Dmitry Chizhevskiy, 27, had his left eye permanently destroyed by homophobes - Mads Nissen
The question is, what is the function of competitions and calls for submissions of activist, documentary or collaborative photography? There are countless initiatives with discourses calling for justice, change and equality, with excellent intentions and attempts to “give a presence to the least fortunate persons worldwide”, with a proposal that stifles these communities’ capacity to represent themselves, or construct their own imagination from the trenches, ghettos, neighborhoods or shanty towns.
The apparent contradiction of these initiatives is reflected in irregular results, often selected solely for their aesthetic value, which undoubtedly reflects the vision, perspective and conceptual and formal decisions of an author. In this regard, it is naïve to seek to “reflect reality”, and it is perhaps worth reconsidering the uses of photography to represent and document from other perspectives, the sum of which approaches offers a more reliable record, and must be completed by a vision from within the communities themselves. After all, it is the individuals immersed in them who experience most closely their own dynamics and value systems, and the aspects of greatest interest to them.
This does not mean that being external makes a vision invalid or unworthy. On the contrary, the reflection proposes that a register be adopted that involves the photographer more actively. Therefore, all these calls for submissions, competitions and participative initiatives, as well as photographers and producers, must distance themselves from traditional documentalism. The context of the individual or community photographed must be understood and assimilated by offering an interpretation that presents the authorial contribution and its specific approach to the topic, thus establishing an authentic dialogue, a means of integration, a to-ing and fro-ing, and ultimately a better understanding of the subject photographed and his environment. Indeed, the greatest value lies in experience and the dialogue established, always assuming that the final result is merely the interpretation and assimilation of this experience, rather than a distant discourse outside the community documented.
This poses a challenge to the entire system of values, conception, production and consumption of documentary photography, and though this idea has already been applied in photojournalism for several decades, it questions the validity of these reflections and criticism in an era in which technology is rethinking all photographic activity. Today, communities are representing themselves as never before thanks to the availability of capture devices and the almost immediate spread and distribution of images, as a first-hand record that is unintentionally documenting events in specific environments in every corner of the world from various angles. Undoubtedly, these competitions and calls for submissions will gradually increase in scope and number, although paradoxically, their selection criteria and consequently, objectives, are increasingly being questioned. Neither renown nor tradition exempts these initiatives from these new reflections and questioning, with targets ranging from the prestigious World Press Photo to modest announcements by NGOs, academic institutions or civil organizations.
Children from Idinthakarai. Amirtharaj Stephen
This phenomenon does not diminish the importance of those initiatives in which the resources obtained from scholarships and prizes contribute directly to financing NGOs, social organizations and charities, and the management of these funds reflects other spheres. Moreover, there is a clearly-defined market for these projects, whose results correspond perfectly to the particular needs of various governments and official institutions but also social institutions and the public that consumes these images. In any case, what is questionable is the banner under which these works are disseminated, with the false premise of giving a face to the oppressed. This raises the same question: who is being represented, and why? Failing this, do these communities genuinely want to be represented in this manner?
However, we can afford to be optimistic, since several organizations have gradually begun toask themselves these questions, and are redefining their objectives and selection criteria. New participation dynamics for documentary makers and journalists are being established, which record and document the circumstances of their own environments. One example is CatchLigth (formerly Photo Philantropy) a platform for building ties based in California, which goes beyond being a renowned annual prize for photographic activism, basing its selection criteria mainly on the narrative value of the work, while also supporting the directors of audiovisual projects with social content through a system of liaisons with technological sponsors for the production and dissemination of the works produced.
Thus, given this outlook, we may be closer to obtaining an answer to the initial questioning process, which suggests that the true contribution and function of these events and calls for submissions should be to bring together all these points of view, to construct a broader experience based on a three-dimensional record approached from all angles, as is done by Donald Weber and its questioning of the crisis of photojournalism and documentalism. To achieve this new point of view, the objectivity once so zealously pursued must cease to be the canon on which to base the selection and judgment criteria of social competitions and calls for submissions, in order to achieve a closer approximation and better understanding of these other realities.