With the democratisation of photography and the near ubiquity of camera toting humans, there has been no better time than now to record the human condition. Not everyone is going to be the next Sebastião Salgado, traveling the world in order to document the atrocities of man kind, and again to celebrate the wonders of the world. However, in our own small ways, we each have the opportunity to describe our corner of the world the way we see it.Documentary photography has a long, and decorated, history. Often cited as masters, photographers like Robert Frank, Henri Cartier Bresson, and more recently, Martin Parr, among many others, have paved the way for a genre that is defined in broad strokes as long term projects focusing on a chronicle of a particular subject.
There are so many reasons for everyone with the inclination to begin a documentary project. It is a fantastic way to show the rest of the world your place on the Earth, and a great way to grow and develop as a photographer.
Recently, as I began considering the move out of South Korea after 10 years, I realised that there were so many things I would want to remember. More than anything, this is where the power of photography lies - in recording and communicating the human condition. That sparked the idea for a greater documentary project, which has been both fulfilling and educational. There are so many people that will never get to see my corner of the world, and so many corners of the world that I will never get to see. I decided to express the less photographed portions of Seoul in a documentary project.
South Korea has rapidly changing culture with a huge focus on development at all costs. I know if I visit again in 10 years time, many of the things I am familiar with will be gone. Although not many places are changing with the speed that South Korea does, taking a look at Eugène Atget's Paris gives you a window into a very different place. It was this that sparked my idea for the project, but I would learn so much more.
The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts
Aristotle's famous quote rings true for documentary photography as well. One of the great things about shooting a great number of photographs around a central theme or project is that each image is part of a greater whole. Not every image has to be your strongest. This is not to say you should include crappy frames, but rather that each frame needs to contribute something, and does not necessarily have to be a stand alone piece of art. This is a great lesson that we can all learn – putting together a collection of similar frames to tell a larger story.
One of the greatest parts of this project has been the doors the camera has opened. I have been invited into people's homes and businesses, arm-wrestled a monk, played Yut with vegetable salesmen at a market, and sat down for drinks with people who wanted to thank me for taking the time to document them. Honestly, this is a side to Korea you don't often get to see, and the camera and the drive to use it has opened those doors for me. The personal fulfillment outside of the project for itself has been extremely satisfying.
Ideas for Future Projects
The people that I have met and the places I have seen have also given me a fresh look at the city and stimulated ideas for future projects. I carry a notebook with me as I walk around the city and jot down things that might be useful for later on. This is great, as I now have two full pages in my notebook with around 40 ideas that I can apply to work I will do in the coming years.
Making the time and getting over that lurking fear of approaching strangers were the two hardest parts about working on a project like this. The benefits far outweighed these, however, and as I start my second project, this is an experience I would recommend to everyone with a desire to document life. At the very least, you'll be able to offer others a window into the life and times of your corner of the world.
"This is where the power of photography lies - in recording and communicating the human condition." Those two lines alone will make anyone who abides by them a better photographer! Each time you go out there and face the fear of putting camera to eye in front of a complete stranger. Not knowing if he or she will spot you. Accept you. Or simply punch you in the face. Is a skill and a personal, psychological hurdle that reduces each time to force yourself forward. This is the ultimate challenge. The greatest fear. If you can excel here then you make every other genre you operate in seem facile.
I couldn't agree more, Gary. That's the hard stuff. It's frightening and exhilirating at the same time, and it really never gets any easier!
I regret not asking if I could take a portrait of the guide I met in Alaska. He had a weathered face just begging for some side lighting, which we had while we both prepared breakfast. Sad, because I am not shy about asking for photos.
Inspired by Humans of New York, I'm actually doing a project in my hometown of Charleston, West Virginia. You guys should check it out: https://www.facebook.com/humansofchas