Posts Tagged ‘rural’
For the past few months I have been facilitating a series of discussions on Bell Island as a part of my day job. Not much time to make photographs, but here are a few from the ferry crossing…
Remember I said I had more announcements? If you are in Newfoundland and Labrador and are planning a trip to Boavista, stop at the Ryan Premises National Historic Site. Some of the prints from the Small Islands series are on display there together with amazing work by Michael Pittman, Robert McNair, Cynthia Kremerer and several others. The show is a part of the 2016 Bonavista ArtWalk. The show is up until September 5.
Beautiful Bonavista and an iPhone 5s photo.
New episode of Rural Routes is out. This time, we feature a conversation with Canadian author Michael Crummey. In his recent book Sweetland, he wrote about a very contemporary rural and that is, in many ways, a rarity. We talked about rural childhoods, and romanticized versions of rurality that are not true to reality of contemporary rural lives. It’s a good one!
The photo is Gros Morne National Park last winter.
The doctor’s in the house! It’s been a long and rather treacherous road to the very end – to the very last minute – but my fabulously smart M has successfully defended her PhD. No idea what’s in store for her after this, but I bet it’s going to be interesting.
With the last episode of Rural Routes we waded into the territory of knowledge. Local knowledge. You can hear an artist and a scholar Pam Hall talking about her project Towards the Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge.
The photo was made on Fogo Island two years ago. It’s been a while since we were there.
New Rural Routes episode is out. This time, my guest was Bill Reimer, a sociologist at Concordia University in Montreal. Bill has been looking into all matters rural for over 40 years and still looks forward to every encounter that can help him understand rural Canada a little bit better. I’ve been joking that if there were such a thing as a rural council of the wise, he would be Gandalf of that council. Enjoy the show!
The photograph was made on Change Islands quite some time ago. This man is spreading kelp in his garden as fertilizer. I really wish I could go back there more often.
A bit of an announcement post. For the past few months I have been quietly working on a project that is now ready to be made public. As many of you know, my day job is very much focused on rural Newfoundland and Labrador and through that job I get to work with a lot (you should probably read that most) of rural researchers in this country and some from further abroad. After a while, it became obvious that most of the research I was aware of never makes it into the public domain. So, as part of my job, I decided to start a podcast. A colleague with a particular flair for copy writing named it Rural Routes. Over the coming weeks you will be able to hear interviews with rural researchers, writers, entrepreneurs, artists, fishers and farmers. We are hoping to get some funding in place that would allow us to do a little bit more down the road. For now, go to www.ruralroutespodcasts.com and hear what we have on air.
The photo was made sometime last year with my phone in Port Rexton, NL.
Miss F. turned thirteen today. So ridiculously proud of the young woman she is becoming.
The photograph above was made on my way to work one day. I have no idea why these old suitcases were left outside by the fence – probably just for garbage pick up.
Time for some geography links. I haven’t done that in a while.
Let’s start with the worst news in a while as far as magazine industry, and to an extend geography goes. In Canada, geography is very poorly taught in primary, elementary, and secondary school system. To make things worse, even our national popular magazine about geography, Canadian Geographic, is so abysmal we actually did not renew our subscription. So the fact that National Geographic has been purchased by Fox is really tragic. National Geographic is not a perfect magazine, but it is the best magazine on the market that promotes geographic knowledge and encourages interest in the world we live in. It has a strong American bias and a share of other issues, but we had subscription for years. I read every issue and the girls are starting to read stories that are of interest to them. I would like to think that editorial independence and high standards, especially when it comes to visuals will remain as they are or get better, but Fox’s track record is not good. Not cancelling my subscription yet, but watching closely.
After you contemplate the terrifying concentration of the global media ownership, head over to the Economist and take a look at a story that claims that the EU will soon have more internal physical barriers to movement of people than it did during the Cold War.
The rest of the links should be a little bit less pessimistic.
Lucas Foglia has been photographing American West and is concerned about what rural America will look like: “What is going to allow people to continue to live in the rural American West and how are we going to preserve or use the wild land we have left?”
Cornell University Library and its Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections has made public an amazing collection of persuasive cartography. Watch out, it’s highly addictive and you may find yourself wasting ridiculous amount of time – although, in my books, that would not be time wasted.
