I have struggled with the idea of influences. This may seem odd, but it has been real. Finally in this module I have started to make some headway in this area.
My early influences in photography were William Eggleston and Ernst Haas. Their high colour, outdoor work fed very directly into the sort of pictures which I made. That became a habitual way of working which I never questioned.
As I progressed through the MA and I have questioned my work, the matter of influences and context (the external forcing of my work) continually arises. I realised that as my work coalesced around particular intentions, I was placing myself in a community with similar intentions. I am no longer making pictures that are derivative of the work of the masters, I am now making work on my own terms but within the context of similar practitioners and according to the intentions inherent in my field of activity.
The turning point for me, was reading Photography as Activism by Michelle Bogre. This book discusses photography’s role in social reform. It is a rich history.
Bogre takes the view that the first activist photographers were David Hill and Robert Adamson. In 1840 they made a series of calotypes in the small Scots fishing village of Newhaven. People outside of the village would have been unaware of how the people of Newhaven lived prior to the circulation of Hill and Adamson’s pictures. Hill and Adamson sought to inform, but other early photographers saw the opportunity to influence. In 1877 Street Life in London was published. This report was written by Adolphe Smith and illustrated with the photographs of John Thomson. It directly argued for action to improve the lives of working class Londoners.
In 1887, Jacob Riis began documenting the squalid living conditions of migrant workers in New York. His photographs illustrated How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Riis achieved a high profile for his work and when Theodore Roosevelt became governor of New York, Riis was involved in the introduction of significant housing reforms.
Likewise, Lewis Hine’s evocative pictures of vulnerable children working in factories were influential in bringing forward child protection laws in early 20th century USA. Ansel Adams’s landscape photographs of Yosemite helped in establishing the US National Parks. Through to the present day, activist photographers continue to bear witness to human rights abuses, ecocide and injustice.
This tradition of activism is where I wish to place my photographic practice. I am particularly concerned about the climate crisis, so that is where I will focus my activity.
Reading Photography as Activism helped me to understand that the context for my work is not the photographers who are doing exactly the same work as I am. In fact, it is those photographers who want their work to inspire change. I can draw inspiration from other photographer activists, I can learn from how they work and what they seek to achieve.
Other activists whose work inspires me include:
Lisa Kristine – She has a successful fine art photography based on large scale colour photographs from the developing world. When she discovered the scale of modern slavery, she threw herself into campaigning against it. Her Ted Talk is an excellent introduction to her work.
Simon Norfolk – A landscape photographer with a particular interest in discovering the stories embedded in the materials of which the landscape is constructed. His series When I Am Laid In Earth about glacial retreat is of especial interest to me.
Phillipe Chancel – Chancel’s aim is to produce an unflinchingly honest portrayal of the world. As the world, under human stewardship, is something of a mess, his work portrays a world that humanity has ruined.
Munem Wasif – A criticism frequently levelled at documentary and activist photographers is that they travel extensively and contribute to the very problems they claim to be concerned about. Wasif is a native of Bangladesh and works in his own country, documenting the many issues he identifies there.
Toby Smith – Smith documents the effects of industry and large scale industrial activity. He is currently involved in a project examining the escalating water crisis in the Indian Himalayas.
Project Pressure – A group that commissions art which can be used to inspire and prompt behavioural change with regard to the climate crisis.
Anastasia Samoylova – Since moving to Miami, Samoylova has documented the city’s property boom that continues even as the city starts to disappear into the Atlantic.