY began his journalistic career working part-time as a sound recordist for SBS at Parliament House in Canberra while studying Media Communications. In 2000 Sean moved to Sydney to begin a three-year photography cadetship with Fairfax’s Sun-Herald newspaper. Living by the tenet “it’s what’s outside the frame that most interests me”, Sean is engaged with continuing projects in Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Sean is a member of the brokenbench collective and recently established The Photography Room of which he is the Director. He is also the Education and Program Manager at PhotoAccess in Canberra where he currently lives. To view Sean’s own photographic work please visit his website.
Sean’s series Dog Food & Oysters is currently on show at The Photography Room until 21 January 2012.