PiT in Amsterdam
By Tim J. Veling
It’s a busy time for Place in Time. I am currently making my way to Amsterdam. There, as well at attending the Unseen Photo Festival, I will meet up with the World Press Photo Foundation and do a presentation to staff to promote our archive and activities, as well as try and devise new ways to support and help engaged, long form documentary and photo-journalistic projects in New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific region.
As part of the international nominating panel for WPP’s Joop Swart Masterclass–a prestigious annual workshop for young practitioners working at an exemplary level in the fields of photo-journalism and photo-documentary–I have been charged with putting forward and mentoring applications by photographers from New Zealand and Australia we think have the potential to make work of real importance.
Of recent times, finding people from New Zealand to nominate for the Masterclass has been a difficult task. This is not because the quality of photographic practice here is of an insufficient standard–there’s an incredible wealth of talent that exists in Aotearoa, just look at the small sample of work featured on this website and that of our sister organisation, Photo Forum NZ; or the photobooks released by independent publisher, Bad News Books–rather there isn’t a culture of commissioning and / or publishing long-form photographic stories (or short form stories, for that matter,) particularly within the print and online news media outlets of New Zealand. It’s not like there is a shortage of issues deserving of in-depth investigation and documentation; and it’s not like people aren’t interested in learning about the world that surrounds and informs their everyday lives–to my knowledge the Place in Time exhibition, ‘My Place’ still stands as the most visited show in the history of Christchurch’s Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA)–so why is it there are almost zero outlets who commission and / or publish this kind of work in New Zealand? Without such outlets, it’s perhaps a better proposition for young practitioners who want to sustain themselves financially to position their work within the notoriously fickle and fashion driven fine-art market. Speaking from experience, while that career path by no means guarantees a state of financial return sufficient to sustain a fulltime practice, let alone support a family, at least the work stands a better chance of actually ‘growing legs’ and being seen. Still, with few exceptions, the art world is not generally sympathetic to ‘straight’ photographic practice, or more specifically work that emphasises narratives or ideas over extended series of photographs, rather than privileging (fetishizing?) the rarefied and singular art object / print.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with either approach. And there are of course also many contemporary New Zealand photographers whose work could and does easily satisfy both sides of the coin. Seminal bodies of work by David Cook (Lake of Coal), Mark Adams (Land of Memories), Bridgit Anderson (Caring for the Dead), Bruce Connew (Stop Over, Body of Work), Glenn Busch (Working Men), and Anne Noble (Whanganui River), to name just a few, not only exemplify the kind of work that has potent and enduring artistic value–particularly in the complex way they function both as means of story-telling and mode of artistic-expression–but also the relatable way in which they addresses everyday social-political and cultural issues of deep importance to our country and people. The work mentioned has been widely shown in public and private art galleries; prints have made their way into both public and private collections and extended series of images have been widely published in either monograph or magazine form, attracting audiences on both the national and international stage.
While none of the work mentioned above is what I’d call ‘hard journalism’–the kind of work most people associate with the World Press Photo Foundation’s annual awards–it never the less sets a precedent for the calibre of work I look for when identifying young photographers to nominate for the Joop Swart Masterclass. Nominees work need not be as developed, as tightly honed or as widely seen as these examples, but a comparable dedication to craft and belief of the strength of ideas, concepts and stories as communicated in photographs is essential. The Masterclass after all presents selected participants with the opportunity to dedicate themselves to a project of their own choosing for an extended period of time, with the aid of financial assistance and professional mentorship. It is during then that the participants voice may be honed and the work may find its final form, or at least the foundations for a long-lasting career in photo-journalism and photo-documentary practice may be laid. For proof, just read the long list of JSP alumni on the World Press Photo Foundation website…
All of the above leads in a roundabout way to reiterating that Place in Time was established to promote and facilitate the above kind of work; to educate the public about the value this work holds, both as means of artistic expression and conveyer of factual information, and to progress photo-journalism and photo-documentary studies as viable career paths in New Zealand. The projects that are available to view here on the new Place in Time website are testament to the fact there is no shortage of talent or worthy stories to tell in New Zealand–we are working towards uploading many more, so watch this space... In short, I’m looking forward to finding new ways to support, commission and promote new projects moving forward as Place in Time’s new director. I know there are a lot of dedicated people making this kind of work outside of Christchurch, so please make us aware of it. We’d love to share it with the world and help you promote it!
In the meantime (I’m writing this at an altitude of 10972m somewhere over northern Australia,) I’m putting together my PowerPoint presentation for the World Press Photo education team. There are a lot of images held within the Place in Time archive that will certainly be of interest to them, and I hope to do you all proud by showing them off. I will however save the last few slides to show some images of my father (from my project ‘D,P,O’,) who was born in Indonesia, but grew up in Amsterdam. It’ll be a kind of homecoming for him, and at times, I’m sure, an emotional time for me.
Wish me luck…
Post-note: In my jetlagged state, I’m not sure of my use of the term ‘story telling’ in the writing above. Somehow my wording fails to recognise the very complex and slippery nature of photographs and how they can be read; or it does not help to distinguish the difference between photo-journalistic / documentary photographic series and bodies of photographic images made to satisfy a different intent. For example, a ‘story’ may be very abstract in the way that it is shot and edited and presented, and still fall within the amorphous genre of documentary photography. A good example may be Masahisa Fukase’s relentlessly personal and dark, impressionistic, ‘Solitude of Ravens’, which I look forward to seeing in person on the walls of FOAM Gallery in the coming week… Anyway, food for thought…