A blessing and a curse

I have been putting a lot of time lately into my project photographing inside homes after the foreclosure and before the houses are cleaned up and resold. That moment is when I see what I think of the “ghosts” of the people who used to live in those homes. The work has been very well received lately, which got me wondering why that is. The educator in me (and the photographer in me) both want to understand why the images seem to work well for others. Every photographer has an idea about what his or her work should do for the viewer of the work, but so what. When a body of work succeeds in both the photographer’s mind and the viewer’s eye that’s something worth thinking about.

In between shooting, editing, arranging more shoots and sending the work out for grants, I have been pondering that question. I have also been thinking about the work because I am in the midst of what seems like the grant application season and because of the “instant editing” I have been doing recently to get feedback on the work. I have been sharing the work/talking about it with some non photographers. I have similarly been pondering the work on my daily walks and since it has been something of a warm and glorious spring in Rhode Island, the walks (and the pondering) have been extra long. All of these things have forced me to think about my work, which is always a good thing. The need for a weekly blog entry has forced me to write out my thoughts, which is an even better thing.

When I started the “Foreclosed Dreams” work, I knew I did NOT want to photograph individuals being foreclosed upon and/or being evicted from their homes. Though I knew that part of the story is an important one, I also knew that it was not what I wanted to work on. I knew that I wanted to make something larger, more universal and something that was not as easily dismissed as just one “small” tragedy for a single family.

I have been working on the project for almost three years and only recently have I been able to understand and articulate the challenge that I set for myself. (No one ever said I was a fast learner. I am good at looking back and seeing patterns in what I have done even if I can’t see any patterns in where I am going next with a project.)

The problem as I see it is the blessing and the curse of photography’s presumed veracity. By that I mean when we look at a photograph we presume it be a true representation of what the photographer encountered. Though the explosion in the use of Photoshop prompts us to intellectually reconsider that veracity, our initial, intuitive reaction to a photograph is to see it as “truth.” Although that seems obvious, it is something to keep in mind because in many ways it is one of the most revolutionary aspects of photography.

In most other media, the creator of the work and the audience both understand that the artist, musician or sculptor will be interpreting the idea that is at the heart of the creation. In fact, most audiences base their appreciation of a given piece of creative work on the quality of the creator’s interpretation.

In most other media, universality is an equally important part of that creative interpretation. In literary fiction, for example, each character in a given story may have a specific name but in the reader’s mind each character is a stand-in for an idealized role or person. as in mother, father, hero, villain or everyman (usually defined as an ordinary individual with whom the reader is supposed to be able to identify easily.) The fact that literature is built on the premise that the reader fills in the blanks in any character just reinforces this idea, making most literature more allegorical than factual.

Photography, with it’s specificity works the other way. An individual whose face is shown in a particular photograph instantly becomes that specific, unique individual to the viewer. The presumed veracity of a photograph leaves very little opportunity for the reader to fill in the blanks in any character.

That presumed veracity may work fine for conventional photojournalism but it presents an enormous hurdle in other kinds of narrative photography. Work that is obviously constructed or assembled uses that veracity as a launching point to draw the viewer in and then takes them on some kind of flight of fantasy through the mind (and the mind’s eye) of the creator of that work.

By comparison, in my foreclosure project I have stayed away from showing specific families in the process of foreclosure. As both a photographer and as a viewer of photographs made by others, I know that any individual in any image can easily be ignored by the viewer of such an image. This is true almost no matter how compelling or even horrifying the reality that is shown in such an image. Understanding this explains why we look right past images of dead bodies (and why publications tend not to use those same images since they presume to know our reaction.)

Speaking of reactions, I have been studying people’s reactions as they encounter my foreclosure photos and I am developing a theory about why they work for so many people. It goes like this:

As soon as the viewer puts a bit of themselves into any image, as I hope they do with my foreclosure images, it becomes much harder for that viewer to then easily dismiss that image. If they go as far as to subconsciously put themselves in that house or that room or the chaos shown in an image, then the image and their experience of that becomes a small part of them, a part which is very hard to dismiss.

One way that I know the imagery works for other people is the fact that some of the photographs were recently published, in print and on the the web, in the literary journal Witness.

Understanding why the photographs in my project work for others is NOT just an exercise in self congratulations. Understanding why the images work will help me as I continue to work on this project and it will help me in future projects. By sharing it with others through this blog entry, I am hoping it will also help them think about how to make their photographs more compelling in the eyes of those who view the photos. The lesson is not, go out and photograph foreclosures. The lesson is try to understand that there is a sweet spot where a certain type of powerful photograph sits. Such images use a mix of:

A bit of the veracity that we impart to all photographs

A bit of the universality that comes when an image is NOT dominated by that same veracity

A bit of the unconscious pull that most aesthetically compelling things have on viewers

A bit of the personal that viewers identify with as they experience and connect to an image

I am not sure that this is a successful formula for all photographs and all photographers. But having worked my way through it to the point that I can fully articulate it for others to understand, that certainly helps me and it may help the readers of this blog.

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