Two somewhat connected and fascinating stories. The first one looks at just how powerful oral traditions are as repositories of community knowledge. University of Sunshine Coast geographer Patrick Dunn’s research demonstrated that some Australian Aboriginal stories preserve environmental and ecological memories and knowledge stretching as far back as 7,000 years. The second story comes from the world of art and focuses on incredible work by an Australian Aboriginal painter Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri. The fascinating thing is that his intricate paintings are not just visually impressive, but also serve as a repository of community stories. The code is incomprehensible to us, but those who understand it have an access to a lot more than a visually arresting work.
Poor Little Miss F had a rough night with a stomach bug. The worst and the messiest of it was over by 3:30 am and she fell asleep on the couch in the living room. By the time noon came about she was almost herself. M asked her if she wanted to go to school after lunch. Thinking about it for a moment, Little Miss F calmly explained that if she goes, she feels like she’ll be tired and if she is asked a question she won’t remember what it was and she’ll just say something random so it’s not a good idea. She stayed home for the day.
Aware just how pointless it is to be irrationally angry at the fact that on one night we could use a good night of sleep, Little Miss F, poor thing, had to come down with a stomach bug, I spent the early hours of the morning watching Interstellar on Netflix. Not a great movie, but it beats laying in bed seething.
After finishing it, I was wondering about the science of the whole thing – in fact, it was a particularly silly scene where the little spacecraft hits an ice cloud and the shards of ice FALL DOWN while the cloud itself defies gravity that lead me down some interesting internet rabbit holes (there was no explanation for that particular silliness, though). Here is an interview with Kip Thorne, scientific advisor on the film (he spends a bit too much time selling his book, but whatever).
The photo is from Vis Island.
Photo links galore:
Apparently, Bruce Gilden has a new book out and it makes Sean O’Hagan uncomfortable. Bruce Gilden makes everybody uncomfortable, but I doubt he cares.
Robert Frank’s series From the Bus is interesting and totally new to me.
Tatiana Plotnikova’s photographs of Russian pagans are beautiful. Really nice work and a fascinating story.
I am not sure what is more odd, the story of photogrpaher Mustafa Abdulaziz and his photographic work or the photographs he made along the Yangtze River in China.
The photograph above was made in Komiža on Vis Island in Croatia.
Some Dublin drunks demanding a few euros for making a spectacle of themselves.
The Photographic Journal has a really interesting interview with Alec Soth. The part about narratives and photo book in particular is interesting, but the whole thing is really worth your read.
A review of Eamonn Doyle’s book of Dublin street photographs in the Guardian (I love the fact that they have a section on art and design with a subsection dedicated to photography). Click on the links throughout the text to see the photos.
Head over to burn. and take a look at the work of Argentinian photographer Pablo Piovano documenting the human cost of agrotoxins.
Frederick Lerneryd has a set of photographs on LensCulture looking at a shelter for some 400 people in the heart of Johannesburg.
Stay on LensCulture and take a look at a set of rural portraits by Italian photographer Giancarlo Rado.
[LENS] has a feature story on Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert whose work Rivages I always liked for its atmosphere, the insignificance and loneliness of human figures, and its exquisite colour palette.
I am not sure where the last year went. Lots of changes. We moved to a place that allows me to have a darkroom, a tiny darkroom, but still a darkroom. I can already develop film, but making prints will take a bit more engineering to figure out how turn the whole operation vertical rather than horizontal. This should also mean that I now have no excuse not to submit something to a few competitions I have been consistently missing deadlines of for the past six years.
I turned 40. I finished my thesis – although I am still waiting to hear whether or not I actually met the requirements for my MA. So not a bad year all in all. Let’s see what this one brings along.
The photo was made on Change Islands this past summer.
I think it was a taxi driver in St. John’s who told me that summer in Newfoundland takes place on July 23 – in the afternoon. Well this summer has sure made that old joke irrelevant. We have been enjoying a marvellous summer – hot and sunny and so unlike a Newfoundland summer that everybody you meet is looking at you puzzled wondering, now that they have been to the beach and had an ice cream, what else are they supposed to do with this endless string of summer days.
The summer started right, too – with a trip to Change Islands. I almost never use colour film, but for some reason I decided to do so on this trip and I am glad I did. The ponies in the photographs are part of the Change Islands Newfoundland Pony Refuge, an amazing community initiative spearheaded by passionate Netta LeDrew. She has so many stories about each and every horse in her care and about the community who is always there to support her and her efforts to save a truly unique aspect of Newfoundland heritage.
