Wendy Ewald – Creative Photographer and Educator

Wendy Ewald, photographed by Denise Dixon, a former student (1988) from Kentucky. © Denise Dixon (Hughes,2019)

My tutor, Jesse Alexander, advised that I look at Wendy Ewald’s work. What a great recommendation! One of my main aims is to develop myself as a Photographic Educator. Wendy is a groundbreaking, selfless photographer and tutor.

“Since 1975, the American artist has been entwining photography, activism, and education in a series of collaborations that upend our prevailing ideas of authorship and authority.” Teaching photography to children and amateur photographers is unique and one is rarely able to get them to progress from the mere use of the camera to use it creatively beyond a course. Wendy is continuedly finding ways to get to engage them with the art of photography (Scott, 2019). “

Looking at her website http://wendyewald.com/ and other on-line resources she presented possibilities that adds real value in the lives she touches. When Jesse says that I need to find people to collaborate on my project I did not realise the extent of that statement until I viewed Ewald’s work. I found this gem: ” “As the photo community wrestles with questions about who has the right to tell someone’s story, many photojournalists are choosing to put their subjects in control—by giving them cameras or asking them to contribute to the process of making and choosing images. Wendy Ewald has been doing that for almost 50 years (Hughes, 2019) .”

In a way, Ewald addresses the criticism that Sontag raises in her “On Photography”. Ewald is neither a voyeur, flaneur, a thief or acquirer of images. She is the ultimate immersive photographer. Not wanting to look from the outside in or have a distance between her and her subjects, she gets involved as a participant, seeking not to direct but share with her subject- the target of her goodwill and co-discoverer.

She challenges photographers that use collaboration with an ulterior motive. Ewald is not a photographer who chooses to give cameras to their subjects because she’s uneasy in the role of the outsider photographing a community that’s not hers, or that she is critical of the relationship of the outside photographer to the subject. When asked what she thought about that as a motivation for a collaboration she responded:
 I don’t think it’s great, actually. I’m genuinely fascinated by what I do and what I get to see. I’m sorry if people have used my work to say outsiders shouldn’t come in. Because I don’t believe that, either, but I believe as an artist I can get something through collaboration that I couldn’t get any other way. And I’m always looking for fresh ways of seeing. If collaboration comes out of a defensive impulse, I don’t think it does justice to the people you’re working with. (Hughes, 2019)

Let’s let Ewald introduce herself: “For over forty years I have collaborated on photography projects with children, families, women, workers and teachers. I’ve worked in the United States, Labrador, Colombia, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Holland, Mexico and Tanzania. My projects start as documentary investigations and move on to probe questions of identity and cultural differences (Ewald, 2019) .”

lecture by Wendy Ewald on her projects (Ewald,2019)

On her website, Ewald presents six collaborative works. Her collaborator’s – students. These include Portrait of dreams ( Letcher County, Kentucky, USA 1976 -today), Black self/white self (Durham’s inner city, 1994- 1997) , Retratos y Sueños (Mexico, 1991), American Alphabets (1997-2005), Towards a promised land (Margate, 2003 – 2006, UK) and This is where I live (Israel/Palestine, 2010-2013). All of these projects see how she contextualises her education to help issues her students are struggling with. This has the effect of getting incredible engagement and growth. Even if she does the photography work she freely acknowledgement their part in the project. But they are fully engaged at the creative level. I can see so many possibilities in my space that I will probably be rolling about with ideas throughout the next couple of weeks. She breaks all the boundaries. She engages and fully immerses herself in her photographs and the lives of her subjects. She teaches, assists and even learns from the insights of her collaborators. She has discovered how selflessness can be achieved in a world of photographers seeking fame.

I have a lot to learn from her approach of which the following is an extract from her interview with PDN

PDN: How did you figure out how to teach kids to photograph their lives or their dreams?
 I just taught myself. I’d give them assignments about what to shoot. Some were based on shape or other visual cues. Eventually, I got the very simple idea of asking them to photograph their families, their community and their dreams and fantasies. But that came later when I was working in Kentucky. (Hughes, 2019)

PDN: Do you think the switch from analogue to digital changed your collaborative projects?
 “It was a big deal. I think the analogue process gave the kids a real focus and it slowed them down—and me too. There were discreet steps—developing film and making prints—which gave them an opportunity to understand how the medium worked.

The first time I worked digitally was in Israel for the project “This Place.” I spent a lot of time looking for cameras to use, and trying them out to see what were the best, the easiest to handle, so my collaborators would be successful. I guess I’m always trying to simplify the experience so that they can just look through the viewfinder, rather than having to fuss with the equipment.

I think a lot of people think that you can just give cameras to kids or whomever and they’ll come out with an innocent vision. I’m much more interested in them controlling and understanding what things will look like in the photos.

Some of the young people in Mexico were so small they couldn’t make the stretch between the thumb and the forefinger to click the button. They had to figure out another way to press the shutter. They carried around buckets of sodium sulfite because we were using Polaroid positive/negative film. And they made fantastic pictures.

You want to give the kids control, and they can gain that control. It doesn’t matter if it’s complicated. They learned, and I learned how to teach them to do it. It was amazing. (Hughes 2019).”

This brief encountered resonated with me and I will revisit her work in the new semester. It will make a lot of sense to incorporate some of her ideas in the progression of my project on Ubuntu vs Modernism. I have access to students from my past courses whom I want to get to engage more with their photography. Another immediate opportunity is the possibility to teach children photography in a school I am involved in.


Ewald, W. (2019). Wendy Ewald, Photographer. [online] Wendy Ewald. Available at: http://wendyewald.com/ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].

Hughes, H. (2019). Interview: Wendy Ewald, Pioneer of Collaborative Photography | PDN Online. [online] PDN Online. Available at: https://pdnonline.com/features/photographer-interviews/interview-wendy-ewald-pioneer-of-collaborative-photography/ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].

Scott, A. (2019). What Resulted When a Photographer Gave Rural Children Cameras. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/what-resulted-when-a-photographer-gave-rural-children-cameras [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].

Ewald, W. (2019). Lecture By Wendy Ewald. [Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7svQrFOdRQ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].

Susan Meiselas- Contemporary Story Teller and the Carnival Strippers.

For my third master documentary photographer, I wanted to find someone more current. Someone with who demonstrated understanding of the earlier practices and developed over time to a more contemporary approach. Susan Meiselas perfectly fits that profile.

Fig. 1 Self-Portrait 1977 by Susan Meiselas (Meiselas, 2019)

Figure 1 was taken as part of her first project 11 Irwin street During her studies. It illustrates her approach to photography. “The way I most like to work is to immerse myself. To be present over time without knowing where it’s going to lead me (Meister 2019)”, but invisible. She preferred being behind the camera.

