Okay, my time in Groningen was over. The Noorderlicht International Fotofestival will carry on until December 1st without me. I was booked and bound to go, so I trained to Amsterdam and holed up there for the night.
Next morning made my way to Den Haag to give a Lunch Lecture to the photography students at The Royal Academy of Art, now known as KABK.
Donald Weber took me to the auditorium and kindly set me up. Then explained that they never know how many students will attend. Could be 10, could be 150. By the time I started the place was full.
I began talking about my approach, about how I do it for the experience, and that learning and discovery are very important to me. As is allowing the subject (whatever it may be) to dictate (up to a point) how it might be photographed.
When I was showing some images from USER an audience member raised his hand and made a statement. As far as I could make out he told me that addicts have no agency, are in a constant state of delirium so can’t make proper decisions about anything, and that I had no business photographing them. He seemed to be implying they shouldn’t be photographed at all.
Okay, I responded, although that’s not my experience, I understand why you might think that way. Photographing “the other” is a tricky thing. There’s a lot to be lost and little to be gained treading down that treacherous path. But, properly approached, I continued, there can be worth in working with subjects that are currently considered politically incorrect. (Especially, I thought to myself, in these extraordinarily reactionary times, the reactions coming, of course, from both the right and the left.) And in my opinion, I concluded, the risk is not only worth taking, but also necessary, otherwise our culture will just stagnate.
But this back and forth didn’t really go anywhere. He was certain I was wrong, maybe even a bad man (and is, of course, partially correct, because nothing in this world is pure). I was certain that there are, in fact, ethical ways to broach tough subjects (ditto).
With that dealt with in, really, a less than satisfactory way, I continued to the end of my talk. Don and I then made our way to his 4th year class where we were going to look at and talk about student portfolios.
After a bit of a continuation of the Lunch Lecture kerfuffle, Don began showing (referring to, really) a couple of the student portfolios. These portfolios were actually book-like compendiums of bits of 3 or 4 of their recent projects. The ones he handed to me were both quite esoteric, and I don’t really get esoteric.
Now don’t get me wrong, I recognized worth in both those book-things. Problem was the work just wasn’t speaking to me. I was not their audience.
So I got this sinking feeling that I would have nothing to contribute if all the student’s work was aimed in the general direction of academia.
But when I began to look through the portfolios and talk with the students individually I was pleasantly surprised. Most of them were going out into the world and engaging with what they chose to look at and wonder about. They were bringing back their perspectives in a way that strove to accentuate the storytelling qualities of photography in a personal, authentic and non-elitist way.
I wish I had images of the students’ work to show you. But things were moving too fast for me to even begin to think about taking the time out to photograph the portfolios. Instead I’ll break up all these words with a few random pix I shot in Holland . . .
. . . Anyway, here’s a quote from Dawould Bey that expresses what I think in a very succinct way: “. . . the best work tends to result not from the imposition of an idea on a situation, but from being responsive to what is going on once you get there. Otherwise, what results is merely the illustration of an idea.”
And that seemed to be how most of the KABK photography students were endeavouring to use photography . . . in a responsive way. As a result I saw a lot of smart, curious work in their portfolios.
All this made good sense to me, especially after immersing myself in the work on display at the Noorderlicht Fotofestival.
Much of the photography I saw in The Netherlands (at Noorderlicht and KABK) was the product of going out into the world and reacting to it in a personal, rounded and politically informed way. Those reactions (photographs) were then organized so that they communicated complicated thoughts in a non-precious manner.
And that brings me to the other thing I wanted to write about this week: The differences (generally speaking) between the photography I saw in Europe and what I’m seeing in Canada.
But this is already too long, so that’ll have to wait until next week.
Right now I’ll just get myself back home to Ottawa, via a one day stopover in Amsterdam . . .
SOME SCENES FROM THE SPAO OPEN HOUSE
UPCOMING THIS WEEK. OF INTEREST.
Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch: Eternal Representations
Photographer Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch, artist and religious studies scholar, will have a conversation about Olivia’s exhibition, Saints and Madonnas. Carleton University Art Gallery, St. Patrick’s Building (no pun intended) Wednesday, November 6th, seven to eight-thirty.
Kat Fulwider: Voices of the Streets
Voices of the Streets will showcasKat Fulwider‘s portraits and stories of homeless and at-risk youth. The exhibition happens at Thursday, November 8th, Point Of View Gallery, 55 Byward Market Square, 2nd floor, five to eight.
Fran Ages: The Parkland Portraits
Fran Ages will be showing her suite of images showing survivors of the Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School shooting. Saturday, November 9, Cinqhole, 5b Fairmont Ave., two to five.