I’m now back working and researching in New York after my trip to Paris. Paris is an important city to many of my favorite photographers, so it was really great to explore with that in mind. I went to three different photography museums / archives while there: the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, and The Maison Européenne de la Photographie.
While in Paris I read On Photography by Susan Sontag. Sontag addresses the boundaries activist photographs must exist within in order to be effective, as well as the fragility of the line between awaking consciousness and numbing it. These boundaries have been occupying my mind and research. I’m at a stage now where I’m trying to compile what I’ve learned so far and piece it together into concrete and comprehensive ideas. I’ve realized this is going to take a long time to do. The more I dive into what I know, the more questions seem to arise. Right now I’m struggling with the way I’m defining social change and what it means for a photograph to be “effective”. Social documentary photographers are constantly bringing the world’s attention to injustices and social problems. I guess what I’m grappling with is if creating that awareness and bringing eyes to these issues is enough. Is a photograph effective simply because it shows what we would not ordinarily see?
I think too much exposure to social documentary photographs often numbs us. We are in an age now where there is a proliferation of images— we are bombarded with visuals through advertisement, digital media, social media, television, etc. Trying to understand the power of images today is very different than looking at the power of images in the past.
I’ve been using Sontag’s ideas sort of as a rubric to analyze the work of photographers. For example, I looked at the portfolio of Donna Ferrato who did an extensive project on domestic violence. I think Ferrato produces very strong work that juggles context, aesthetics, outrage, and compassion very well.
Dealing with these topics and questions has put me into a paralysis in terms of my own photography. I’ve been finding it very difficult to produce new work. I’m hoping by continuing to examine portfolios and stick with what I’ve researched so far, I can come to terms with some of the questions that have come up — and that may help me with my creative block.
— Maya W Richardson