As usual, who was Susan Meiselas and what was her context from her website (Meseiles, 2019)

  • Meseilas was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1948,
  • BA from Sarah Lawrence College
  • MA in visual education from Harvard University.
  • Her first major photographic essay focused on the lives of women doing striptease at New England country fairs, who she photographed during three consecutive summers while teaching photography in New York public schools. 
  • Carnival Strippers was originally published in 1976 and a selection was installed at the Whitney Museum of Art in June 2000.
  • Meiselas joined Magnum Photos in 1976 and has worked as a freelance photographer since then.
  • She is best known for her coverage of the insurrection in Nicaragua and her extensive documentation of human rights issues in Latin America.
  • She published her second monograph, Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979, in 1981.
  • Served as an editor and contributor to the book El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers (1983)
  • Edited Chile from Within (1991)
  • She has co-directed three films, Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family (1986); Pictures from a Revolution (1991) with Richard P. Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti and  Re-framing History (2004)
  • In 1997, she completed a six-year project curating a hundred-year photographic history of Kurdistan, integrating her own work into the book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997)
  • Her 2001 monograph Pandora’s Box (2001) which explores a New York S & M club, has been exhibited both at home and abroad.
  • The 2003 book and exhibition Encounters with the Dani documents a sixty-year history of outsiders’ discovery and interactions with the Dani, an indigenous people of the highlands of Papua in Indonesia.
  • Her retrospective book and recent exhibition In History (2008) was produced with the International Center for Photography, New York and Steidl.
  • Her most recent project A Room Of Their Own (2015-2016) explores the experiences of women in a refuge in the Black Country UK. A Room Of Their Own was published by Multistory in 2017.
  • Meiselas has had one-woman exhibitions in Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, and her work is included in collections around the world.
  • She has received the Robert Capa Gold Medal for her work in Nicaragua (1979); the Leica Award for Excellence (1982);
  • the Engelhard Award from the Institute of Contemporary Art (1985); the Hasselblad Foundation Photography prize (1994);
  • the Cornell Capa Infinity Award (2005);
  • the Harvard Arts Medal (2011)
  • and most recently was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015).

Her work is excellently presented on her website.

In this initial blog about her photography I reflect her early work Carnival Strippers. Marseilas describes her approach in this work as follows:

“Carnival Strippers is the first real body of work. So it’s not my very first pictures, but the first time I kind of discovered a way to be a photographer that felt right for me. I didn’t go out looking for carnival strippers or researching carnival strippers. I was travelling in summer actually following small circuses that were crossing America going out to the Midwest. When I came back through to New England and I was in Essex Junction and really everything unfolded. And then I spent two more summers really committing to following the path. (Meister, 2019)

Fig. 2. “Lena on the Bally” (Meisellas,2019)

“Carnival Strippers begins with a series of encounters, and the photograph we’re looking at, Lena of the Bally, is not the first of the images I made, but really the first time I felt like it all clicked it all made sense, why I was looking at her everyone else the world around her (Meister, 2019) .”

Referring to Fig 1, Meiselas initially photographed in black and white and used vignetting created by the spotlight to create a focus on the subject. This is an introductory shot setting up the scene. She used a wide-angle perspective to include the environment. The dark tones reinforce the story.

She continues: “I just felt magnetical, I need to know more. There were so many issues for me looking at the woman who became Lena, who I didn’t know was Lena when I made the photograph. The idea of projecting a self to attract a male gaze was completely counter to my sense
of culture, what I wanted for myself. So I was fascinated by women who were choosing to do that. Who is she looking at? She’s looking out and looking above and looking beyond, with, I think, a really strong sense of self. The feminists of that period were perceiving the girl shows as exploitative institutions that should be closed down. And so I actually was positioned in the place of feeling these voices should be heard. They should self define as to who they are and what their economic realities are
(Meister, 2019). “

Fig 3 Susan Photographing Ginger (Meiselas, 2019)

I was virtually introduced to Meiselas in a video interview with Sarrah Meister, curator of MOMA where her Carnival was presented as a masterwork in documentary photography. Meiselas’ first major project shares much in common with David Goldblatt’s work Some Afrikaners photographed. They both engaged with something that personally challenged them. A sense of dissonance. They sought understanding, not judgement. The contradiction is what fascinated them. Both became the work that defined their work and established them as master practitioners. My current project on Ubuntu has the same fascination for me not that I have such grand expectations from it.

“There weren’t many other cameras. I mean if we were making this picture today it’s interesting the differences of how many people would have been with cameras, iPhones, etc. So I don’t think she’s performing for me. She’s performing for the public. I think now we find many more people performing for the cameras. So navigating from a public fairgrounds to the place where I’m invited by the women to see the world that they are within, which is the dressing room and is their zone, and just staying as long as I could and being as part of that full working process of their lives. You can’t anticipate how long you’re going to be there. Every night is unique. The dynamics of the girls that happen to come together was varied. Some were more connected to each other, and others, there were great tensions, and I was as interested in how to visualize these relationships with women and their bodies and their comfort zones and their competitiveness.”

Fig 4 The contact sheet: A series of interactions – (Meiselas 2019)

Fig 4 is a series of photographs showing how Meiselas continuously takes photographs, varying her visual perspectives to find that defining photograph that illustrates what she wants to present and keep. This series shows how she won’t hold back and use a full film. She kept the same wide-angle lens and moved and changed her angle while choosing moments. And from the series of 30 photographs, she seemed to have selected only one with a possible 4 more, illustrating how she curated her work.

Fig 5. “Comfort zones and competitiveness” – (Meiselas, 2019)

Why did she select figure 5. I sense it is the paradox between the stripper having to expose themselves, merely a sex object and a confident person with thoughts of her own. The intense closeness and framing merely enhance the tension between the three subjects ( front torso, the seated stripper and the reflected torso in the background.). The photographs dark tones remind me of Brassai’s Paris nightlife and aesthetic. Meiselas used available light and from the grain a film a high ISO film. She wanted to keep things natural and candid and almost become part of this closed environment. in much the same way as Annie Leibowitz who embedded her with the rock and roll stars. But it is their continued immersion within the lives of their subjects and presence over a significant period of time that allowed them to gain the trust of their subjects to capture the honest moments, be they aesthetically beautiful, or ugly, important or mundane. “The relationships evolved with some to be deeper in the sense that they went over multiple years (Meister, 2019).” But all special in their own right.