And for the photography geeks among you: the film is Kodak Ektar and the camera is a YashicaMAT 124G.
I am transcribing some research interviews from Change Islands and Fogo Island. Here is a quote about whether or not a government should have a role in local development:
“They must. They must have roles to play in it all. They should be able to come up with something, but you never hears them talking about it. Just a project or something for a few weeks of work for the hours. That’s not a real job. That’s something to keep us quiet, eh. Just like a bandaid. A bandaid on the situation. Patch it up. Keep the people quiet so they don’t say too much. It shouldn’t be like that. There should be some permanent thing they could put there. They wastes money everywhere else, how come they can’t waste a bit on Change Islands, eh?”
On October 15, I had a chance to speak to provincial library technicians during their annual conference. There was a bit of dithering on my part about what was that I was going to say, but at the end, with the help of one of the organizers, I settled on Library as a Place, which worked reasonably well, I think. Here is the presentation with a script (or something close enough to one).
Good afternoon. My name is Bojan Fürst and I am a photographer and a geographer an I love libraries. Some of you may also know me as the manager of knowledge mobilization with the Harris Centre, which is what I do for a living, but that has nothing to do with what I want to talk about today.
Originally I was going to photograph library technicians and librarians as they work and then speak about that experience and how it relates to another project I am working on. For mostly unpleasant reasons, that did not quite happen. However, I was a bit dubious about that project from the beginning. I’ll tell you why. In 1999, I was flying back home to Croatia from Calgary. I was on a direct flight from Calgary to Frankfurt. Sitting next to me was a very pleasant old lady in her 80s. She was traveling to Venice where her grand-niece, I believe, was getting married. She asked me if I’d like to see a photograph of her niece. I was a polite young man and she was a very nice old lady so I said yes. She, and I am not exaggerating, pulled out some 300 family photos of people I never met and never will and she went through all of them with me. Twice. By the time we landed in Frankfurt, and it is a VERY long flight, I knew two things: 1. I knew a lot about her family; and 2. I knew I am never going to be the old man that makes a complete stranger look at 300 of my photos. Making you sit here and look at photos of some of your colleagues as they go about their work felt a little bit like I was about to break that rule.
One thing most people don’t know about photojournalism, is that there is a lot of waiting that happens between actually making photographs. And that, more than anything else, is the reason why photojournalists often seem to notice things that everybody else misses. It is also why we often muck around with weird ways of taking photographs. We are also like lemmings, always ready to follow the latest trend – even if it kills us at the end. So in 2001 or so, David Brunette, one of the living legends of photojournalism, got himself a cheap, plastic, Chinese made, holga camera. It is as rudimentary a photo tool as you can get. In the hands of David Brunett, however, it became a superb photographic tool. He used it to photograph Al Gore during his presidential campaign. Next thing you know, every photojournalist is rocking one of these plastic and pretty much useless things. As a good little lemming, I got one, too. Now, to my eternal credit, I did realized that as good as David Brunett is, photographing Al Gore with a plastic camera probably had more to do with the fact that the photo ended up on the front pages of some of the world’s largest newspapers than the camera itself. Since Al Gore was not available, I carried that camera around with me without actually making any photographs – until the day I had some time to kill between assignments in Fredericton. Those of you who know Fredericton, know that it is not the most exciting place on the planet. It was a summer day, it was hot, and I was pointlessly driving around.
And than I saw this sign in front of a little corner store. Before I got an ice-cream, I pulled out my plastic holga and I made this photograph. For me, this was a beginning of a fascination with place making. Let’s look at a few more corner stores, but only a few. And let’s play “spot it” while we at it.
What is fascinating to me about these photographs is the perfect blend of the familiar and the unique. Each of these stores advertises the familiar. Smart move because it lets us immediately feel safe. We know exactly what is that we are going to find inside. What is wonderful about them is that they are also very much unique places reflecting the personalities of their owners, but also the larger community they are situated in.
