29 September 2012

Before and After: Variation on a Familiar Theme

What follows is, of course, just me beating out a familiar theme. I came across this post, which links to a story in the Brazilian press, the latest (I suppose) in the genre "track down the subject in the documentary photo." The initial image of the little girl is a famous photograph by Sebastião Salgado. Some earlier installments in the genre:

The original portraits are (from the top) of Joceli Borges (Salgado, 1996),  Sharbat Gula (Steve McCurry, 1985), Kim Phuc (Nick Ut, 1972), and Florence Thompson and her children (Dorothea Lange, 1936). Typically these sort of "before & after" reports do two things. They demonstrate the determination and cleverness of the reporter who tracks down the subject years after the initial photograph is taken. And they provide an outlet for vaguely liberal anxieties about the "ethics" of documentary photography. Rarely do they prompt serious questioning of either (1) the political catastrophe the portrait is meant to convey - economic dislocation, destitution, war and the sorts of  forced migration they typically generate or (2) the photographic conventions that, over the course of six plus decades leads photographers and their editors to depict large scale political problems reductionist in terms of the plight not just of individuals but of individual women.*
* There are a few exceptions to this latter claim. Martha Rosler ["In, around, and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)"] and Bob Harriman and John Lucaites [No Caption Needed] both of whom and who discuss the Lange image at great length. Likewise, Holly Edwards [In her contribution to Beautiful Suffering] traces the career of the McCurry photograph in insightful ways.

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Blogger Lillie Langtry said...

Vera Lentz, one of the principal photographers of the Peruvian conflict, returned to the site of a massacre she photographed 20 years later. I think there's a rather different effect if it is the original photographer who goes back, and not someone else. She talks about the visit a bit in the documentary State of Fear, which I cannot recommend highly enough if you ever get the chance to see it.

30 September, 2012 04:53  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I actually agree that it makes a difference who 'returns' and the purpose for which they do so. Susan Meiselas, for instance, returned to Nicaragua and reinstalled large scale images that she initially made during the revolution there. What I find troubling is the seeking out of this or that individual in order, typically, to pass moralizing judgement on the actions of the photographer.

I hope you are well.


30 September, 2012 10:31  

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