Meiselas continues: “My working process was to be somewhere on a weekend, go back to Boston which at the time was my base and process the work and bring back the contact sheets and show whoever was there the following weekend what the pictures were, and they left little initials saying I like this one. I don’t like that one. And I think one of the richest things that came form that sharing was the idea that they wanted portraits. I did not see myself and I still don’t today really, as a portraitist but it was to honor them. It’s what they wanted, it’s what they needed, for their fathers, for their boyfriends. They wanted to have this controlled presentation of self, and chose where they would be in relation to the tent and which costume they would wear, more or less, some less and some more. (Meister,2019)”

Fig 6″Before the show 1974 (Meiseilas 2019)”

I particularly love the photograph Fig 6. Before the show. I love the way she introduces innuendo trough implying the stripper and her engagement with the audience. In a way, the young boy or girl seems to represent Sarah, herself surrounded by sexed-up men, but the face is showing fascination, respect and awe. The strippers hand points as if to select her from the crowd. The dark tones backing and enhancing the face.

Her being female made the ladies trust her and allow her to blend in. Susan Sontag may accuse her as being a flaneur, but Meseilas contests that as she concludes in the interview with Sarah Meister with: “This negotiated, or collaborative space with photography really still fascinates me. It’s a kind of offering, it’s a moment in which someone says, I want you to be here with us, and I wait a long time to feel that moment. The challenge of making that moment, creating that moment. That’s what still intrigues me, I think, and keeps me engaged with photography (Meister, 2019).” Her female sensibilities made the ladies trust her and allow her to blend in, but her immersion, continued commitment and sensitivity gave her permission to enter their world and freely share their lives.

Fig 7. “Ginger 1975” from a series of portraits (Meiselas, 2019)

Meseilas did not limit her storytelling to the photographs but expanded it in her books an website. She presents them as a series reminiscent of the storytelling technique presented in my blog on Unearthing the photo essay (Nagel, 2019)

Fig 8 Web page “Front stage” layout 1 (Meiselas,2015)
Fig 9 “Backstage” (Meiselas, 2019)

Figures 8 and 9 Illustrate the introduction of rhythm in her presentation varying her photograph sizes. The larger photographs are the key photographs. I also love the way she introduces artefacts such as letters and sound bytes to add the story. I suggested a similar approach in my pitch to OXFAM even before seeing this website. It makes these subjects real and moves them outside the realm of fantasy.

Meiselas being an educator and documentary photographer matches my practice directly and she has a lot to teach me. I will revisit and reflect on her later work in a future blog.


Meiselas, S. (2019). Susan Meiselas. [online] Susanmeiselas.com. Available at: http://www.susanmeiselas.com/ [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].

Meister, S. (2019). 3.6 Susan Meiselas. Carnival Strippers. 1973-75 – Documentary Photography | Coursera. [online] Coursera. Available at: https://www.coursera.org/learn/photography/lecture/5RB5L/3-6-susan-meiselas-carnival-strippers-1973-75 [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].

Nagel, A. (2019). Unearthing the Photo Essay. [online] André Nagel’s Critical Research Journal. Available at: https://ancrj.blog/2019/10/18/part-1-the-photo-essay/ [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].

David Goldblatt -Photographing Some Afrikaners…

Self Portrait of David Goldblatt (Goodman-gallery.com, 2019)

It is not mere coincidence that I select David Goldblatt as the second documentary master photographer to investigate.

Goldblatt is arguably the best documentary photographer that South Africa delivered. But as an Afrikaner, he visually activates my neurons and synopsis’, when I view the world he photographed touching endearing childhood memories. I concur with Anjie Krog when she states “I am moved by these photographs of David Goldblatt as it is us- and everything we are down to the sediment. We wrought from an overwhelming landscape, embedded in stone – our eyes sweep the widest sky (Goldblatt, 2007) .”

Cover pages of Some Afrikaners Revisited and Structure of Dominion and Democracy.
Photographed by Andre Nagel

So who was David Goldblatt? He was born on the 20th November 1930 in Randfontein, South Africa a gold, mining region 25 km from Johannesburg. His liberal and well-read parents were children of Jewish Lithuanian-Latvian refugees that fled persecution in 1890 and settled in South Africa. His interest in photography started while he was in high school and managed to teach himself photography despite limited equipment and resources. As a young photographer, he photographed the mines and his friends. The young Goldblatt’s skills were developing as illustrated in the photographs below. His ability to document the lives of others already showed promise.

David Goldblatt- Headgears, Randfontein Estate Gold Mine, circa 1945-48 (Goldblatt 2018)
David Goldblatt- His First photographs of people. Re-photographed by Andre Nagel from (Goldblatt, 2007)

After high school in 1949, he became a magazine photographer and worked as an assistant to a studio photographer and assisted him in the darkroom.

He learned photography by studying The Techniques of the Picture Story (1945) by Dan Mitch, a photographer, and Edwin Eberman, an artist, both editors of Look Magazine. Probably his first steps in learning the art.

Goldblatt’s first professional camera was an Argus C3 35 mm camera and he started developing his film and photographs in a homemade a lab that he shared with his brother Dan.

An Argus C3 Camera – unknown Photographer (En.wikipedia.org, 2019)

Goldblatt’s photographic career was put on hold when his father was diagnosed with cancer in 1952 and he had to take over the management of the family clothing shop. This sparked his interest in business and he concluded a BCom degree through part-time studies at the University of Witwatersrand. However, the income now provided funds for his original passion and he purchases his first Leica and his own enlarger. He leveraged off this new equipment to improve his photographic and lab skills learning mostly from Ansel Adam’s techniques from his basic photobook series. He applied this learning producing his own adverts for the clothing shop. The Leica and new enlarger produced sharper images and his understanding of printing and of managing tones improved significantly. Something that will become the hallmark of his photography.

Leica M3 with 50 mm lens. (Rockwell, 2019)
Advert for the GoldBlatt Clothing shop re-photographed by Andre Nagel (Goldblatt,2018)

What happened next was to be life-changing for him. Apartheid started to take hold of the country, combined with the signing of the “Freedom Charter in December 1958, the Sharpeville protest in March 1960, and the Rivonia trial in 1961 which developed into the backdrop against which he started to work on one of his first major works. Let’s have Goldblatt himself introduce the work Some Afrikaners photographed:

“Apartheid was a grey matrix of legislation and regulation hanging over the country, penetrating, restricting, controlling, cramping every aspect of life. Nothing and no one escaped it. Those who conceived and made it manifest, ideologies, philosophers, religious leaders, lawmen, policeman, men and women of power, supreme in their conviction of national and racial superiority, were mostly Afrikaner (Goldblatt, 2018.) .

