The Educated Observer

We often hear concern over hit-and-run photojournalism, how the fly-by photographer on a few-day jaunt is apt to overly exoticize an unfamiliar land and people. This speaks to the importance of immersion in a subject. Spending a day or two with a subject is very different from spending weeks, months, years on a project, getting to know people well enough that they let down their guard and are no longer conscious of the camera, or the photographer as photographer.

On the other hand, does lengthy immersion take away your ability to see things differently; does it melt away the inherent advantages of being an outsider? Someone growing up in a particular environment grows to think of certain things as everyday and mundane. Casual travelers come in and think of certain things in that environment as startling, even exotic, but the problem is that these many casual eyes too often flit onto the same topics; worse yet, they flit onto them with the same viewpoint. The expatriate is often well placed as an observer, because he is neither inured to the everyday there, nor is he too overawed with subjects that might initially be deemed exotic–yet do not give full meaning to things like time, people and place.

The key question: what are we meant to document? It’s too easy to think of photographing certain objects, and letting them represent a place and people: rickshaws and oxen in Asia, for instance. Strong photography goes beyond simplistic forms of iconography to focus on moments.

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