At the beginning of my career as a photographer, I remember my father always asked me: ‘Why do you take blurry images? Why isn’t the subject centered?’
In the meantime I was struggling in my determination to imitate the Masters of Photography but couldn’t lose my father’s approval. Back then, when I was living in New York, my roommate shared a valuable story with me. He told me he started photographing as an attempt to communicate with his father. Photography is all about connecting; you may want to revive a memory, raise a smile, incommode an injustice or just find yourself to express all that would not be possible otherwise.
When you ask me what makes a good photograph, I cannot avoid thinking about the role and context of photographs. My father likes portraits with the subject centred and focused, for him that is the basis of a good picture. Why is his reasoning less valid than the gallery owner who places exorbitant prices on photographs that you would never consider suitable for the walls of your home? Similarly, you could ask, what credentials matter today for magazine picture editors when the value of most images is dictated by their popularity on social networks? What authority do editors have now if citizen journalists and online amateur editors are providing the swiftest testimony and the most trustworthy facts? Questions like that cross through my head, especially in my role as photo editor at Colors (an unconventional magazine where the whole concept is more important than its constituent parts) where I have that sort of power and responsibility to decide, choose and discern what is supposed to be “good”.
My answer to all these doubts is based on the potential of the photograph itself. In Erik Kessels project Album Beauty hundreds of discarded family photographs – some left in the developing lab by his amateur authors as “mistakes” – challenge what is right and wrong in photography through underexposures, cropped heads, flashes, blurs and double exposures. Inconvenient images are used intentionally by authors like Seba Kurtis who, in his series Drowned, bathes his photographs in seawater to bring poetry to his essay on migration issues; or Stephen Gill‘s Coexistence where he beautifies the remains of the steelmaking industry in the city of Dudelange using water from a polluted pond that had once been used to cool the factory blast. These creators are forcing us to rethink photography’s aesthetic status quo.
Through appropriation and intervention in images or the full immersion in vernacular photography, storytellers are opening a gap in the concept of authorship. For example, Cihad Caner in his stunning series about the effects of Syrian war and the relationship of the remaining people with the remaining places; the acclaimed Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin who reinterpreted the best seller with their Holy Bible deconsecrated thanks to hundreds of anonymous archived images; or Thomas Sauvin who is building his portrait of a transforming post-socialist China rescuing forgotten negatives. Photographers are exposing the importance of the editing act by reformulating previously existing material.
In this ‘found photography’ I feel we have entered a path of de-construction, of photographic perfection reached thanks to the digital world. I remember when digital cameras emerged, when photographers said digital would never have the quality of the film. It seems like we have crossed that line. Is this why we find the need to ‘spoil’ photographs otherwise so fresh and so attractive? Are we trying, ultimately, to humanize them? Or might it be that the rate of daily creation – now estimated to be greater than the number created over the course of the entire 19th century – is forcing us to dig in our own, or someone else’s, family album? Like a cathartic life experience which might bring us back to photograph, and to think about the photograph, more mindfully again.