It was photographing corner stores that started to turn me into a geographer. Geographers think about space and place a lot. In fact, some would argue that the “most enduring legacy of humanistic geography is [its] theoretical engagements with notions of space and place.” And if you look at some of the definitions of place and space we came up with, you could be excused if you thought we think about it way too much. We talk about mobility, about time-space compression, about commodifcation of space and place. We talk about the destruction of the vernacular and the leisuring of rural landscapes. We talk about place as “a qualitative, total phenomenon, which we cannot reduce to any of its parts or properties without losing its concrete character.” We, as geographers, try so hard to be impartial, objective, scientific, clever and complex, that the best advice I can give you is to stop talking to geographers about place and instead ask architects. I am kidding, but only just so… I envy architects. They are the only people I know of who comfortably straddle the world of art, science and spirituality and, the really good ones anyway, can talk about it in a rational and engaging way without sounding flaky. So for our purposes today, I think Christian Norberg-Schulz’s definition of place will do nicely. He says that “the spaces where life occurs are places… A place is a space which has a distinct character.” Just like those corner stores have distinct characters.
And if you are interested in things like place and space and distinct characters, than islands are among the best places to explore all those things. Being a Croatian, my encounter with islands started in childhood. We have over a thousand of them and sooner or later you will end up visiting one of them. But my true involvement with the islands started in a resettled community of Wood Island just off the coast of Grand Manan in New Brunswick. I was working on a story for CBC radio about the reunion that takes place on the island every year. It was August of 2008. It was windy and overcast with light rain. But there was not enough wind or enough rain to prevent the islanders from making their customary annual visit to their ancestral home.
It takes about 10 minutes on a small boat to cross from Seal Cove on Grand Manan Island to Wood Island. There is not much left there: a church gleaming white among the island greenery, an old schoolhouse, a cemetery, and three houses scattered around the island that serve as summer residences. What there is left is a strong sense of attachment and identity among those who moved away from their homes in 1950s as the provincial government refused to provide any services to the island community. Hence, every year, the former islanders and their descendants board a small boat and get together for a church service and a reunion. It is a story only too familiar to most Newfoundlanders. It was towards the end of my stay on Wood Island that I managed to talk to one of the last teachers who had taught at the island school. She tried to explain to me just what the island meant to her. This is what she said. “In the winter, I might feel down and my husband knows – he’ll drive me to Seal Cove just to look over and get a fix. It’s awesome.”
Islands are funny places. Geographers can’t really figure out how to define them and so we don’t really know how many islands are there in the world. You think it would be easy. Tim Robinson, writing about his time on Aran islands off the coast of Ireland recounts the anecdote from his first day on the island: “On the day of our arrival we met an old man who explained the basic geography: “The ocean,” he told us, “goes all around the island.”” What Edmond and Smith call “obstinate separateness” of islands has been drawing people to those specks of land in the sea for centuries. Islands are mysterious, romantic, sites of paradises and prisons. They are difficult to get to and appear stubbornly unique in a world that has “institutionalize placelessness.” The islanders manage to hang on to the authenticity of their island communities and we all want to figure out how they do it. How do they hold on to a life as Ann Buttimer writes “which is attuned to the rhythms of nature, … anchored in human history and directed toward a future?” How do they “build a home which is the everyday symbol of a dialogue with one’s ecological and social milieu.”
It’s not easy and it requires generations. There is an art to living on an island and it is a complicated one to master. Talk to islanders and they will tell you that the best thing about an island is that you know everybody. They will also tell you that, after a lousy ferry service, the worst thing about living on an island is that you know everybody. But knowing everybody is exactly one of those things that makes islands such unique places. It takes human interaction – unplanned, unavoidable and sustained random human interaction – for a space to become a place. Another architect, Canadian Avi Friedman, said that sense of place is an outcome of the physical features that surround us, the space between them and the interactions that happen among those for whom the places are built for. It so happens that small islands seem to naturally encourage those meaningful interactions in ways that it is becoming difficult for most of us living in urban and especially suburban environments to experience.
And when I say difficult, I mean difficult. In urban environments we all live in, and I swear I will be talking about the libraries soon, we have worked really hard to remove even a chance of a random meeting in a public space. Among my photographic interests is street photography. It is a branch of photographic expression with a long history that has created some of the best loved photographs we all know. Cynics would say that street photography appeals to me because I am an introvert who needs a reason to leave his house and an opportunity to hide behind the camera, but that is not true. I love street photography because it is unpretentious, honest, and it requires engagement and involvement with the world outside of our doorstep in precisely the ways that are conducive to place making. Except, it is really, really difficult to do street photography in St. John’s.
