Review: Breaking the Cycle

Copyright Need Communications, reprinted with permission for educational purposes

As a parent, images of children suffering hit me squarely in the gut.  I find looking at such pictures physically painful.  And yet, for me, they also are becoming somewhat cliché.  I’m on the mailing lists for what seem like dozens of organizations trying to help children, and while it’s hard to open those envelopes, the pictures are all starting to look the same. Despite that, when I opened up issue five of Need Magazine and saw the images of Indonesian street kids photographed by Paul Corbit Brown in Breaking the Cycle, I was moved.  Mr. Brown opened my eyes to a new facet of the challenges those kids face, and also gave me encouragement that there are solutions. I’d like to share with you how Mr. Brown did that, and also offer Mr. Brown a couple of small suggestions for making his photo essay even better.

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Business Models for Christian Documentary Photography

In an earlier post, I mentioned that two businesses that produced and published outstanding Christian documentary photography have gone out of business.  I don’t know much about what happened in either case, but it has prompted me to think about how a person can pursue Christian documentary photography in this world from a business model standpoint.  We all need to eat.  Indeed, we all may dream of an adequately funded 401(k).  So how can we pursue Christian documentary photography, and at the same time meet our own worldly needs?  While I will come back to this topic often in future posts, let me begin the discussion by offering at a high level four different business models that might work.

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Review: Lost Boys and the Art of Storytelling

Copyright Need Magazine, reproduced with permission for educational purposes

Powerful storytelling. No matter how you cut it, documentary photography of any type needs first and foremost to tell a story in a way that engages the viewer.   The whole point of Christian documentary photography is to educate the viewer, and in many ways, people get engaged with and learn best from stories. The Bible, after all, is mostly a collection of stories. Jesus himself taught through parables.

In my reviews of photo essays, I’ll be sharing with you examples of powerful storytelling. The first photo essay I’ll review, entitled “Lost Boys Return” by Christopher Tyree and Stephen M. Katz of the company WeYo, was published in Need Magazine in 2009.  For anyone not familiar with the magazine, they employ the tagline, “We are not out to save the world but to tell the stories of those who are.”  The whole magazine is dedicated to sharing stories of those offering humanitarian aid, both through compelling words and photographs.  Indeed, as one photographer aptly described the magazine, it’s “LIFE magazine for my generation.”  Unfortunately, though, the story I’m about to tell you does not have a happy ending, at least not yet.

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Creating Christian Documentary Photography in a Postmodern World

As Google Scholar says, we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” What we know in almost every subject is largely based on thinking done over many years by very smart people before us.  In keeping with that, I want to draw upon prior work that has gone on for centuries helpful to Christian documentary photography.  Of course photography itself has not been around that long, but Christian art has been pursued for literally a couple thousand years.  My goal is to see what we can learn from prior scholars and artists in Christian art that may be applicable to Christian documentary photography.

Before I dive into that topic, I think it’s appropriate to acknowledge that documentary photography is not art.  Indeed, it lacks a key ingredient of art, namely artistic license.  Documentary photography by its very nature has to represent life as it is, not life as an artist would want it to be. But at the same time, like art, documentary photography is a form of visual communication.  And many of the tools and techniques that make art effective at communicating carry over into making documentary photography similarly effective.  So in my opinion, we photographers can learn a lot by studying art, and in this case, Christian art.

While I plan to write a few posts on this topic, to get the ball rolling, I want to draw from a provocative paper written by E. John Walford, a professor of Christian art history at Wheaton College. His paper, entitled “Notes For: Constructing, Living, and Communicating a Vision: Options for Postmodern Christian Artists”, in essence argues that Christian artists can learn a lot about their role in society by studying Marxist artists.  That’s an interesting thesis, but in this post I plan simply to focus on translating those principles identified for Christian art into principles applicable to Christian documentary photography.

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Reviews: My Approach

I’m starting this new feature — reviews of books, exhibits and other displays of photography — with great trepidation.  Why should anyone care what I have to say about such photographs? I don’t have any of the credentials normally associated with a photography critic.  I’m also not sure I can offer any useful insights.

But I’m going to try anyway, so please bear with me just for a minute.  While I have studied photography criticism on my own, I do not plan to offer traditional criticisms of the kind you might find in newspapers or other media.  Instead I will focus simply on the characteristics that define Christian documentary photography.  Throughout this blog, my goal is to analyze and highlight principles that I think should guide those interested in the genre. So in my reviews, I will highlight how various photographers are employing those principles.

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Project Idea: Prison Release

This essay could focus on the reentry phase of prison ministry, through the eyes of the volunteer.  My proposal is to take behavioral economics—a concept in public policy that is growing in popularity with the Obama Administration—and apply it to prison release.  So there would be two separate and distinct work products: a balanced photo documentary essay and an opinionated written editorial essay.

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Project Idea: Advocating for Children

Here’s another project idea to think about.

In Indiana, children in foster homes or who otherwise are without parents are supposed to be assigned an official Child Advocate who serves as the child’s representative in the system. These advocates are trained to meet with the children, understand what they need, and speak up for those needs. They are not guardians in that they are not responsible for the day-to-day oversight of the child, but they are advocates for the children.  Unfortunately, Indiana and Marion County in particular has a terrible shortage of people who have volunteered to play this role.

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Project Idea: Body of Christ

As a regular feature on this blog, I plan to post project ideas that others might find inspiring.  My modest hope is to encourage this genre, so these ideas are intended to help photograpghers identify projects to pursue.  I thought I would start with one I’d like to pursue.

If you know of 2 or 3 volunteers who work together with quite different but complementary skills and abilities to serve others in the Indianapolis area, please contact me.  Think about collaborations among young and old, black and white, engineer and artist, professor and student, white and blue collar, conservative and liberal, women and men, each of whom brings something very special to the partnership.  I want to capture that picture and post it to the portion of the Indianapolis Star’s website that features stories produced by readers. Apparently, if the Star finds a story interesting enough, they might even print it.

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It’s the Means, Not the Ends: The Case Against Photographing Prayer

My son posed without actually praying.

Documentary photographers have a grand tradition of helping people through photography.  As Cornell Capa demonstrated in The Concerned Photographer, for years documentarians have been shining a light on marginalized people in need of help. And often help does come in response to that light.

Sometimes, though, photographers can get caught up in their passionate drive to help others so much they start to focus mostly on the ends, and not so much on the means. They justify their ethical decision-making on the basis of the desired end. Academics have actually named a whole philosophy after that approach: consequentialism.

Recently, I was reading an on-line forum debate about whether in certain circumstances a slight trampling of a person’s right to privacy may be acceptable so long as the photographer’s goal is to somehow help mankind. [Candid photography and the ethics of non-consent]  Among other things, the photographers debated just how difficult it is to get candid photos, while the same time obtaining permission. They also discussed the good that documentary photography can accomplish in terms of changing perceptions of the world and bringing help to those in need.  Clearly these photographers have big hearts, and a strong desire to help others.

But alas, that’s not enough to practice Christian documentary photography. We also need to have a heart for God.  And in his Book, the ends does not justify the means.

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Crowd Sourcing Your Support

While I cannot quantify this, there are many talented photographers who cannot pursue their vision because they can’t find the needed funding.  Photographers with tremendous skill in documenting cultures and events fail to crack the funding nut, perhaps because they find it too awkward to ask people for money. I suffer from that affliction.  I would rather walk across a garbage dump barefooted then ask for money. In my view, face-to-face requests are the worst. Thankfully, there seem to be some alternatives that even I could do.

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