We frame our own versions of the world

World-renowned South African photographer Jodi Bieber skips to the next photo in her presentation. It is of a public swimming pool in Orlando West, from her collection “Soweto“.

Orlando West Swimming Pool, Orlando West,  19 December 2009. PHOTO: Jodi Bieber

Orlando West Swimming Pool, Orlando West, 19 December 2009. PHOTO: Jodi Bieber

“You don’t see it here,” she tells the crowded room of journalism lecturers and students, “because I didn’t want to show it, but it’s a huge party.”

Bieber explained that it had taken her three months to gain permission to the pool to take photographs, because of the copious amounts of alcohol being drunk by those around the pool. The authorities were worried about the idea of the pool and its management that a photograph displaying a piss-up might create. Bieber decided to take her photograph in such a way that it captured the activity of the public pool without displaying any alcohol.

She did not do this just so that she did not get in trouble with the pool’s management though. “That’s not what’s interesting to me,” she said of the alcohol. “The photo I took is interesting to me.”

Photography is a valuable medium in that it manages to capture something very specific about reality rather than merely to tell someone what is there. The controversy surrounding the UN’s photo of the four-year-old Syrian refugee crossing a desert apparently alone exemplifies the dispute about the reliability of photographic journalism. I have always had a disagreeable relationship to photographic journalism because of this. But Bieber adjusted my focus and put photographic journalism into perspective for me.

Photographers, just like writers, can never hope to capture an entire reality in a still image.

Jodi Bieber addressing students and lecturers at the Rhodes University School of Journalism.

Jodi Bieber addressing students and lecturers at the Rhodes University School of Journalism.

They therefore aim to present their impression of a situation, having been there themselves, in order to contribute in the way the feel most meaningful to our understandings of the world. Many of my favourite of Bieber’s collections, such as “Soweto”, “Real Beauty” and “Women Who Have Murdered Their Husbands”, all refocus impressions of the world in remarkable ways, and for that reason I have incredible respect for her as a photographer.

“Interpret!” Bieber advises the class of budding photographers and journalists. “Don’t just create what-you-see-is-what-you-get.”

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