Documentary Photography Part Two

by Ivan Riascos

Basically I found this quote to get to the guts of what I’m addressing about photo documentary and photography all around. Critic Jonathan Greene describes in American Photography: “The camera cannot lie, neither can it tell the truth. It can only transform.”  The photographer manifests this transformation, but the viewer can also manifest a transformation according to his or her cognitive.  Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against the medium of photo documentary as long as they are aware how photography functions.  What bothers me is when I visit a website claiming photographs are non-fiction.  Controlling the aperture, exposure, cropping, all these functions done both in the camera and the darkroom is deviating from the original scene.

So the five photographers and their body of work I saw at the Southeast Museum of Photography were the following:

A Perpetual Hold and One to Nothing/ Irina Rozovsky

Not Natasha/ Dana Popa

Eighteen/ Natan Dvir

Historia, memoria, y silencios/ Lorena Guillen Vaschetti

Los Jardines de Mexico/ Janelle Lynch

On the first floor of the museum were the works of Rozovsky, Popa, and Dvir.

Irina Rozovsky’s work titled A Perpetual Hold is about documenting her return to Russia after a long absence to a place she called home.  Her images are seeking a connection to her family and the past.  I found some images surreal while others a splash of reality about her journey, but an underlying tone of wanting to connect or relive was conveyed in this body of work.  Some images where taken at angles as if a child had taken them, or instinctual, which reinforces the understanding that the last time she was in Russia was at the age of eight.  Unlike One to Nothing were photos of her travels to the country of Israel seem distant, cold and calculated.  It was refreshing to see a photographer using the square format in a digital age, with such rich colors, and crispness that I have not seen in a while.

Eighteen by Natan Dvir are images of young Muslims living in Israel reaching the legal age of 18.  The scale of the images were large, each depicting a young person in their environment in a natural pose, shot straight on, with a paragraph or two telling the life history and ambitions of each participant in the project.  I will admit I’m ignorant, it never dawn the idea of Muslims living in Israel with issues dealing with Hamas and neighboring Muslim countries, why would Muslims want to live in a Jewish State. I’m very aware the three major religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam sharing Jerusalem as a holy city, but still it never crossed my mind.  With that out of the way I did not find these images interesting, since I’ve seen countless of shows prior with similar compositions.  I thought this bodywork is stronger in a book format; I wanted to get intimate with each young adult and read about his or her problems. It seems that it is fashionable to make prints large just because it possible.  Make everything big to catch the viewer’s gaze.

On the other hand Dana Popa’s Not Natasha was similar in one-way to Eighteen, each image had descriptions telling the viewer what was transpiring or a history of the subject matter, but the difference was instead of posting it on the wall next to each image, the gallery gave each viewer a sheet of paper numbering each image, and next to the number the description.  The photographer traveled to Eastern Europe to document young women who are kidnapped, forced, or sold into the sex trade industry.  Natasha is a nickname given to women who are prostitutes that look like they from Eastern Europe, which according to Popa the women absolutely hate to be called this.  The way the images were displayed they reference traditional photo documentary display in a gallery, roughly 16 X 20 inches, with a 3 inch white mat around the each image, so it made me think of 35mm film, but she also works in square format.  I don’t know if she used film or digital, but I did not care.  The images were personal, and intimate like she took the time to spend time with these victims. I did not spend much time reading the descriptions, it didn’t matter, because you felt the sadness, desperation, hopelessness these women, family, and children face on a daily level.  It makes me angry on how low humans can go.  Humanity has its beautiful side and its ugly side and Not Natasha reminds us of the ugly side.

Moving to the second floor I encountered Historia, memoria, y silencios (History, Memory, and Quietness) by Lorena Guillen Vaschetti.  The images were large prints roughly 60 X 40 inches, all horizontal except for one vertical.  They were re-photographs of slides, with the miniature effect applied to them, and a big black border around each image.  According to the photographer her mother was throwing away all the family slides, because they were the only two remaining people from a large Italian family she wanted to protect her from a dark past, but on further research on the internet it also states the slides had no value so she decided to throw them away.  This adds to the confusion to the story and it affects the viewer on how you should feel towards these people, well to me it did since I did some research before seeing the show.  Anyways Vaschetti was able to salvage only one box of slides.  The images don’t reference anyone particular, and in some of the images the faces are blurry.  The body of work is trying to hold on to memories that at one point were important enough to capture but now had no value to no one, except to the photographer, being these are the last documentation of past relatives, and experiences.  To me this body of work was the strongest out of the whole exhibition.  Vaschetti also had another set of images small with a black background that were conceptually interesting, but not as strong as the large photos.

The last photographer was Janelle Lynch, with three series of work under one titled Los Jardines de Mexico (The Gardens of Mexico), which technically they all dealt with gardens, but in different themes. They were the following series: El Jardin de Juegos (The Garden of Playgrounds), La Fosa Comun (The Common Grave), and Akna (Mother, translated from Mayan).  The first two were taken in Mexico City, while the third Akna was taken in a natural reserve in the department (state) of Chiapas. I will not go into much detail about this series because overall the way the images were taken or displayed, it implied not much effort such as time and research went into each body of work. It felt as if the photographer snapped the photos in one or two days and within a close vicinity to each other.  The way the exhibition was hung it did not offer much variety in translating the importance of each theme. You could have taken away two images from each series and it would not have made much difference getting the point across.

Overall this exhibition is 70/30.  For people who don’t know much about photography this show is a great introduction, and it sheds light on issues overlooked specifically the sex trade and Muslims living in Israel, but for people whom are aware of issues and knowledgeable about photography it is a sold good show.