The social aspects of social media, the propagation aspects of propaganda, and the “logos” aspects of dialogue all depend on one thing: communication. A photograph can be a very powerful medium for communication, using visual symbols to represent what a photographer saw, or created, containing in part or in whole their message.
When work is finalized and ready for publication the potential for a two-way discourse is very narrow. The photographs are the photographer’s message, and an audience can respond to what they are, or represent. This to me feels less like a conversation and more like a one-directionally weighted interaction, more akin to the relationship between performer and audience, or between a lecturer and a student.
From this perspective I find many claims from photographers and artists that they want their work to “start a conversation” to ring false; think of the disconnected street or documentary photographer writing their artist statement about how their work “poses questions” before sharing their series on Instagram and then sitting back content after a job well done. The sentiment here simply does not feel sincere.
Firstly, the idea of “starting a conversation” itself sounds like they simply haven’t done their research. To be the start of a conversation implies being among the first to really notice and pick up on something, and react to it. Investigative journalism that uncovers something people were unaware of would be starting a conversation, a blogger writing about that story six months later not so much.
Secondly, the methods by which most wanting to “start a conversation” go about it take the form of those one-directional interactions I mentioned before, simply submitting content into the world; posting images to social media or a blog, or even making a YouTube film. I don’t think that it is enough for the goal to only be to start a conversation: they seem to want to start it, but not take part in it.
There are not many stories or social issues on which the average photographer or journalist can truly begin a narrative. Most hardships of life are well understood; social inequality, crimes against the environment, animal welfare, and ideological conflicts, none of these are new ground to tread. Specific instances of these on a local level can be brought to light, but that is a process of hard work, research, and deep literacy – not a superficial use of representative imagery to articulate the problem as a whole.
No one today is really starting a conversation about the generalities of mental illness, wealth inequality, class, other social power dynamics, and environmentalism; everyone already has an awareness of these. And they also usually have an opinion, which can be defied or supported by a piece of work contributed to the existing conversation around that topic.
Development, not initiation – take that conversation further. You may be starting from scratch in your understanding, but that doesn’t put you in a position where you are necessarily ready to guide others. Slow down, take the time to learn, and then say your piece. These conversations started before we were here, and will continue long after we die. We can do what we can to push it along, move it in a direction, and have the baton ready to hand to the next person who may learn from us and then take things further still. We don’t have to keep starting conversations. We can join them.
Saying you are starting a conversation usually implies to me that you haven’t done this research; that you haven’t checked to see what ongoing discourse already exists around that topic. It is more likely than not you will find it, and from here you can learn from it. See what has been said, and what hasn’t. See what imagery has been produced and what effect it has had, who it may need to be seen by in order to have the greatest social impact. Find what may be missing.
You want your work to be relevant, to be part of something bigger than yourself, great. Are you really introducing someone to a discussion they aren’t aware of? Is your information introducing something new, or building on something old?
I want to involve myself in discourse and photography is my primary way of engaging, via visually encoded meaning, but it is the last step of a much larger practice. This means the entire process of primary research and development leading up to pressing the shutter, followed by further research and development until a body of work is ready to release. Release of a project is not simply putting work available for sale, but accompanying it with meta-text, and peripheral opportunities for people to ask questions, or share their own ideas.
It is also about making sure the work is seen by the right people, which can mean very specific advertising or even direct person-to-person outreach. If you find your work offers a counter to an existing narrative why not supply it to those propagating the other perspectives? If you’ve done work about a local community why not send that work directly to people in that community, leaders, and figureheads, people who may need to see that work more than anyone else? In this way, you are entering it and contributing to a conversation. Making a global or general conversation specific and contextualizing it to your situation or location is a much better use of time than representing general ideas generally, which will get lost in the noise.
This approach makes it possible to not only be a part of a conversation but maybe even to lead one. Through continued input, insight, and exchange of ideas you can frame a narrative in a way that people can connect with, maybe in a way they could not before your input. As with any conversation if you simply go around in circles, rehashing the same things over and over it can become dry and boring. Fresh ideas, development, and progression offer much more to engage with than returning to square one every time, taking everything back to the start of the conversation rather than picking it up and running with it.
As I mentioned before, research means that when you talk you give credit to your audience; you know what they know and have an idea already of what they may not. When you step up you aren’t just taking people’s time telling them something they already know. It means you can work with and subvert expectations. This doesn’t mean that you can’t explore those existing conversations for gaps — places where you can really offer something innovative from your perspective or those you feel are missing.
The difference is that coming at it from a place of knowledge means you won’t be wasting your time rehashing what’s come before, or if you do you understand why it’s necessary to offer that context before building up what new things you have to say. It makes it worth your own time and your audience’s time to give your work more than a glance. Many conversations are connected, and sometimes you can offer insight into how those connections work, saying nothing new about either but contextualizing each in terms of the other.
Patrick Brown’s Trading to Extinction did not start the conversation on illegal animal trading, and Peter Beard’s End of the Game did not start the conversation on Africa’s wildlife crisis. They are entering into existing conversations and offering clarity and visual accessibility, framing these issues in a way that is hard to ignore.
W. Eugene Smith produced a body of work in Minamata that did start a conversation in places it was not already occurring. He continued contributing to that conversation and helped affect real tangible social impact. This was more than him making some front-page worthy iconic images and then moving on to the next thing, he lead and directed the narrative, broadened the scope of reach a small community was able to have, by translating their struggle into photography, one of the most universal forms of direct communication we have available to us. They did not start from scratch but built on a foundation of research and testimony. Their goal was not to start a conversation, but maybe to lead to the end of one.
In my work, I am currently exploring many ideas including cultural expression and identity, spiritualism, and social politics. There is no new information to be found in these topics, as every theorist, researcher, and philosopher has already covered the foundational framework under which basically any manifestation could occur. However, what research offers is specificity; I can work with communities that have not been spotlighted in the past in the context I am working in – where conversation exists, but via strong imagery, I can develop ideas and a visual identity where none existed previously.
I can offer something different and hopefully a little bit special as a result. The images themselves don’t even need to look spectacular, there don’t need to be compositional parlor tricks, and the work can be straight-up exposition and explanation. I can talk directly to a specific target audience and not need to worry about the way someone else may perceive what isn’t meant for them. It doesn’t need to be open to interpretation like art, which to me is more freeing than the alternative.
All of this relies on being able to look at what has come before, understand what pre-judgments may exist, and then construct my work inside context, not in a bubble. I do not need to start from scratch but can rely on existing understandings, semiotic meanings, and references to previous works. In this way, I can be the one asking questions, but in my work, I am offering answers.
About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.