I struggled with Jeremy Fokkens’ first book of photographs “The Human Connection” when I first looked at it. A kneejerk (emphasis on jerk) response, jaded and picky, resolutely critical as I am, I wanted to find what I did not like. This is because I am closed-minded and think in categories. To illustrate something of what I mean, Fokkens’ writes it in the introduction to his book that upon arriving in Kathmandu he had an idea of what the climate of this place ought to be, but then confronting it with direct experience his first thought was “holy shit, it’s hot here!” Fokkens also notices a prevailing attitude in one place, overcharged for everything he buys, that he must be rich, since he is white. This is not unlike my first caveats about these photos. They were based on foreknowledge, and assumption. They are not “street photographs”, and they are not “environmental portraits”. Since they do not fit easily into one schema or another, they’re unrecognizable? So what are they?
“Street photography” is a term that is problematic for many photographers who practice that form, and a look through Joel Meyerowitz’ and Colin Westerbeck’s “Bystander: A Secret History of Street Photography” shows as many deviations as practicable rules for a formal definition. Robert Klein’s “Gun 1, New York, 1955”, involved Klein asking the boy in his photo to “point the gun at me and then look tough”, for instance. To some, this direction would indicate the photo is a “portrait” and not a “street photograph”, which is supposedly not made with this kind of construction. Street photographs, to one way of thinking, must be “candid”, to be sui generis “street”. I struggled with one photograph by Fokkens, of an elderly woman, in particular, because of the similar posed appearance to Klein’s “Gun 1”, and the use of a shallow depth of field. I wondered if there was something being “said” by the choice of a wide-open lens, and the choice of selecting focus, and subject. The picture, after I saw it, startled me, and rested in my subconscious, and still does. It made me uncomfortable, and it made me question my understanding, and reactions. I had to find a semantic hook to hang my hat on, otherwise, lacking perfect understanding, I was ready, and willing, to not like the picture, or the work. I had to struggle with it. This is the path from antepraedicamenta to postpraedicamenta: Or less particularly, the journey from knowledge to understanding (for me, especially slow).
Later in “The Human Connection”, I am stunned by a picture of a deafblind woman, subject to fits of shouting and flailing. Between the planes of this native language, the woman starts rubbing Fokkens’ arm, and she calms. Even later, a picture of a little girl in a t-shirt, with a cartoon elephant and a rainbow on it, and the slogan “Fun is Free” stops me. According to the caption for the photograph, it is one of Fokkens’ favourite pictures; according to him the slogan “says so much”. The impossibility of describing how much it says, and the triteness of trying to say it has everything to do with my first reaction to these pictures, that I am still fumbling to describe. Are they travel photos? Street? Documents? Or are the definitions bypassed by understanding? Is there some kind of sharing in seeing a photograph?
By and large, I ask these questions only because I can’t answer them, or ask them because I am not making pictures myself. But getting past first impressions, I am impressed by what I’ve seen in this book, and feel grateful for the experience.
Jeremy Fokkens will be speaking at the Outdoor Adventure and Travel Show in The Camera Store’s Travel Photography Workshop Theatre.
The Outdoor Adventure and Travel Show runs this Saturday, March 21st from 10AM – 6PM and Sunday, March 22nd from 10AM – 5PM.
Be sure to look at the full Travel Photography Workshop Schedule, and stop by The Camera Store for before the show for a $2 off admission voucher.