Photographs, words and sounds

Photographers, researchers, and librarians: A love story


On Monday, I delivered the following presentation to the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association at their annual conference. This is a rough script – not 100% accurate.


I am going to make one of those terrible presenter mistakes and start my talk with a disclaimer. In your programs, it says that I am manager of knowledge mobilization with The Harris Centre and that is true. Except, what I am going to say today has nothing to do with my work work and I am most certainly not speaking on behalf of the Harris Centre… Phew… What I am going to do is share quite a few photographs and a lot of personal opinion.

Librarians.003With that out of the way, let me thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today. It is actually quite rare for photographers to have a chance to speak to non-photographers… or anyone for that matter. To have a chance to speak to an audience of librarians, archivists and curators is indeed a special treat and I am grateful to Amanda for approaching me in the first place.


I have only about 20 minutes, so there are going to be a lot of generalizations in the things I say today. I am sorry about that, but feel free to ask questions, email me or simply ask me to go out for a cup of coffee or a beer and I’ll be happy to talk your ear off with nuances of everything I am about to say.

Librarians.005I want to talk about three things that are, or at least should be, interlinked. I’d like to talk about photography as a research tool; photography as a communications tool; and the importance of photography collections and why I think that archivists, curators and librarians who understand photographs are incredibly important to us photographers, but also to researchers and society at large.

Librarians.006Let me tell you a little bit about myself. My original degree is in journalism. My photojournalism education left a lot to be desired. It was focused on news photography and sports and I would have never become a photographer if not for one assignment in my first year that, as clichéd as that sounds, changed my life. We were asked to write an essay about a photographer whose work we liked. I did not have a favourite photographer at that time so I did the only sensible thing – I went to a library. Calgary Public Library had, and for all I know still has, a decent collection of photography books on its ground floor.

Librarians.007There, I discovered a book of photographs by Swiss photographer Werner Bischof. Those photographs were a revelation. Nobody ever told me that as a photographer you can build a substantial, even exhaustive, body of work that goes well beyond a single news photograph. I did not think about it in those terms then, but what appealed to me was the fact that Werner Bischof was a photographer who was doing research – systematically investigating matters of interest.

Librarians.008Journalism and photojournalism as industries are in trouble these days although, I think, they suffer largely from self-inflicted wounds. Like many, I left the industry and had other jobs, but slowly started developing my own photo-research projects. I photographed my neighbourhood in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Librarians.009I photographed a crew of a tug boat,  city’s chefs, and city streets. I had this idea about working on a project about small islands. Eventually, I decided to give photojournalism another try so I worked full time as a freelancer for about a year.

Librarians.010This is my most published photograph from that year. This woman, whose maiden name was Weed, was not allowed to use her maiden name on the license plate of her new Mustang because New Brunswick government thought that it could be seen as promoting marijuana or something like that. The photograph was made for CanWest News and it was published in newspapers right across the country. For a year afterwards, when you googled my name, you would get a page of variations on this photo. I hated this photograph. To me, it was everything that was wrong with photojournalism – shallow, pointless and with no impact. But I still loved photography. And I still wanted to photograph small islands.

Librarians.011It so happened that five years ago, I had a chance to move to Newfoundland. Which was, obviously, great if you wanted to photograph islands. I turned portion of that idea about small islands into an MA project. My ethics approval did not allow for photographs of people so I reinvented myself as a landscape photographer.

Librarians.012As I was doing my research, photography was just a tiny part of it. Given the nature of my investigation, that was fine. However, as I built a collection of photographs from Croatia and Newfoundland, I started asking questions. Why do Newfoundlanders build with wood and Croatians with stone?

Librarians.013Why do houses in a Croatian fishing village stubbornly stick together, while houses in a Newfoundland fishing village spread themselves along the shore? Is it really just matter of climate or can we see here political, economic and social layers that create island identities?

Librarians.014With all those questions in my head I wanted to find out if I could make photography a bigger, or even the most important part of some future research project. This is where things got a bit strange.

Librarians.015Over the past 30 years, a rift seems to have opened between the academic research and those like me actually making photographs. On the academic side, we developed some pretty impressive ways to analyse photographs.

