November 14, 2013

Do We Value Documentary Work?

As documentarians, we are constantly grappling with our own identity. Are we journalists? Are we artists? Are we just fatally earnest people, so consumed with capturing our subjects’ stories that we confuse merit for worth? Wherever we fall in the universe of visual media, we increasingly feel undervalued and under siege.

(top: Francis Bacon; bottom: Ed Kashi)

As the art world celebrates the highest sale ever for a painting (Francis Bacon’s study of Lucien Freud sold for $142 million this week), every photojournalist I know has the sinking feeling that he/she won’t be able to survive in this profession. Day rates plateaued years ago, and image resale rates are so low that they occupy a level near plastic jewelry from a vending machine. It seems the value of photography has eroded with every instagram image and snapchat, making a profession that requires tremendous skill, maturity and courage seem as simple as point and shoot.

On that note, I want to share an eloquent quote from Klaus Honnef, head of the jury for UNICEF’s Picture of the Year. He reminds us of the integrity and worth of documentary work. This passage should be circulated as a mantra for dedicated documentarians who take great pains so the rest of us can witness the human condition.
While art photography seems to become ever more boring, oscillating somewhere between worthless securities and wall decoration, another genre often declared dead is at least aesthetically on the rise: reportage photography. Nowadays, the best photojournalists no longer content themselves with only describing what they see but often manage to condense the facts and analyze the situation. They use the extraordinary to identify the underlying general conditions. The documentary becomes a photographic essay. I rarely saw so many compelling photo sequences as during this year’s jury session for UNICEF’s photo of the year 2013. A dozen of them would deserve to win the award and they are all more sophisticated, visually more original, thematically more illustrative and also more moving and reflecting than most of the art photography on display at galleries and museums today.