In my father’s clothing shop in Randfontein, I served many Afrikaners: Farmers, miners, plot holders, railwaymen, officials, doctors. They tended to be austere, upright, unaffected people of rare generosity of spirit and earthy humour. Possibly most, I surmised, were supporters of the National Party and its policy of apartheid. I had great difficulty to get my head around these contradictions.

My father died in 1962. In 1963 I sold the shop, became a fulltime photographer and not long after embarked on an essay to explore my relationship with people whose energy and influence so pervaded my life and place of birth. Here are some of the photographs.” (Goldblatt 2018)

The body of work started as a series of photographs of Afrikaners he called “People of the plots” supported by his own text. Eight of these photographs were published in a British Magazine “Photography (August) 1963”.

Making a coffin for the body of a neighbours Servant whose family could not afford one < Randfontein, 1962 (Goodman-gallery.com, 2019)

Note the even tones, the sharpness and focus of the Leica with a wide-angle lens and the 35 mm frame format. The ladies and gent are clearly in good spirit and bantering, the sixties clearly present in the ladies hairstyles and dresses.

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a Plot-holder, his wife and their eldest son at lunch, Wheatlands, Randfontein 1962 (Goodman-gallery.com, 2019)

The Plot holder scene is in the most commonly used space. A family gathering for lunch in the kitchen. The simplicity is prevalent but normal for Goldblatt. The Plot holder is a hardworking, rustic, sun scoured man dressed for manual labour. The son is dressed in khaki to do chores. He seems upset as if he was reprimanded. He lowered his eyes as a sign of respect and submission to his dada authority. Goldblatt use of tones was excellent. There are details in the dress. The food on the table spells out simplicity. The wife’s unkemptness reminds a one a bit of the migrant mother. Only the four tin cups on the table make you aware that there is a fourth person at the table. They seem to be comfortable with Goldblatt. The cordial on the table is probably reserved for the guests and maybe the reason for the discussion. This is an unposed photograph taken with a Leica. I like the way the boy is juxtaposed with a black and the father with a white background making them the principle elements of the scene. The wife is clearly in support of the husband. The details on the table are unadjusted and the cleanliness of the table only broken by the luxury of breadcrumbs on the table. All this and the cabinet which is now a distant relic making this an excellent documentary photograph. A complete story in a photograph. Clearly taken with a low ISO film and using a lens with a normal perspective, probably a 50mm, perfectly framed without parallax error in a rangefinder camera.

Goldblatt describes his method of engagement:” I would stop and ask people if I might do some portraits of them or spend some time with them while they went whatever they were doing. In this way, I became intimate with some of the qualities of everyday Afrikaner life in these places and its deeply embedded contradictions (Goldbaltt 2007)”.

In 1964 Goldblatt sends some photographs to England to the magazine editors of Town which earns him a commission to do work for Anglo American Corporation … the turning point in his career. This provided him with a work opportunity with a South African Magazine and he purchases himself a medium format Hasselblad Camera continuing to photograph with his Leica as well.

1964 Hasselblad Medium Format Camera. (Rockwell, 2019)

In the same year, he meets Sam Haskins, a British photographer, who was born and raised in South Africa, who becomes a mentor to him and influences the way Goldblatt would put together his photography books. Nine of the photographs in the yet to be published Some Afrikaners photographed is published in the New York Times Magazine ( 6 February 1964). Between 1967 and 1968 he and Haskins create his first dummy book for publication but not being able to get a co-publisher the endeavour fails in spite of interest by an English publisher. The publication of 7 of his Photographs in 1969 in a Swiss magazine is noticed by the South African press and the Dagbreek and Sondag Nuus newspapers publicly attack his work. The nationalists felt that he was ridiculing the Afrikaner and was not presenting the Afrikaner in the way they wanted to present themselves. In 1975 Goldblatt partnered with Ivor Powel and Anjie Krog, a respected Afrikaner writer and managed to published the book.

Image result for Gamkaskloof david Goldblatt
Kitchen in Gamkas Kloof 1967 David Goldblatt (Goodman-gallery.com, 2019)

Referring to the previous picture; take note the square format of the Hasselblad. Goldblatt was rapidly developing an aesthetic and style of his own. He captures people interacting with each other. Imbedding himself with them and getting them fully comfortable. He generally makes use of a normal perspective lens to create a natural eye view of the scene while carefully taking control of the exposure and using a low ISO film. Again set in a kitchen, the relationship between father and son is clearly in play. Dad is kidding with his son who lowers his eyes in respect.

A Mother and child with a replica Zulu hut at the Voortrekker monument, on the Day of the Vow December 1963 (Goodman-gallery.com, 2019)

The photograph above is a middle-class Afrikaner woman and her daughter. I have taken a similar photo in the ’80s with my wife, father in law and mother in law. The arches of the monument represent the Ox Wagon tents but are visually supported by the structure of the huts… In a way linking two opposing cultures with a shared heritage. The Day of the Vow represents a bloody battle between the Voortrekkers and the Zulu’s and is not celebrated as a victory but a religious thanksgiving remembering being delivered from certain death. It is still observed by religious Afrikaners until today. The photograph is unposed. It is as if he took this photo without permission. He clearly used his Leica with a 50mm lens here too.

Two men building a dam on the farm Drogedal, in the Marico Bushveld, near Nietverdient, Transvaal. 1964 (Goodman-gallery.com, 2019)

This photograph illustrates the common quest of two men to build a better life. The tight muscles show the commitment and passion for hard labour. This is my favourite photograph as presents what was, and what can be. The harshness and beauty of the land to be tamed.

The story of Some Afrikaners presents Goldblatt’s persistence, attention to detail, dispassionate engagement and a willingness to tell the story as he sees it. His photographs seek not to judge, humiliate and present people in an idealistic or propagandistic way.

He states: “Something, in reality, takes me. It arouses, irritates, beguiles. I want to approach, explore, see it with all the intensity and clarity that I can. Not to purchase, colonise or appropriate, but to experience its isness and distil this in photographs.” (Goldblatt, 2018)

David Goldblatt was no Flaneur or voyeur. He engaged, loved the people he photographed and merely loved photography. I sense the Walt Witman romantic in him. He had the ability to capture both the ugly and the beautiful, the ordinary and the mundane and manage to get out the value from all. He mastered his skill with practice, dedication and persistence and always seeking to improve. His landscapes are about the undertones, the road less travelled and the people he photographed; those that others considered “inappropriate” or “unimportant”. What he saw was the country he was born into and the true souls of people he has come to love and respect, in spite of their colour, religion, and ideologies. He makes a very important point, making us see that even good people can turn out to support an idea that goes contrary to their personal belief system if they fear the future or see certain groups of people as sub-human.

