Saturday, September 20, 2014

So what did I learn?

Anyone who has been reading this blog will by now be aware that this has been a very challenging course, one that has stretched me to the limit and tested my commitment.  More than once I contemplated simply stepping away from the course, to either start a different path or quit entirely.  However, my previous tutor for Landscape told me that I needed to do this course and my respect for his views coupled with the excellent support from my current tutor kept me on path.  A few days ago I packaged together the prints, essay, tutor comments, and my responses into a  4 Kg box that just arrived in Barnsley for assessment.  Yesterday, I enrolled on Level 3.  So this course did not kill me or worse than that cause me to quit the OCA.  But, what did it do?

Putting aside the fact that the course is old and lacks the intellectual rigor I need at this stage, the subject matter was a real problem.  I do not have a problem photographing people, with or without their consent, however, people increasingly have a problem with me photographing them. Not me specifically, anyone!  During Social Documentary I ran right into the fact that society has changed in it's attitude towards photography, and in particular German society.  I experienced an increasing sense of hostility towards me, at times dangerously so.  Cameras seem to be increasingly seen as a tool of surveillance and threat.  Perhaps this stems from the fact that smartphones are the modern imaging instrument of choice.  "Real" cameras are used by professionals and what is a professional doing photographing me?  In Germany it is illegal to publish a photograph of a person without their written consent.  Publish, means any form of dissemination in print or web form.  I feel that this prohibition is gradually extending to the idea that the act of photographing someone without their permission is illegal. It isn't.  However, it is now a major breach of politeness and even offensive to photograph a person without their permission.  This then translates to many taking issue, even violently so to being photographed.

Complying with the project and assignment structure of Social Documentary became progressively more difficult.  I solved the problem in Assignment 1 by photographing myself, written permission obtained.  In Assignment 2 I mostly photographed drunk people, who in the main did not care, but were also slower than me if offense was taken. By assignment 4 I was growing weary of the hostility and it began to show in my imagery as I became more distant, more voyeuristic, maintaining space between myself and my subjects.  Arriving at Assignment 5 I finally solved the problem, stop photographing people, but still describe society.

This was the key learning point from the course, if taking pictures of people is too challenging in a society that values privacy above all else, stop doing it.  As a photographer I must work with the zeitgeist of the environment within which I find myself.  If Germany prohibits the candid image then make that a part of my work.  Either get right into peoples face and work the reaction, risky, but interesting or make absence of people the point.  Looking at successful contemporary German photographic artists, none are doing street photography, people are either clearly complicit in the images or they are entirely absent.  Gursky's work springs to mind.  Even those artists such as Thomas Struth who take images of crowds of people (Gallery work) do it outside Germany!

I live in Germany and must respect German societal norms even if they get in my way.  The trick is to work with those norms, to use them to make artistic statements that interest people.  Where this brings me as a photographer I am not sure, but it will be a major element of how I approach my final year work,  Perhaps this will drive me back towards Landscape, I truly do not know, but this investigation will form one of the first things I plan to do as I start Level 3.

So to conclude Social Documentary, the key learning was to stop taking photographs of people without their permission and if that means no longer photographing people, so be it!