There are no natural public spaces here. Our streets, even in the heart of downtown are mostly empty. I call this photograph “The Optimist.” What else could he be playing to the empty streets? And while we can build our urban environments to encourage place making and development of a shared identity, the fact remains that we don’t. However, I do believe that a quest for a sense of place and a sense of identity is so strong in us that we will find ways to engage in its creation no matter what.
Let me tell you one more kind of a funny photojournalism story. In 2006, I went to cover a story in Bosnia for a Canadian magazine about Canadian efforts to rebuild Bosnian health care system. It was a very successful program carried out by Queen’s University department of family medicine and funded by CIDA. In the old socialist system in former Yugoslavia, we did not have family doctors in a Canadian sense. You had a GP that was attached to your place of work or to your school. So my mom had her doctor, my dad had his doctor, my brother had a paediatrician as did all other elementary school kids and I had a doctor that took care of my high school classmates. It was a bit of a mess. If you need to see your doctor you would take your health card and you would go in early in the morning to your doctor’s office and you would wait as long as it took to be called in. The Canadians came in, introduce the concept of a family doctor, and, crucially, the idea that you can make an appointment to see your doctor at a prearranged time therefore eliminating hours of waiting time. It worked like a charm and everybody loved it, except the retired people who just would not accept the new system. Canadians and Bosnians got frustrated and decided to conduct a thorough survey and figure out why did these old-timers insist on showing up before the office even opened and then waited until the doctor could see them. It turned out that for the elderly patients, a doctor’s waiting room was a social place. They talked with their peers there, they played chess and backgammon, knitted sweaters and hats for their grandkids. In most cases, they did not even really need to see a doctor at all. So now, some community health centres simply have a community room, where anybody can come and have a cup of tea or coffee and do all those things they did while waiting for a doctor and sometimes there is even a nurse or a student measuring their blood pressure and providing advice about their medication or nutrition. Family doctors’ waiting rooms were places and yet nobody understood that.There are other such places that we create for very specific purposes, but that perform a dual role. For example, architect Avi Friedman lists farmers’ markets as one of those places. He says that markets “not only provide basic amenities and contribute to economic vitality, but they act as social magnets. They are scenes of trade, as well as places for communal interaction and gathering spots where one can watch the theatre of life.” I would argue that libraries are also such places. And we are enormously attached to them. We have all heard about the cellist of Sarajevo and Sarajevo market where people died in mortar and sniper fire, but one story that we don’t hear very often is the story of National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a repository of knowledge and identity and in 1992 it was mercilessly shelled by Serbian forces in a campaign designed to erase any evidence of just how complex the identity of Sarajevans and Bosnians really was. I wish I had a better photograph of it. During the shelling, majority of the books and manuscripts did not survive the fire, but nonetheless, citizens and librarians worked under fire to save as many of the books as possible. At least one person died. True places, like libraries and markets, and public squares, matter immensely to us – enough that we are willing to protest against their destruction, fight to save them, and, as in Bosnian example, even die for them.
I believe that libraries are vital when it comes to place and place making. American feminist and social activist bell hooks once said that “One of the most subversive institutions in the United States is the public library.” Some 18 years ago, in my first year of college I discovered that I am a photographer in Calgary Public Library. Also there, I attended a lecture, and I can’t even remember who it was that was speaking, but that person was introduced by the director of the Calgary Public Library who said that every single one of us in the audience should be able to find at least one book in his library that would offend us. And if we couldn’t find such a book, than he failed as a librarian. I never forgot that.
Good libraries are much more than repositories for books and periodicals. They are not about buildings, or comfortable chairs. The good ones are true places. That means that they bring together people who would otherwise have no need to meet or interact with each other. They are truly subversive in a sense that, while making us perfectly comfortable, they also make us expand our worlds, confront our ignorance and make us better people whether we want it or not. Every good library is at the heart of its community. That is certainly the case of the Memorial University Library System and places like the Resource Library at the Faculty of Education.
You as library technicians, archivists, and librarians have enormous responsibility. Avi Friedman, at the end of his book “A Place in Mind” writes that today “The number of meeting places and their quality has diminished. Neighbourhoods, built for seclusion, have fewer people, fewer or no sidewalks, walking or bike paths, benches or civic squares. We have fewer public markets or corner stores.” But we still have libraries and you are the custodians of those places. Neil Gaiman said that the “Rule number one is: Don’t fuck with librarians.” And he couldn’t be more right. We need libraries that are at the heart of their community, the way our library is here at the university. We need libraries that are easy to access and libraries that challenge us to be better when we leave them than we were when we came in; libraries that are true places where communal life is lived to its fullest. I did not photograph library technicians at work, because I am not sure I know how to photograph people whose work is not to catalogue books, answer questions and mend broken spines, but to create places that make the heart of who we are. So instead of giving you photographs, I just want to say thank you.
