I was at a documentary photography show here in Bangkok recently. Some well known photographers (I'll skip the names) are exposing some strong images of news events around the region. At first I was impressed, but then the familiar sensation of uneasiness came to me.
The photos were perfect, just too perfect. Perfect balance in light, composition, combination. Nothing against it, of course: I am a strong supporter of well composed images. But I find questionable the intentions behind them. After many years of profession, living in the photography environment, doing and seeing workshops, I know that the photo itself is the real scope of many authors. The suffering of the subjects is just an excuse, a drama addition to a purely aesthetic project.
I think a great misunderstanding has developed in the photographer's scope. The famous photos of Life magazine, the perfectly composed Ethiopia and Workers images of Sebastiao Salgado, have been seen as something different from their journalistic message. Photography has become self-referential. This is a major problem that, I think, will lead to the end of photojournalism as a real profession leaving only artists on the way.
One should be honest in declaring his own intentions. Too much talking about style and technique and no mention of the situations photographed is a clear sign of this trend. Years ago, Alexandra Boulat, while we were teaching at TPW, talked to me after my slide show. She had the same feeling I had and criticized the easiness with which a tragic moment can add strength to an image. Her photos were journalistic, she died searching stories, not aesthetic options.
Young photographers should keep this in mind. Using the suffering of people as a mere addendum to their composition is not only ethically unfair, is also the betrayal of a honest documentary photographer.