The borderline between photojournalism and travel photography is hard to define.
Put cynically, travel photographers are merely wandering through the less dangerous parts of the world, photographing obvious beauty — Indian weddings, devoted Muslim worshippers and so on. Such works do little more than hanker after Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” or revel in their own saturated colors.
For the past 12 years, the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts — which believes the best way to support young photographers is to collect their work — has annually shown its latest acquisitions. The museum’s exhibition of 2006 acquisitions, though it presents diverse works, can be categorized into photojournalism, travel photography and art photography. Comparing these approaches, the show addresses the current relevance of photography.
Nearly 6,000 works by 413 photographers in 38 countries were submitted this year. Photographers Haruo Tomiyama, Hiromi Tsuchida and Eikoh Hosoe (the museum director) narrowed the entries to 289 works by 58 photographers, 27 of them from abroad.
In the caption that accompanies Noriyuki Aida’s black-and-white “Streets of Baghdad” series (2004), the photographer tells how an Iraqi boy confronted him about making money out of their pain. That ethical question constantly hangs over photojournalism, particularly war photography, and even more so war photography that is shown in an art museum and not printed in a mass-media news publication.
Aida’s justification is that he wants to convey Iraq’s plight to the “deaf” people of Japan. As he does work for newspapers, his desire to communicate through photography appears sincere. Nevertheless, his very need for a justification weakens his position; If his work were powerful enough to succeed in conveying the horror in Iraq, then it would speak for itself and there would be no need for the explanation.
By contrast, Ryo Kameyama’s black-and-white “Democratic Republic of Congo — The Forgotten War” series (2005), is truly haunting, conveying a depth of misery that words cannot even begin to express.
The majority of travel photography, albeit technically competent, is sanitized and complacent, offering very little that is fresh or original. This is apparent at Kiyosato, where such works are the least satisfying of the show. But the sense of deja vu that currently attends travel photography is an inevitable product of the times. Global travel has increased enormously in the last two decades, and the simultaneous emergence of cheap digital cameras that produce good-quality photos has blurred the line that separates a so-called travel photographer from a backpacker with a good eye. If this has undermined the relevance of travel photographers, the solution likely lies in assessing the seriousness of each individual photographer’s approach to travel and to the act of taking photos.
The work of British photographer ERIC is a unique and outstanding exception to the general malaise of the category. ERIC claims that there is no conceptual conceit to his images — he just enjoys traveling and taking photographs. However, his series “everywhere” (2001-2006) has an intelligence that conventional images do not: the compositions have an unsettling awkwardness and the people depicted come across as bizarre. Though he may not realize it, ERIC may be the David LaChapelle of travel photographers.
While photojournalism aims to make us wake up to reality, and travel photography to bask in the beauty of it, art photography has the potential to transform our perception. Italian Rosanna Salonia has mastered the glassy materiality of gelatin-silver print techniques: her landscapes of the barren expanses of U.S. and Mexican deserts are an enchanting balance of the mysterious and the intimate.
German Jan Von Holleben’s technique for turning reality on its head is very simple. “The Racers” (2004) shows kids lying on the ground with their bikes, furiously riding into empty space. The rest of this series of work, titled “Dreams of Flying,” depicts little Tarzans appearing to swing on vines and astronauts floating through space; these playful images charm you and are a reminder that some of the best art is produced with the simplest techniques, motivated by the carefree innocence that only children have.
Half of the participants at Kiyosato have been selected at least once before, with a few now veterans of several shows. This is a very positive sign that the museum really supports photographers it believes in, fostering their careers without the complication of vested financial interests that artists face with commercial galleries.
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