Richtersveld 2003 in Colour (Goodman-gallery.com, 2019)

Goldblatt did not limit his work to the Afrikaners and I am considering reflecting on other works from David Goldblatt in my next semester. I would like to compare his practice with other contemporaries for whom I have similar respect: Alf Khumalo and Peter Magubane.

David Goldblatt and Peter Magubane was posthumously honoured at the Goodman Gallery 28 July – 25 August 2018 (Goodman-gallery.com, 2019)

David Goldblatt passed on on the 25th June 2018 from cancer never ceasing to create photographs.

I previously shared a blog of his photographs regarding the Afrikaners in the Gamka’s kloof. To read more on David Goldblatt and the Gamka kloof read this earlier blog follow this link https://ancrj.blog/tag/david-goldblatt/ (Nagel,2019)


Nagel, A. (2019). David Goldblatt – André Nagel’s Critical Research Journal. [online] André Nagel’s Critical Research Journal. Available at: https://ancrj.blog/tag/david-goldblatt/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (2019). Argus C3. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argus_C3 [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].

Goodman-gallery.com. (2019). [online] Available at: http://www.goodman-gallery.com/artists/david-goldblatt/bio_image [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].

Rockwell, K. (2019). LEICA M3 (1954-1967). [online] Kenrockwell.com. Available at: https://www.kenrockwell.com/leica/m3.htm [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].

Goldblatt, D. (2018). David Goldblatt – structures of dominion and democracy. 1st ed. Gottingen: Steidl Publishers.

Goldblatt, D. (2007). Some Afrikaners revisited. Roggebaai, South Africa: Umuzi.

In Plato’s Cave: a Critical Essay by Susan Sontag

Critical Analysis of the First Essay in Susan Sontags Book On Photography (Andre Nagel, 2019)


In the first semester, I first encounter with Susan Sontag. To be honest, I must admit that at that time, I found the essay hard to read for many reasons. It challenged my vocabulary, my intellect and finally, my view on photography. This and the recommendation from my first semester tutors “to invest more time into contextual research to help develop a more critically informed practice to your own work and the reading of Sontag, Barthes and other critical theorists, including Berger’s ‘Understanding a Photograph’,” motivated this critical research and reading of Susan’s book.

Who was Susan Sontag and in what context did the write?

(Susansontag.com, 2019)

Context is everything. Susan Sontag was an American writer and philosopher who throughout her career engaged in critical debate and commentary about modern society. Her comments in her critical essays on photography were directed to pre-digital photography practitioners. But before we start, we need to note her education and background.

Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and English literature (M.A., 1954) and philosophy (M.A., 1955) at Harvard University and taught philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford. (Susansontag.com, 2019 and Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019).

What is important in this context is her critical commentary on modern culture and that ” she did nine works of nonfiction, starting with Against Interpretation and including  Illness as Metaphor, Where the Stress Falls,  At the Same Time, and two books that look at the photographic medium critically, On Photography (1977), and Regarding the Pain of Others. In 1982, FSG published A Susan Sontag Reader (Susansontag.com, 2019).”

It is also important to note that Sontag was “a human rights activist for more than two decades, Sontag served from 1987 to 1989 as president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization dedicated to freedom of expression and the advancement of literature, from which platform she led a number of campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers (Susansontag.com, 2019).”

(Susansontag.com, 2019)

Sontag ” earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography (1978).

Susan Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004.” (Susansontag.com, 2019)

Sontag’s comments are about a pre-digital, pre-internet photography world. Once she wrote a book she will not revisit it. However, even if her commentary still applies, Sontag’s bodywork is in need of an update, a challenge I believe Fred Ritchin has taken up in his essays After photography 2008 and Bending the frame (2013). But more about that in future blogs.

My reflection.

In the foreword of the book, Sontag describes her approach, that if disregarded would lead the reader away from her intent.

Her progress and struggle with this text are best described in this foreword: “It all started with one essay – about some of the problems, aesthetics and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographed images, but the more I thought about what photographs are, the more complex and suggestive they became. So one generated another, and that one (to my bemusement) another, and so on- a progress of essays, about their meaning and career of photographs- until I’d gone far enough so that the argument sketched in the first essay, documented and digressed from in the succeeding essays, could be recapitulated and extended in a more theoretical way; and could stop (Sontag, 2019, intro).”

At first, reading the first essay In Plato’s cave, I disliked the way she wrote, not giving me a structure to work with, feeling surprised and frustrated. Then it dawned on me. She was not teaching but presenting her critical reflections, a liberal ramble, a process in understanding her own thoughts. A path we should all walk and a key part of the MA programme. She freed herself from approval, used every part of her intellect and education to deliver an unprecedented philosophical discourse on Photography. She was not a photographer and did not claim to be one, but she pondered on what the truth is that create the reflections on the photographic wall of the cave, the photograph. She seeks to elaborate on the possible intent or truth of what a photographers purpose was when creating the reflection. The unseen reality behind the viewer. Plato had a passive view of the truth-seeking not to judge but to accept the truth without judgement. Sontag is hypercritical, almost sceptical as she related her thoughts with her experience with news photographers, documentary photographers and the ordinary citizen photographers she knew. She saw people taking photographs seeking to ” record social rites, a defence against anxiety and a tool of power (Sontag 2019, p 7)”. I can only speculate whether she was a mere sceptic or her theological studies made her believe in the depravity of mankind, or both.

The first part of the essay seems generic with short philosophical and logical tenants of some uncovered truths, sometimes a tongue in cheek treatment that infuriates most photographers, present company included. Eventually, as she progresses towards the end of the first essay the detail indicates an active resentment and disappointment in photography and photographers, probably due to her experience with war and poverty and the related passivity of the viewers. In this section, her discourses become longer and have more depth. Something she needed to pursue in the second book in this series: Regarding the pain of others. This depth of her resentment or disappointment is best described in the following quote: “When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten: something went dead; something is still crying (Sontag, 2019, p 21).”

For the sake of brevity, let me rather list those tenants that I felt touched me and will affect my discourse on photography forever.

“Picture taking is an event in itself – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore what is going on (Sontag, 2019, p 11) ” “often explicitly, encourage whatever is going on and keep on going on (Sontag, 2019, p 12).” And even stronger: “The camera does not rape or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and if at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate. All activities… which may be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment (Sontag, 1978, p 13) .” An ethical indictment to all aspiring photographers. However, it does spell out an ethical dilemma that each photographer needs to face. Especially documentary and Photo-journalistic photographers.

“To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or things), mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to times relentless melt (Sontag, 2019, p 16). ” As I age and experience the loss of loved ones, I cringe at how many photographs were never taken of both places and people, that now only live vaguely in my memory and will disappear forever after my death.

