Documentary Value of Photography

Machinery in motion on ensilage cutter. Rockville, Maryland. Jack Delano, May 1940

Since arriving in Trinidad, I have been amazed by all of the documentary photography opportunities presented to me. My general approach to photography is that taking a photograph can be likened to writing a history textbook. Whether I photograph a major National cultural event in Trinidad, or simply ordinary Trinidadians buying groceries at the market, the permanence of an image still is a record of that moment. As with history textbooks, no photograph is objective. I was recently discussing this topic with a photographer who received his Bachelor's degree in History, and he offered this perspective as both a photographer and a historian:

Most of written history is quite subjective. Authors will interpret evidence differently from one another. They will find different truths based on how they, as ethical historians, interpret the evidence. For this reason, people who want to learn about history must read multiple texts from a variety of sources, synthesizing the information to make their own informed determination. In other words, there is almost never a single unwavering truth. Documentary photography is similar in that a photographer has a professional and ethical responsibility to capture and present an image—or series of images—that most closely represents the truth, an inherently subjective task. And, just like the reader of history, the viewer of a documentary photograph should always approach the image with a healthy dose of skepticism.
-Nathan A. Kirschaum, 2010

I am so fascinated by this big world we live in, and so excited at how this world is changing, that I want to contribute to leaving a record of the state of these places at the time that I encountered them. While I have different motivations for photographing a subject, at the core, it's the power of the image. Consider the images from the United States Farm Security Administration from the Great Depression until World War II. The United States Government hired American photographers to simply go and take pictures of every day America. The result is that now anyone can go online, and search this database to find over 160,000 images of our American history. Not all of the images are of any "significant" event, or even in the grand scheme of things, of any particularly "significant" individuals, but it is documentation of where our country was, and how our people were. Sixty years later, I can go online, search for my hometown and find the above image of
farm equipment from back when my Washington, D.C. Metropolitan hometown was all farmland. As a visually minded person, I am more excited by images than historical texts, so having images of my country's history at my fingertips is unbelievable.

Now I am here in Trinidad, so I am photographing Trinidad. While there is of course documentary value in photographing this place regardless, Trinidad is in an interesting political and social position right now, which suggests to me that Trinidad today is going to be very different from the Trinidad to come. My Caribbean civilization professor, Ms. Sunity Maharaj explained to our class that post-colonial Trinidad is engaged in a sort of social dance, where different groups of people in Trinidad, in order to get along, are making space for the other while the other makes space for them. Trinidad is a place filled with many different religions and ethnic groups, and one might expect that all of those differences to clash, but in Trinidad, each group accomodates the other in order for all to survive culturally. The result is that the Indian population becomes Indo-Trinidadian, the African population becomes Afro-Trinidadian, and so forth so at the core, all people are Trinidadian, and to be Trinidadian is to have a sort of creole nature. With all this cultural negotiation occurring around us all here and now, Trinidad is unlikely to remain static, but photographic documentation can help leave a record of where a people have been and where they are going.

Some of my first documentary photography images from Trinidad are from the market in Tunapuna. With these images, I am beginning to explore how I go about documenting my encounters here.

Man in the Market. Tunapuna, Trinidad and Tobago. Andrea Wise, January 2010.

Which people do I chose to photograph? Which places? Which moments do I chose to immortalize? I think markets are a good place to start because of the routine nature of the moments you find. While carnival festivities are colorful and glamorous, and while I'd like to explore the role of mas in Trinidad culture, Trinidad is more than its tropical paradise stereotype of a place where beautiful women dance in the streets in sexy costumes adorned in sequins and feathers. Trinidadians also buy food, and have families, and go to work, and live lives of routine like those in the rest of the world. As such, entering the Tunapuna market, I looked for the faces in the market, and tried to capture the human moments that I found -- whether it was a young boy holding a toy car and looking at the price for parsley while his mother buys vegetables, or a pair of butchers joking around and asking for their picture to be taken. I wanted to photograph a woman arranging her peppers for sale, and an older gentleman looking sternly around with a gaze that reminded me of the way my late grandfather would look at me when he was concerned that my brother and I were playing too rough. I enjoyed the colorful produce in the market and I enjoyed seeing foods unfamiliar to me, but at the core, once you look past the exotic novelty of seeing pig tail and goat head for sale, the really interesting part is simply the people going about their daily lives.

For more of my images from the tunapuna market, please click on the image above or click here.


ramdeo said...

Exelcelent. I am in the process of doing something similar, but on film.
Just started a few years ago.
However small my collection may be it can still create the impact i hope for, provided my sucessor use it wisly.Someday,perhaps,when the videos are shown, then the meaningfullness of the effort of an unknown man will reveal his identity to those who appreciates it.

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