Photography as Entry Point- blog by Miki Johnson


Photography as Entry Point

We are eager to keep the conversations going that started during Photography, Expanded, a two-day exploration of multi-platform visual storytelling and audience engagement presented by Magnum Foundationand Open Society Foundation’s Documentary Photography ProjectMiki Johnson, our #PhotoEx blogger, has put together a few posts that will touch on top themes. We will post them here in the coming weeks; we hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.

Of all the revolutionary ideas shared last weekend, I was struck most by one that seemed to go without comment. 

Marcus Bleasdale mentioned that for him “photography is just an entry point,” a way for him to gather information about a situation (in this case, the conflicts over precious metals in the Democratic Republic of Congo), to share that information, and to prompt positive change. It seemed like such a logical idea within the context of the weekend, one many presenters echoed, that I almost didn’t catch its deeper implications. In other words…

The photograph is no longer the goal, the apex, the end—it is now merely a means to reach a goal.

Maybe this idea is already passé, already obvious. But if so, the sheer fact of its widespread acceptance is worth noting, considering that, a few short years ago, such a statement would have ruffled the feathers of any “objective observer” documentary photographer.

Marcus’ project for Photography, Expanded might never directly employ one of his images. With the help of Patrick O’Luanaigh, the founder of game-design firm nDreams, and Daniella Steadman, who specializes in multimedia production and audience engagement, he is developing an emotionally engrossing adventure game for tablets, which will subtly educate players about the conflicts perpetuated when they purchase those same tablets. 

For the game, Marcus’s photographs are secondary to his contributions as a local resource, a link to people involved in the conflicts, a protector of their stories. Although the game will take cues for visual styling from his photos, and players will be able to browse his images to learn more about the conflict, the game’s most direct impact may be the ability to send emails from within it, urging electronics companies to label products made with conflict-free materials.

Before the conference, I caught up with Teru Kuwayama, who created Lightstalkers and Basetrack, and he put a sharp tip on this point.

“In a world of billions of cameras, I’m not sure what ‘documentary photographer’ really means,” he said. “We live in the most recorded era of human history, so photographers should ask themselves what value they add to a very densely populated ecosystem.”

The project Teru presented, Duristan, will be a multimedia platform for sharing, aggregating, and publishing information about South and Central Asia. Teru’s own photography never enters the equation, and, maybe more striking, photography itself is only a small component of the larger project.

As photography is seen more as a tool, and one of many, to achieve a goal, what new skills must photographers learn and employ? We might look to the former lives of Photography, Expanded photographers for instruction: Marcus worked in finance for years before picking up a camera; Pete Pin abandoned his doctorate in Political Science to pursue documentary photography; Eric Gottesman studies politics and economics before turning to art. 

So a broad understanding of politics, economics, and maybe sociology helps. Then there are the various storytelling languages: video, audio, interaction design, code. Thankfully, we no longer expect any one person to master all of these, opting instead for collaboration with specialists. Still, storytellers today must be able to converse intelligently about these languages in order for those collaborations to be successful.

Finally, do we need a whole new name for practitioners of these techniques? Action-oriented storytellers? Socially conscious multi-platform artists? As the Photography, Expanded organizers are well aware, a group without a name—or at least a cohesive philosophy—is harder to find funding for. One of their goals was to help funders understand (and get excited to fund) this new storytelling movement. 

It’s up to those of you who are shaping this revolution to do the same. As a storyteller, I encourage you to also add these techniques to your toolbox:  asking hard questions, taking creative risks, sharing your experiences, and educating others. 

-Miki Johnson, blogging for #PhotoEx


(Image above: Marcus Bleasdale, from project Zero Hour Congo)

Simone Salvo