The Power of Photography I

Today I attended the first day of the RPS Contemporary Group’s ‘The Power of Photography’ weekend at Birmingham City University.  The photographers speaking today were:

Zed Nelson

Zed showed his ‘Gun Nation’ and ‘Love Me‘ projects.  ‘Gun Nation’concerns the USA’s obsession with the right to bear arms.  It includes traditional family portraits in which, for a UK audience, the presence of a gun in the hands of those portrayed comes as something of a shock.  Zed’s strategies during this project included deliberately setting out to make the images everyday in order to make the contrast between the people and the guns more striking.  Guns and bullets were photographed in a glossy product advertisement style emphasising their desirability to consumers.  In order to maintain his own outsider’s view of the US gun culture, Zed made several short visits to the States and so managed to remain detached.

‘Love me’ considers the global beauty industry for both women and, increasingly, men.  Nelson visited 18 different countries for this project  photographing beauty queens, body-building, plastic surgery and the people and industries behind these.  Some of the images, notably of a tummy tuck are graphic and difficult viewing – but they show the industry for what it is.  I left the lecture clearly understanding Nelson’s point of view that increasingly, in some parts of the world, it is those who have not had cosmetic surgery who seem to be the odd ones out.

Sirkka-Lissa Konitten

Konitten showed her Byker revisited work – where she returned to the Byker area of Newcastle some 30 years after she had first lived and photographed there.  I was familiar with some of this work from the recent BBC4 documentary about it – but it definitely helped to hear of her experiences first hand.  What particularly struck me was Konitten’s very considerate approach to building a relationship with the subject, gaining the subject’s involvement in the project and building consensus before the images are made.

Tim Smith

Tim Smith has photographed the Yemeni community in the UK and back in Yemen for his book Coal, Frankincense and Myrrh.  He stated that the most important lessons he had learnt in photography were:

  • where, (where you stand) and
  • when, (when you press the shutter).
Simple but great advice.  Like Konitten, key to Smith’s approach is spending time in a place and getting to know the people.

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