“Images that mobilise conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective. Sontag, 2019 p 17”. I find this tenant to be a truth to be used. In a post-apartheid South Africa, injustice and disparity have become invisible in the generality of the problem in the world. People just don’t want to know anymore. it’s still serious…and getting worse. but it is a worldwide phenomenon. To get attention to it may require finding ways to define it in a more unique way.

“Photographs are more memorable than moving images because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow… Each photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again (Sontag, 2019, p 18).” A photographer once said that we need to learn to enjoy every click. I believe we should print those photographs and relive that experience. Yervant, and Australian master wedding photographer says that you can only call yourself a photographer if you print your work. The print is still a unique artefact to be prized. I wonder what Gary Winogrand would have said about this. He was more concerned about taking photographs than printing them. For him, the learning was complete when the photograph was taken. He left behind a legacy of undeveloped film.

“In the last decade, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it (Sontag, 2019, p 22) “. This reminds me of the recent photograph of the Sirian boy, Alan Kurdi, on the beach in Turkey. His story literally opened doors, but any more pictures of many others have closed the ears of many that fear the impact of helping those in need.

Aesthetic distance seems to be built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art (Sontag, 2019, p 22).” So don’t throw any photograph away!

I have come to believe that an insightful reading of Sontag’s works will improve my discourse in photography and her insights and approach develop me to understand myself as a photographer, my subjects and my photographs and to articulate this understanding. I still think she invites us to critically think about photography and come up with our views, even if we disagree with her views. I have taken up that challenge and will be recording my journey in future blogs.


Sontag, S. (2019). On photography. London: Penguin Books, pp.1-26.

Susansontag.com. (2019). Susan Sontag. [online] Available at: http://www.susansontag.com/SusanSontag/ [Accessed 23 Nov. 2019].

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2019). Susan Sontag | American writer. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Susan-Sontag [Accessed 23 Nov. 2019].

Brassaï- Documenting Paris

Cover of Brassaï Paris, 1899-1984. Hong Kong: Taschen.

I have undertaken a tough task of developing what Stuart Franklin called the documentary impulse into a professional practice. My feedback received with regards to my work in progress portfolio included a recommendation that I study the aesthetics of masters in the craft of documentary photography. The purpose of this reflection is to develop my own eye and to learn how to converse within that genre.

Brassaï ‘s work has always fascinated me and it makes sense that he is the first master I would be investigating.

Context is everything. ” As a young man, Halász studied painting and sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest and the Berlin-Charlottenburg Academy of Fine Arts. In 1924 he moved to Paris where he spent the rest of his life, joining a handful of other Hungarian emigrants including Robert Capa, among the greatest combat and adventure photographers in history, and André Kertész, the father of photojournalism, who later became Halász’s mentor (Aran, 2016).”

He became a prolific artist. He excelled in sculpting, draughting, photography and film. “But it is above all his work as a photographer which has won him his place in history ( Brasaii and Gautrand, 2008)”. All of these and Andre Kertesz influenced him in his approach and composition,  publishing his first collection of photographs in a 1933 book entitled Paris de NuitParis by Night, under the single name, “Brassaï”, meaning one who comes from Brașov (Aran, 2016). 

Gautrand described his photographic work as inhabited in tenderness, ability to respond to the outside world due to his permanent availability, both a receiver and reflector of the world around him. Henry Miller called him ” a living eye” whose gaze pierced through the heart of truth in everything. Like a falcon or shark, he quivers and then pounces on reality. For Jean Paulhan he was this man “this man who had more than two eyes”. For Picasso, he was a master draughtsman who insists on working in a Saltmine (Brassaï and Gautrand, 2008). In my view, he had a way of looking at the world without judgement, who through the development of friendships and a love for the city earned the right to take their photographs, whether they were nobleman, whores, poor labourers. Like Annie Leibowitz would do for Rolling Stone magazine years later, he immersed himself into the lives of those he photographed

Initially, using a Voightlander, he worked simply with available light, using long exposures on a tripod, and eventually the newly-introduced flashbulb. He knocked on doors asking to be allowed in to take pictures.

Figure 1 This Self Portrait was taken by Brassaï using his Voigtlander. Note the cigar he used to time his shots. (Eckart,2019)

In Figure 1 is also typical of his work. Using the ambient light he made a long exposure using Low ISO film. He liked photographing during misty nights or just after rain to get some reflections of the surfaces. Note the puddle in the background. His placement of himself looking out of the frame is deliberate to face into the lamplight or car making him and his camera the key element. And it is as if the image behind him represent the view he is seeing. The saccadic movement as a westerner starts from the left first pondering on his face and camera then traversing up and down taking the leading line from receding line towards infinity and the landing up with the bright lampost. It may seem that this structure may be contrived but even for a self-portrait, he would have planned it carefully. His planned exposure and personal handling of the tones are perfectly assigned.

“Brassaï was not a visual thief, that stole bits of reality that happened to come his way, but an artist with a conscious structured vision of the world to communicate. He knew how to project his sense of form with an energy that keeps it alive today (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 p17).” Sometimes a voyeur but never a Sontagian flaneur.

“Pointing his camera through upper windows, Brassaï focused on conditions of mist or light rain creating strong moods and a tangible atmosphere. (Aran 2016).”

Figure 2 Morris Column, Avenue de l’Observetre, Paris 1933 ( Brassaï and Gautrant p39

In figure 2 illustrates Brassaï ‘s intense looking at form has produced remarkable compositions. The tower is the main element and is carefully exposed to allow for the lettering to be seen yet there is minimal exposure of himself. His own form brings scale into the picture. The secondary element is the play of light forming a tristar. Technically it must be remembered that Brassaï would have deliberately exposed for the dark end. He uses a dark on a light aesthetic which would only have been possible in the misty conditions. The mist reduces contrast allowing for a more evenly toned photograph

Figure 3 Two Girls in a Bar on the Boulevard Rouchechouart Paris 1932
( Brassaï and Gautrant 2008, p 79)

He also used mirrors to give different viewpoints of the main subjects of his photos. Although this was a relatively common practice in painting during the previous two centuries, he pursued it in his photographs more than any others had before. It is exactly in this area that his work is at its most documentary, even though many of his shots were deliberately posed. Upon reflection, many years later he wrote, “C’est pour saisir la beauté des rues, des jardins, dans la pluie et le brouillard, c’est pour saisir la nuit de Paris que je suis devenu photographe.“ “It is to know the beauty of the streets, the gardens, in rain and fog, it is to know the Paris night that I became a photographer (Aran 2016).”

