Recently as I was sitting contemplating the steamy atmosphere that is Latin American Cuba, I was struck by the visual importance of two of their cherished and beloved heroes, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Photographs of both men litter the environment relentlessly to reinforce popular support for what is, in essence, a dictatorship. This monograph will not canvas the back story of the loss of copyright for the poor photographer of the iconic Guevara image that prompted my reflection, but therein lies a story for another day.
With the recent loss of my own Mother I was further struck by the lack of a visual library of images of, or including, her. In my defence, she was a difficult subject, coming from that practical depression generation who regarded photography as something to be undertaken only within the social confines of an ‘important’ occasion. A wedding, a christening, a significant birthday – something requiring dressing up and presenting one’s self in best light was the only time suitable for photography. My dear departed Mum expressed her commonly held opinion for over thirty years that I was only indulging myself with a photographic hobby.
Over my photographic lifetime I have been fortunate to have been the subject of many portraits by some of the world’s better photographers.
On occasions I sought the image, at other times it was offered; and I responded enthusiastically. I saw the process as part of my visual learning curve to discover how different artists perceived my less than attractive profile and to observe the techniques they used to record that difficult subject.
Sometimes passionately discussing the photographic process, at other times just sitting back and watching technique, style or lighting – it was all part of that process of learning.
But a more important procedure was taking place. On a micro level one photographic practitioner was being documented through his career – sometimes holding a camera – at other times just the person.
As practitioners within a visual industry we are often guilty of failing to record our own with the diligence that we should.
There have been exceptions, including the efforts of Australia’s Peter Adams and Heide Smith. Adam’s monumental documentation of world photographers has received some, but not enough exposure. Smith has selectively recorded many key players in the Australian photography industry.
The New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography has finalised a comprehensive documentation of surviving members of that country’s armed forces from World War II. Perhaps they should apply some of the same diligence, patience and care to documenting their own contemporaries as image makers?
Given that these great projects have taken place, I am arguing that it should also be taking place at a grass roots level. As photographic practitioners we are all important. Only history will tell if we are to be elevated to the stratospheric level of Che Guevara…
Maybe it is a case of documenting our opposition in small towns or communities; recording members of our photographic club; creating portraits of our institute’s office bearers; making powerful images of our competition winners; or recording those who practice in the same style or genre as ourself. The reason for taking the photograph is unimportant, beyond the simple, very human value of one photographer recording another.
The important part of this process is what happens after the immediate usage. Local or regional museums are constantly seeking portraits of inhabitants; most state, provincial or national galleries collect portraits and as photographers we should be promoting photography as a portrait medium on an artistic par with paintings or sculpture.
The challenge is ours, first to execute against and then to promote as a body of work to the art community.
As I sit in the hectic, chaotic, humid environment that is Cuba, bombarded on one side by World Cup images and commentary, and under the charismatic gaze of Che himself, I am moved to mourn the paucity of passion in our personal image creation.
This article first appeared in f11 – issue 35, August 2014.