I 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 has learned about my talk and I had a chance to speak with On The Go host Ted Blades (also a photographer and a former rangefinder user.) Here is a link to that conversation.
The photo was made on Fogo Island.
Change Islands, The Great Fogo Island Punt Race to There and Back…
Today, I am giving a presentation on the links between research, photography and librarians/curators/archivists at the annual Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association conference.
This post is sort of a resource post to back up some of the things I say in that talk. So if you are a regular reader, I hope you find it useful. If you are coming here for the first time as a result of the talk, welcome…
Haggerty, Kevin. “Ethics Creep: Governing Social Science Research in the Name of Ethics.” in Qualitative Sociology.
Farm Security Administration collection at the Library of Congress (Really??? In 2013 you have a website that looks like that???)
The Fogo Process webpage at the University of Guelph that is now a home for the Snowden Collection
Greg Lock’s Journey into a Lost Nation
Jamie Lewis’s They Let Down Baskets
A few from a recent trip to Labrador City and Wabush. Also a chance to experiment with a few things including Blazinal developer – a version of Rodinal available in Canada. The film is an Ilford Delta 100, the conditions were awful, but I kind of like the results. The concentration was 1:25 at 9 minutes.
The tour of one of the iron ore mines in Labrador West. The scale is beyond description. Surprisingly clean operation, but I still could not help but think that that giant hole in the ground was once just trees and maybe lakes. The difficulty of balancing development and environmental concerns is probably nowhere more obvious than here because it is a well run operation that pays people decently and provides safe and decent working conditions. We need iron and, quite frankly, this is how you’d like an iron mine to be run – yet I can’t stop thinking about all those trees.
Colleagues boarding a plane on our way back to St. John’s. We are all still trying to figure out the reasoning behind the airport security arrangements, but than again, none of us are exactly experts on that kind of stuff…
Recently, a full-time photojournalism position opened at a local daily. I considered applying. For years, that was the kind of job I really wanted. It was the only job I wanted. And then it struck me that I don’t want that job any more. Or at least, I don’t want the job that I would be asked to do. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about where, when and why my own view of what photojournalism should be diverged from what photojournalism is. Some of it has to do with technology, but there are other and more important things, too.
The imaging technology has changed dramatically and I am bored to death with it. I am bored with new digital cameras. I am bored with megapixels and neverending upgrade cycles. I am bored with HD video. I am particularly bored with videos that start out out of focus and then slowly bring into focus some mundane and usually irrelevant object or a generic street scene. I am bored by partially desaturated images. Entire newspapers filled with portraits bore me to tears. I am not bored, but offended by HDR – it’s just kitsch of the worst kind. I am also offended by selective colouring. I know, it was done in the 1920s as well as today. It was bad then and it’s bad now. Please let it die and please, please don’t publish it in daily newspapers. I am bored with journalists who are trying to be cool on twitter and I am bored with the publications that are forcing their writers and photographers to become celebrities. I am embarrassed to read tweets by local, national and international reporters passing themselves off as some sort of experts on one thing or another.
It’s never a good thing when a journalist becomes a story. The details are usually either sordid or horrifying and almost always a result of an unchecked ego better suited to some other professions. It’s cool to see your name in print, but a byline or a photo credit is where it should end. Just look at the two latest controversies in the world of photojournalism: the Paolo Pellegrin photo from an ill-conceived Magnum Rochester project (here, here, here) and the debate over this year’s World Press Photo winner Paul Hansen’s post-processing of the winning photograph (here and here). None of this did any good to anybody. It’s important to discuss and draw attention to, but it does no good. Somehow photojournalism stopped being about stories.
Local daily is a great example of that. At least once a week, the front page features a photo of some poor bastard dragged into or out of a courtroom. For the rest of the week we have people staring at us from the front page. I can’t figure out what that contributes to the readers’ understanding of the news the journalists and the editors obviously thought important enough to cover and print that day. It’s easy to criticize daily photojournalists. The pressures to produce something out of thin air is huge and the job is becoming more stressful than ever. Deep down, I never was a daily photographer anyway. My heart had always been, even before I knew that, in long-form story telling both visual and narrative.
