Documenting Interior Worlds

By Kris Davidson — US/Mexico border at San Ysidro/Tijuana from  American Macondo .

By Kris Davidson — US/Mexico border at San Ysidro/Tijuana from American Macondo.

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.” — Neil Gaiman 

One of the more notable characteristics of contemporary documentary work is increasing fluidity between implied objectivity and actual subjectivity. Alongside the emergence of the expansive, rule-free internet as a dissemination vehicle, we are bearing witness to an unstructured conflation of the parameters that have given shape to journalistic images and art-based images. A fascinating side-effect: Photographers are no longer seriously engaged in a struggle with the idea of achieving objectivity, which has always been an implicit (if impossible), requirement in traditional photojournalism. Robert Sobieszek, the longtime curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, summed the phenomenon up with the following explanation: “The postmodern human face in art has become a blend of Surrealist masquerade and melodramatic theatrics; reading physiognomic expression in contemporary facial representation (photographic, videographic, or cinematic) has ultimately become an exercise in surfing between the objective and subjective, and interpreting the fluid and discontinuous selves and states of mind that are signified.”

In step with increased acceptance of photographer subjectivity in documentary works is increased expectation of transparency in the entire image making-process; deeper subjectivity has cultivated an interest in the photographer's motivations. A photographer makes deliberate choices in assuming a specific voice – so to speak – within the documentary process, with varying degrees of transparency. In the traditional fly-on-the-wall approach — long-favored by traditional news media — the final product gives the impression that the photographer is not actually present at the scene. Rather, the storyline seems to flow around him or her effortlessly. In truth, this is an effect created in the editing process. In any shooting situation with people as subjects, there is almost always some sort of reaction to a photographer with a camera at some point. Even as the editing process may remove overt evidence of subject/photographer interaction (and is thereby somewhat disingenuous), this shooting style in which the photographer seems to be invisible also implies that great rapport and trust has been established. 

As photographers continue to redefine their relationship with objectivity and subjectivity as it relates to reportage, the documentary genre is becoming less concerned with depicting events as they occur in real-time; in many ways, the new frontier for documentarians is the invisible yet strangely palpable realm of the mind. In other words, there is an emerging trend towards documenting – or trying to document – the intangible realm of thought processes and memory. It makes sense — after all, long after the chaos of an unfolding event has passed it all lingers on in the slowly shifting shadows of memory, assuming deepening significance with the passing of time.

By Kris Davidson — from  American Macondo .

By Kris Davidson — from American Macondo.

Researchers have demonstrated that there is tremendous malleability of memory. Elizabeth Phelps, a psychologist at New York University, has conducted experiments on how memories can be manipulated. In one experiment, Phelps had subjects look at color squares just before administering an electric shock to their wrists; afterwards, seeing the colored square made them sweat and feel fearful. But if the researchers brought them back to the lab and showed them the color without giving them a painful shock, the fear response could be eliminated in both the short term (the next day) and the long term (a year later). 

Human memory is imprecise and reconstructive in nature and surrounding stimuli factors in significantly. The act of remembering is ultimately a sensory process. In looking at photographs of ourselves (or events that we were a part of) we become engaged in an imaginative narrative construction that draws upon all of the five senses. Remembering is convergence of sensory input. That said, not all  memory narratives are fully formed or even coherent — there are often inconsistencies and omissions. Also, memory is fluid — we are always engaged in personal memory creation and reconstruction without given endings — in other words, memories are frequently re-defined as new memories and expectations form. 

Of course, we don’t have time machines, and we can’t exactly photograph our thoughts, but given that memories play a tremendous role in how we understand our lives and the world around us, it makes sense that there are photographers who are experimenting with documenting memories. As Daphna Shohamy, a researcher at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, explains: “Moment by moment, memories create the structure of who we are.” It is a process that manifests itself in a variety of ways – a range spanning a more traditional aftermath approach to employing nuanced lyrical references. 

In many ways, the human story unfolds much as it always has, with triumphs and tragedies. The documentary photographer’s work is to communicate these stories visually in a compelling manner. As with many fields, to remain compelling means that one has to also be novel. The emerging trends that we have considered in this module reflect a number of causal factors, including changing technological landscapes, evolving visual literacy and a desire for novelty in how we understand our stories.

Copyrighted material — excerpted in part from the MFA Documentary course authored by Kris Davidson for the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California.

Kristin Davidson