How do you tell a story with a camera, and what is involved? Do you need to invest in expensive equipment or spend time on post-production? Do you need to travel to far horizons or can you turn your lens closer to home? These are some of the questions frequently asked by photographers — questions we regularly reflect on when publishing photo stories on The Calvert Journal, and which are at the heart of the New East Photo Prize.
Back in May, we launched the the New East Photo Prize to celebrate contemporary photography from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia. With the deadline for entries less than a month away, we turned to our international panel of judges and experts in the photography field to ask whether there’s a formula for a compelling photo story and what that might be.
Don't be afraid
“My teacher always told me not to afraid of anything. He told me to go and drink vodka with prostitutes or to wait on the crossroads for six hours if necessary. So there is no universal recipe for everyone but go and do it. Don't be afraid to ask for help from local journalists. Try to find a fixer before you go there. Try to learn as much as you can about the theme, place, people, traditions etc. while you preparing your work.”
Question the medium
“I think nowadays an outstanding photo story is one that questions the possibility of a photo story and the possibility of representing the social, cultural and physical landscape with photographs. When documentary photography is discredited due to constant misuse and manipulation, we need to reexamine the tool itself.”
Make something wondrous out of the ordinary
“The key point I look for in a photo story — or indeed any artwork — is whether it prompts me to look at the world in a different way. I’m not thinking of a piece of campaigning photojournalism here. Rather the way a great story can knock you off balance through the force of its aesthetics or the particular sensibility of the photographer responsible for it.
There is no single formula here. Bernd and Hilla Becher. William Eggleston. Malick Sidibe. Wolfgang Tillmans: what connects figures like these is their ability to render something wondrous, thrilling, amusing or richly romantic out of the ordinary stuff of the world. An outstanding photo story is a little piece of alchemy — lead into gold. ”
Understand what motivates you to make work in the first place
“What I always say and what has always served me well, is just make a work that has meaning and value to you. As soon as you go looking to get “noticed,” you’ll never get noticed. You have to be driven by fire and driven by the desire to say something. If you can dig deep within yourself and understand what motivates you to make work in the first place, ideas will come to you that have ultimate significance. In other words, who are you as a photographer, and what are you trying to say? Or, even simpler, think of the Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” In other words, make something that matters and others will respond. Outstanding stories to me are ones where I sense the photographer is absolutely committed to their story, they have a total and almost frenzied perseverance to their subjects and can provide the story justice in terms of understanding what the story is about and how it needs to be told. All told, of course, in the utmost professional, technical and creative execution.”
Treat form and content equally
“In an outstanding body of photography I am looking for something that feels fresh and has a distinctive presence. It may be completely abstract or very ideas or issue-based, but what matters is that form and content are equally important, and that they work together to make the whole.”
Take your time
“Time spent in places.
Time spent with people.
Time spent waiting.
Time spent thinking.”
The deadline for the New East Photo Prize is midnight (GMT) Friday 19 August 2016. Finalists will be shown in a group exhibition at Calvert 22 Foundation’s space later this year, while the overall winner will have the opportunity to publish a body of work as a new photo book.
Text: Liza Premiyak
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