Over the last few weeks, my wife dug out a set of 6×4 prints I gave her years ago. We always thought we should work on some sort of a collaborative project, but between kids, grad studies, moves and jobs there was no time for that. She pulled them out now and it is fascinating to watch these photographs come alive as poetry, essays, mini-plays and short stories. Then last Friday, I had one of those moments that reminded me what is that I love so much about photography. That story started almost two years ago.
My MA thesis supervisor invited me and the family to come with her and her husband to a small reunion held on Fair Island, a resettled island community off the east coast of the main island of Newfoundland. Her husband’s family were Fair Islanders. It was August, but the weather was miserable. Nonetheless, we went and we had great time. I made some photographs and posted one of them here. The photograph I liked the most was the one at the top of this post. Context is important here. The photograph (in my mind anyway) is called “A pipefitter and a gaming executive make fish in a resettled community.” What you see here are not two fishermen, although I suspect both of them would be happier if they were fishermen. What you see is two people with roots deep in a community that does not exist any more engaged in an activity that is crucial to their identity, but it is meaningless economically. For me, this is in many ways a quintessential Newfoundland small island photograph. Except, this past Friday I found out that this is not the most interesting or the most important photograph I made that day.
Sometime last year, I got a call from the Research Centre for Music, Media and Place at the university I work at asking if I would allow them to use the Fair Island photo they found on my blog. A few folks working at the centre were taking a beginners documentary film making class and they were producing a short doc on Stan Pickett, an accordion player originally from Fair Island. You can hear and see Stan play in the video bellow.
I said sure and told them that I had a few more photos and that they are free to chose any of them. They picked three. Last Friday, the class got together and screened the three shorts they made to a very small audience of their classmates and a few other people who in some way helped with their projects. I was invited as a courtesy and came out of curiosity. Stan Picket was in the audience, too.
The films were quite good. In fact, given that they were made in 14 weeks by people who never made a film before, they were great. After the screening, I 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. He became animated and happy, in fact so happy that his excitement was contagious.
It turns out that the little pond known as ‘the rink’ sitting in ‘the meesh’ (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. The photo below brought the memories of “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.
And that’s what photographs should do. They should tell stories, make us tell stories, and make us imagine stories. Today’s newspaper photography fails at all of it most of the time and I am not naïve enough to think that I could somehow change that even if I could get that job in what is bound to be an insanely intense competition. So, I’ll keep doing it my way and, thanks to Stan, I have a great idea for a project.
EDITED FOR TYPOS AND CLARITY.
“You have to be careful with the island. There is a trap here. If you prevent a young person from leaving, the island turns into a curse. They must go and get to know the world and it has to be their own decision to return and to love the island. If you tell them: “Don’t go there. That’s not for you,” then there is going to be resentment. It’s our job to push them out into the world. We have to give them the love for the island, we have to teach them about life here, but it has to be their decision. If you don’t do that, than they have no reason to come back. It’s only love that works… That is what happened to me. I had a grandma who passed that love on to me and I left to see the world, but I also felt that I can affirm myself the best here, that here, I am myself and that here I can make the greatest contribution. But if I didn’t learn that love, if I did not have that contact with the island, I would have left and would be contented somewhere else and I would not feel that I belong to this island. It’s all about where you belong.”
That is a quote from one of my interviews on Vis island, Croatia.
Also in the news today is the inclusion of a particular style of a cappella singing on Croatian coast into the list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. The song bellow is performed by Klapa Otok (Island) and it’s called “Islanders’ Ballad.”
My not so great translation is below:
We live off sea, by nets and lines,
We count the blisters from oars, picks.
Red are our eyes from sleepless nights and tears,
Our callused hands are hard as rocks.
And we are lashed by storms and rains,
And every day we are bent over a bit more,
And yet, more than anything and more than all other beauties
Our entire lives we love sea
Our blue sea, you know all our desires
You are strength, fortune – our life
We count the sails and white ships,
The days are passing with nor’easters and sou’westers.
Miserly land gives all it can,
Life on an island is a joy and sorrow.
“No scientific law, no sociological model can predict when or exactly where the sea will turn a small island into a civilization.”
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Civilizations