Figure 4 Le Pont Neuf 1936 ( Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 36)

I find his greatest advice in an interview recorded in the Photo-Revue in 1997: “As a reporter, I hate slipshod Photographs… There are two gifts a which every man of images needs to be a true creator: a certain sensitivity to life, to living things, and at the same time, the art which will enable him to capture that life in a certain specific way. I’m not talking about pure aesthetics: a confused photo is just isn’t capable of penetrating the viewer’s memory. I’ve always felt that the formal structure of a photo, it’s composition, is just as important as the subject itself… you have to eliminate every superfluous element, you have to guide your own gaze with an iron will. you have to take the viewer’s gaze, and lead it to what is interesting”

Fig 5 Avenue de l’Observervatoire 1934 (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 51)

However, it is the work among the peoples in the street that links him to my work and MA project. These relate to the people still experiencing the pains of the underbelly of modernisation and the existence of serfdom.

Fig 6 Tramps on the Quai des Orfevres Paris 1930-1932 (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 45)
Fig 7 Rag Picker Paris 1931-32 (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 59)
Fig 8 Another version not selected for the book (Beke89.wixsite.com, 2019)

Figure 7 and 8 show two photographs of a Rag Picker. Figure 6 was published but Fig 8 not. It is clear that Brassaï framed the picture first and then asked the ragpicker to go ahead with his activity or to pose. He then changed his angle and the position of his light source and his lens. Fig 7 was taken with a wide-angle lens and Figure 5 with a normal lens He, however, did not change or position items in the scene. the bottle is observable in both pictures.

Meat Porter at Les Halles ( “The King of Ethiopia”) (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P 68)

Brassaï ranged his photographs from wide landscapes to close-ups. The projects took a number of years to complete. The fact that he published three books from this time indicated that he collected more than one project at a time. Paris at night was his commission. The seedy underworld was done at the same time as a personal project and he took some Paris graffiti which he published separately. These are a number of principles that hold true for documentary work until today.

I would have not considered using lighting in my work until now, but I did discover that it one has to engage with your subjects even if you want it to look candid. The direction is part of the job as it is the case with wedding photography.

Modern cameras provide opportunities that Brassaï never had. We have built-in light meters, digital sensors have no reciprocity problems and technologies made it possible for noise-free ISO levels that Brassaï would never have dreamt of. The dynamic range of digital cameras has just bypassed the range of 7 EV stops of black and white film and colour is now standard. The only exception is that digital performs in the same way as slides and one has to expose for the highlights and not the darkest legible detail. Portable light sources have improved so much allowing compositional opportunities. It is time to explore these new boundaries and see what we can achieve.

But in the end, it will require the same commitment in time, engagement with life and absolute control over composition and form.

Concluding in the words of Gautrand: ” This fact, this sense of restraint, underlies his extraordinary self-control. He took very few pictures, but when he did release the shutter, it was because he had reached or recognised a moment of concentration, of permanence, in which the essence of a situation was immediately visible. Each image, then, is a naturally occurring visual-emotional compound which demands to be taken as a whole (Brassaï and Gautrant 2008 P9).”


Aran, S. (2016). Paris Photographers: Brassaï, The Transylvanian Eye. [online] Bonjour Paris. Available at: https://bonjourparis.com/history/paris-photographers-brassai-the-transylvanian-eye/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

Brassaï and Gautrand, J. (2008). Brassaï Paris, 1899-1984. Hong Kong: Taschen.

Eckardt, S. (2019). What Nightlife Looked Like in 1930s Paris. [online] W Magazine. Available at: https://www.wmagazine.com/gallery/brassai-show-foam-museum [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

Beke89.wixsite.com. (2019). [online] Available at: https://beke89.wixsite.com/bekesite/product-page/brassai-paris-rag-picker [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Forum: Telling A Story

The instructions for this weeks forum was that we had to choose seven photographs to tell a story for an assignment. I was too late to participate. I had two stories but decided to make it seven spreads instead.

Taking the lessons learned about storytelling discussed in “Unearthing the Photo Essay” I planned the story with the following strategies in mind. I needed to focus on getting an opening shot, a key-shot and a closer. The story also required photographs that filled-in the story and ideally, these needed to tell a story within themselves.

The first spread is the opening shot and could have been the climax of the story. Like in many magazines, this photograph would be used as a cover page or, as, I did use it the opening as my opening shot. I approached the layout using a Kinfolk minimalism as I believe that this type of story would interest their Hipster audience. Knowingly, I directed the text towards a thinking audience.

The space on the left is for the introductory text. I added the caption for this reflective exercise.

Frontpage – The Harvest Festival referred to as Sukkot by the Jewish People (Andre Nagel . 2019)
Alternative option within a Magazine (Andre Nagel, 2019)

My story is broken up in three parts. Buying the vegetables, travel home and doing the installation at our shed/church.

Spread 2 Introductory Photograph on the left From the farmland to the shop.
(Andre Nagel, 2019)

Photograph one introduces the first story and links the farmyard, shop and the shopper. This what Freeman calls an introductory photograph (Freeman, 2012). The triptych on the right enforces the message, the packer, the purchaser and trolley and finally, the infinite lines remind the viewer of the farmyard and accentuates the available abundance.

Spread 3: A full Spread of what I call a key shot for this series. The prices are recorded for posterity. ( Andre Nagel, 2019)

Spread 3 is deliberately large. The squares link it with the previous spread but it is such a powerful photograph that I decided that it is the climax of the shopping experience.

Spread 4; Transition between Shop, home and church (Andre Nahel, 2019)

Spread 4 is an interlude or bridge connecting my first story with the second. It has some humour and reality. I contrasted the sunlight and the darkness to give it a minor impact.

Spread 5 The Sukkot being prepared. ( Andre Nagel, 2019)

Spread 5 Introduces the Sukkot itself. It is an introductory photograph. The two photographs on the right show how it was decorated. In both cases, my wife’s gestures made these photographs special. They are not mere portraits or poses but tells a story.

Spread 6 Details of the display in the Sukkot (Andre Nagel, 2019)

In spread 6 I followed the story up with details of the display in the Sukkot, still lives, but here I even contrasted shapes and lines to give the spread an impact and dynamism.