Librarians.016Dr. Gillian Rose has an excellent overview in a book called “Visual Methodologies.” She identified eight different kinds of analysis. They are: compositional interpretation, content analysis, semiology, discourse analysis I, discourse analysis II, audience studies, anthropological approach to photographs…

Librarians.017Each of these is useful in its own way as an analytical tool. If you wanted to analyse portraits of St. John’s residents in 1902, some of these would be very useful indeed. What they are not terribly useful for is actually creating a photographic body of work as a part of a research process. In fact, outside of how-to-books these days more concerned with digital editing techniques than actual photography, you will find very little about photography as a research practice. For that, you have to step across the divide and talk to photojournalists and documentary photographers. They, unfortunately, may not have time to talk.

Librarians.018They are caught between a horrendous mismanagement of the outlets they work for and unprecedented technological changes in their craft. They are trying to demonstrate the relevance of deliberate and thoughtful photography in today’s image saturated world and develop new forms of storytelling that will keep the viewers, and the advertisers, glued to real and virtual pages.

Librarians.019One thing both groups, the academics and the practitioners, have in common is their concern with ethics in photography. But even here we have a rift. Academic rules of institutional ethics are largely driven by universities’ desire to protect themselves from liability, while photographers’ concerns are much more nuanced they get completely lost in the current fight between the photographers and their employers over who actually owns photographers’ work.

Librarians.020The result of focus on liability among academic administrators is a virtual ban on creation of new photographic work within academic context. In fact, the “ethics creep” is now spilling over even into more mundane methods of academic research such as interview. Here at Memorial, you are advised by the ethics board not to ask questions that might upset the person you are having a conversation with. I am afraid that road leads directly to boring research that nobody cares about enough to even get upset by it. But I digress.

Librarians.021To summarize so far: We live surrounded by photographic material, more so than ever before. Yet, we have a situation where academic researchers are almost solely preoccupied with analysing other peoples’ work. There is no concern with the actual creation of new photographic documentary material and we do not teach the actual craft of photography at all as part of our methodology classes – not even in visual methodologies. In fact, in this country, through the ethics process, we made it nearly impossible to engage in photographic practice as a valid research method.

Librarians.022Depriving ourselves of a research tool is only a part of the problem. We are also denying ourselves an excellent communications tool and, to use a phrase tossed so lightly these days, an engagement tool. Let me explain what I mean with a historical reference and a personal story.

Librarians.023The most extensive, deliberately created collection of documentary photographs anywhere in the world is about 80 years old. To this day, the work of Farm Security Administration photographers such as Dorothea Lang, Walker Evans and Gordon Parks, under the directorship of Roy Stryker remains unchallenged. Their work still inspires debate about the Great Depression and still serves as a bar many a documentary photographer aims for. We are incredibly lucky here in Newfoundland and Labrador to have, in the Fogo Process films, another example of a deliberate creation of a visual record of a particular place and point in time. We also have great work from Candace Cochrane, Greg Lock, Jamie Lewis and Sheilagh O’Leary made in subsequent years. It is fragmented, but it is there.

Librarians.024In both cases, the intent was not to just record and witness, but to open channels of communications and influence public opinion and public policy. I am perfectly willing to admit that both of those collections are, for all intents and purposes, propaganda as much as they are a documentary material. In the case of FSA, the administration explicitly set as the goal of the photographic program “to introduce America to Americans” and influence public policy. In the case of Fogo Island, with huge support from the university and the National Film Board, the Fogo Process aimed to start dialogue between Fogo islanders and the government, again with the explicit goal of influencing public policy. Above all, those photographic and film collections were a superb communications tools that still, decades after the creation of that material, engage citizens in a dialogue about the way we live our everyday lives.

Librarians.025Most of the time, that ability of photographs to create dialogue is something researchers and art galleries, and sometimes photographers forget. When we as researchers, and I am very much guilty of it myself, use photographs, we merely treat them as illustrations and a sort of a marker that says “I, Bojan Fürst, have been conducting research on Change Islands and this photograph is a proof of it.” We could use photographs to do so much more than that.

Librarians.026Let me tell you a quick story. About two years ago, my supervisor invited me to visit Fair Island in Indian Bay. Fair Island is a resettled community that used to be a home to her husband and now is a cottage island for the families that used to live there. While there, I took some photographs because that’s what I do.

