14 June 2011

Look3: Photographers on Honesty and Objectivity

Last week, I attended the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, VA, and was struck by the conflicting opinions on the role of photographic images. 

Ashley Gilbertson delivered an impassioned talk about why he photographs the empty bedrooms of young soldiers killed in conflict. “I don’t believe in objectivity,” he explained, “I believe in honesty.” Spending weeks telephoning families of deceased soldiers and traveling around the world to photograph empty bedrooms is not a neutral endeavor.

That evening, Massimo Vitale, famous for his large wall-size prints of crowds on beaches, provided a directly opposing view: “I’m all for objectivity,” he said, “Photography was invented to reproduce, not to interpret.” However, Vitale’s description of his method suggests he is doing more than simply recording what is in front of him. He spends hours with his assistants setting up scaffolding to provide a unique vantage point for his large format camera, and then he waits and watches as the scene evolves around him. At just the right moment, he clicks the shutter.

Then, in a fascinating conversation on the final night, Nan Goldin lamented that “People have lost the ability to believe in the integrity of an image.” She is not a fan of digital photography, of course.

All this discussion begs the question what gives an image honesty and integrity? A photographer always intervenes in some way and can never claim to be entirely objective. Moreover, the goal of photography cannot simply be to reproduce. Instead, the integrity of an image should be measured by the photographers’ intent and the final result, rather than by the photographic process or computer software used. Indeed, what makes Gilbertson’s photographs so honest and insightful is his extreme passion to communicate an idea, rather than simply record scenes of war.

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