Spread 7 a Triptych with the Punctum with a closing (Andre Nagel 2019)

Looking at spread 7, the triptych is a series that bring the punctum (point) to the story. The text is intended for thinking people to ponder on. It starts with a grinder to make coffee. To me, it symbolised the grinding up of faith by a modernist toolIf the content offends, then I want to make another observation. I have experienced this twice now, where some student has strong opinions on a subject. They forget that the photographer may or may not present something he feels strongly about or as a practitioner, he has to undertake an assignment that opposes his/her belief system. David Goldblatt has shown, that as a practitioner, it is possible to detach yourself from making a judgement on ideologies, politics, world and views and present the story or subject in the most honest way possible. Sometimes, you should even try to understand your subjects to photograph them. You don’t have to agree with them. We as students need not be judgemental about the subject matter of our peers and see what we can learn from their work and other master photographers. If it is about the practice, and as this is a photography course, we should reciprocate with creative and positive criticism with a particular focus on photography. with the red papers indicating caution. The message on the screen is in Afrikaans that proclaim God as the creator contrasting with the impact of modernist thought introduced in the text below. And then, the architectural drawing is an indication of hope and continuity of the faith community in a future for their belief system. The closing photograph seems to reflect the opening photograph, but now the Vegetables and flowers seem to extend from the Bible.

None of this was set-up. In fact, I used my cell phone to make myself less visible to the subjects in this series. It was my first exercise of this nature which I believe is a reasonable success that will take me forward from here.

If the content offends, then I want to make another observation. I have experienced this twice now, where some student has strong opinions on a subject. They forget that the photographer may or may not present something he feels strongly about or as a practitioner he has to undertake an assignment that opposes his/her belief system. David Goldblatt has shown, that as a practitioner, it is possible to detach yourself from making a judgement on ideologies, politics, world and views and present the story or subject in the most honest way possible. Sometimes, you should even try to understand your subjects to photograph them. You don’t have to agree with them. We as students need not be judgemental about the subject matter of our peers and see what we can learn from their work and other master photographers. If it is about the practice, and as this is a photography course, we should reciprocate with creative and positive criticism with a special focus on photography.


Freeman, M., 2012. The Photographers Story. 1st ed. East Sussex: ILEX

Unearthing the Photo Essay

1- The Narrative

Reflecting on my reading of Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s [Story] (Freeman, 2012)

Cover of the Photographer’s story (Andre Nagel, 2019)


In my Work in Progress Portfolio submission for Position and Practice, I perceived a need to take a deeper look at how I need to present my work that it is less repetitive and more engaging. I identified this work by Michel Freeman as a good base to start from before engaging in deep research about the subject. I found a small Gold Mine…


” The camera is only one tool for telling a story” for us, this is our prime interest. This means that as photographers we need to understand the fundamentals of story telling. regardless whether it is  “written or spoken words, theatre film or still images, paintings or a cave wall.”

Freeman defines narrative as ” telling an account of something: how it happened.” He describes in some detail how photography was caught up in narrative since its inception and how the technology development made this more possible through time. Photographs replaced drawings in newspapers and came with a heightened perception of truth. He adds: “it took approximately a century in the form of digital manipulation, to take photography back to the very thing is was to replace!”

Technology such as smaller format cameras, the sprocket film and high-speed lenses with low light capabilities., faster film enabled photojournalism.

But it was not only the technology that drove this: “The camera and 35 mm camera came of age in Europe at the time of social and political upheaval” Photography also synced well with the “liberalism idealism in arts of the democratic and socialist movement in that time. It is not surprising that it led to politically inspired documentary photography seeking to challenge war and social injustice. It also aligned well with modernism that “rejected tradition and the decorative, instead of embracing abstraction and, clean lines, functionality and even mass production” it slowed for a new era, capturing scenes from life and art with spontaneity and conscious realism.

He then proceeds to introduce the classic story structure from literature and screenwriting to set the scene for his exploration of the narrative in Photo-journalistic and documentary photography. He uses three photo stories or essays to illustrate how uses the narrative in photography in his practice. (Freeman, 2012)

The classic Narrative formula (Freeman, 2012, p13)


I believe Freeman has a very clear understanding of the world he saw photography development and his analysis is spot on. His books have been a tutor in my life since the 80’s when I purchased his 35mm Handbook where he while, teaching me the basics of using my camera, introduced me to the professional world.

In this book, he impressed me by how he described the natural alignment and convergence of journalism, photography and it associated technology advancements and the socio-political environment and how photography was able to serve the need of that era which continuous to date.

The narrative approach did three things for me. 1) It gave me a language to describe the purpose of photographs shot in a series. 2) It redirected me and removed the pressure of having to take key photographs all the time opening a world of opportunities. Not all of the photographs in a story need a Barthesian Punctum. A minor photograph may be used to establish the background, open the photographic essay with with a dramatic opening and buildup towards a key photograph that as an climax presentation of the punctum, and end of with a closing photograph leaving you to ponder the series as a whole 3) It allows me to assess how I can approach the way I present the photographs in an order that will reduce repetition and introduce rhythm and pace in terms of composition, angle and point of view, subject type, colour and impact and other visual factors. 4) It enables me to curate my photographs not merely on an intrinsic level but also its contextual importance in a series of photographs.

Of course, a photographic story can be told in one photograph, a small group, what Freeman calls a 3+1 combination, for magazines or a photo essay of 200-300 photographs in the form of a published book. But the ideal narrative form needs at least some a setup, a buildup, a climax and a close to be effective, whether as elements in a photograph or a series of photographs. I will be exploring this in my project work.

The contemporary practise of wedding photography is progressively adopting the story/ narrative approach in the renewed interest in high quality published albums. Some Master wedding photographers such as Roco Ancora, Joe Buisink and Yervant has adopted it within their style. The photo album or presentation is no longer a collection of photographs but a published essay on the most important day in the life of a young couple.

I did a stint in doing wedding videography which informed my photography practice in a major way. When my wife and I curated the thousands of photographs and needed to cull the photographs to about 300 for an album we intuitively broke up the day into chapters with each building up and leading into the next. Our climax was mainly the post-wedding Romantic shoot and we always looked for a “show stopper that will end of the Album. The wedding narrative is generally set but I never considered using the story approach in my personal documentary work until now.

Freeman, as a seasoned travel and documentary photographer has a large repertoire and years of practical skills and is prepared to share his skill in such a simple, pragmatic and delightful way.

Reading this book during week 3, where we discussed the tension between Art and Commercial work and how art is also commercial work, I was continuously seeing how for Freeman’s commercial work, event reportage and essays, is an art form. and it is the narrative within his work that elevates it in the traditional definition of art.

In conclusion,

I have come to realise the huge impact of how understanding narrative and its value within my photographic practice. Photojournalism and Documentary photography has always been underpinned with some form of narrative. For the photographer, the prime objective is the visual narrative, making it an integral tool in the arsenal of a photographer. And if this fails either personally add a literary narrative or collaborate with someone to add it. This has been the practice in many photographic essays I have read.


Freeman, M. (2012). The photographer’s story. Lewes: Ilex, pp.8-39.