Librarians.027I thought this was the most important photograph I took that day. What you see here are two men making fish. There is nothing remarkable about this photograph except that neither of these two men is a fisherman. One is a pipe fitter and the other one is a marketing executive with a video gaming company. They are engaged in an activity they both see as an important part of their identity, but an activity that is economically meaningless. All of that in a community that officially does not even exist. The geographer in me thought this may be in many ways a quintessential photograph of 21st century rural Newfoundland. I made other photographs that day and I posted one of them on my blog. That’s how Dr. Beverly Diamond and Dr. Katie Szego found it and asked me if they can use it in a film they were making as a part of a class project about Stan Pickett, an accordion player originally from Fair Island. I was invited to attend a screening and had a chance to meet Mr. Pickett.

Librarians.028I was introduced to Stan and we got chatting. I pulled out my laptop and showed him a couple of other photos from Fair Island. His eyes glanced over the fish-making photo, but the little pond, the pillars of the old church and the photo of stages and stores at the end of a wharf caught his attention. It turns out that the little pond known as ‘the rink’ sitting in ‘the meesh’ or marsh was not just a place to play a game of hockey, but also a major social space. There were bonfires on the neighbouring hills and games and midnight runs with torches between the hills. Stan could just spin one story after another and I kept wishing I had a recorder rolling.

Librarians.029This photo brought the memories of what he called “old-year-out-new-year-in-day” and downhill races in an old wooden punt that would end at the bottom of the gulch and, sometimes, in the ocean. And the church pillars? Well it was his dad who started the church and… It was magical. It was as if those photographs opened a dam holding back years of memories.

Librarians.030Photographs can do that because, as Dr. Rob Finley once told me, our photo albums are really oral histories. So we as researchers and photographers have to start using our photographs to start some of those conversations. For some time now photojournalists and documentary photographers have been trying to do that. Larry Towell’s exhibits are sometimes accompanied by sounds and artifacts he collects in the field while photographing. Jim Goldberg takes his photographs back to those who appear in them and asks them to write their responses on the actual prints creating unique pieces of collaborative art.

Librarians.031There are always going to be issues of who has the right to photograph whom. We are never going to be rid of those questions. I think we have to be aware of those issue, but at the same time we cannot let fear prevent us from exploring and using photography in our research and as a communications and a collaboration tool. In academia, we don’t teach the actual practice of photography and we limit its use through an onerous ethics process designed to minimize liability rather than actually address ethical concerns – especially in social research. Photographers and photojournalists are consummate craftspeople, but given the current state of the media they have little support and even less recognition for the work they do. They have even less time and no support to take on long term documentary projects. Right there is an opportunity for collaboration.

Librarians.032But researchers and photographers and those like me who do combine both skills cannot do it alone. We need support and that’s where you as curators, archivists and librarians come in. We don’t need money from you, although feel free to send some our way. We need the second pair of eyes, we need guidance and passion. We need you to build collections, we need you to guide us as we build our own collections, we need you to help us find innovative ways to show and display photographs and allow others to engage with them. In some ideal world, you would have power to commission photographers to fill in the gaps in existing collections and create brand new ones. Wouldn’t be great if the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Provincial Archives, the provincial art bank, the Department of Geography and CNA’s photojournalism students from Stephenville found a way to work together to answer some questions that we need answered. What does it mean to live in rural Newfoundland today? What is working in off shore industry like? Are we going to have systematic visual record of the construction of the Lower Churchill hydro project – the largest infrastructure projects in the province’s history?

Librarians.033It is ironic that in the age when photography is so readily available we are going to have perfect record of our cappuccino foam designs, but may not know what an iron mine in western Labrador looks like. I know that these are not terribly progressive times. We as cultural workers, if you will, are going through hard times in an age of unprecedented prosperity. We have provincial and federal governments perfectly willing to reduce public libraries and archives into mere warehouses.

Librarians.034But governments and government policies are not forever. Because these are the hard times – this is also the time to dream. Remember, Dorothea Lang and the FSA worked in the hardest of times to make iconic photographs. My dream is that all of us together will soon start working on introducing Newfoundland and Labrador to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Librarians.035Thank you.


One Response to “Photographers, researchers, and librarians: A love story”

  1. […] am a bit surprised, in a good way, about the attention my presentation to to the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association has been getting. There are even some interesting projects that might come out of it. Somehow, CBC […]

Leave a Reply