Documentary photography may not command the same amount of money, magazine space and editorial support it did 10 years ago, but it is still thriving in many ways. You might be surprised how many photographers are still willing to risk their money, personal comfort, and even their lives to produce great photographs.
Last year in Bangkok, a group of like-minded photographers organized a get-together so they could show their latest work and chat in an informal way about documentary photography. They called the meeting PhotoZero, a low-key photo festival without editors, publishers or sponsors. The organizers wanted a small gathering where world-class photographers could showcase their work and interact with the audience on issues such as the role played by documentary photography in the world today.
I flew to Bangkok earlier this month to participate in the second annual PhotoZero, which took place March 13 to 15. I spoke about various ethical questions surrounding the practice of documentary photography, which were the focus of my PhD work.
Rain Dogs Bar, where the festival was held, is a rambling building built beneath a busy freeway. There was a giant screen set up in the front yard of the venue, which was serviced by street hawkers selling satays — a place to eat, drink and chat about photography while watching the images.
Crowds of mosquitos hung like halos around people’s heads, while the sirens and horns from the speeding cars on the highway overhead provided the soundtrack. The fumes of the passing traffic made you think twice before inhaling. Guidebooks describe the place as casual, comfortable and friendly — and it certainly was all those things.
This was not an event where people were lauded to stroke their egos; the focus was solely on the work they were doing. The images on display reflected what good documentary photography is all about: involvement, passion, patience and a fire in the belly to get that once-only image.
A Fire in the Belly
Nick Nostitz showed his coverage of the recent political crisis in Thailand, “The Reds versus the Yellows”. He got so deeply involved with his photography that one group wanted to kill him. The organizers of the photo festival had initially wanted to show his work at the opening, but they shifted it until the final night because they were concerned that somebody might try to attack Nick and the event because of these images.
Nic Dunlop and Thierry Falise both showed the work they had separately been doing on Burma. Over a number of years they had each managed to get into Burma and shoot pictures of the military, drug mules, prisoners working in chain gangs and other aspects of life in that country that the rulers were anxious to hide.
James Nachtwey showed a collection of work going back to his earliest assignments, as well as some of his later series. He read a reflective essay he had written comprising his thoughts and feelings about his life as a photographer.
David Dare Parker presented his insightful series on Indonesia, a project he has been working on for a number of years.
Paula Bronstein spoke about and showed her very sharp and edgy Afghanistan images. Among other things, Paula has produced an extraordinary series of photographs of the lives of women in Afghanistan.
Jason P. Howe explained what it was like to live in Colombia and photograph the war from all sides: government, rebels and vigilantes. He also told us that when he unexpectedly found out his girlfriend was an assassin, she offered to take him on an “assignment.”
Androniki Christodoulou revealed another side of Japan with a show titled “Tokyo Fetish.” She spent a lot of time getting to know her subjects, and their trust is evident in the quirky images she managed to capture.
It was certainly a privilege to see this work and to be able to sit and discuss these pictures with other photographers over a cold drink. None of the photographs shown at the event were conceptual, set-up or recreated. They all were captured moments that the photographers had gotten by networking, being there, getting close, and revealing a subjective truth.
And isn’t that what documentary photography is all about?