It was my belief that documentary photography was a necessary step in changing people’s behavior – if they only saw the world as I saw it, they would do what was necessary to improve the situation. So I saw the job of a documentary photographer as illustrating the world from my viewpoint. Years of experience have brought me to the conclusion that it is not a lack of information that keeps people from doing right, it is their vested self-interest.
I am now attempting to view the world from the vantage point of others, because sometimes we are so close to something that we can’t really see it. One method of illustrating this point is my image “Four Views, Panama”. When one views this image from a “normal viewpoint” the images appear to be different, but as you step further back, the differences are not so great after all. So rather than analyzing the differences, I choose to view the similarities. I don’t know what the right distance is from which to view this image, but I find the change of perspective enlightening.
During my years of teaching, I have been trying to suggest to students a method of looking at photographs. The first rule has been to allow themselves time to view the image. The second thing I tell my students is to leave their prejudices and preconceptions at home. I understand that this is a very difficult task, but it is the most productive way to try to experience new things. Then I ask that they describe what they see, formally analyze it, interpret it, and evaluate it.
This is the methodology that I attempt to use as I view other cultures. When formally analyzing a work of art, one describes the shapes that are employed, either in the overall composition or parts of it. When one formally analyzes a culture, one describes the music, the literature, the food, the art. What parallels or repetitions does one see in family structure? What variations on a theme does one see in ways of expressing emotion? What contrasts exist between worldviews?
This is the point of view from which I have created the following images. I am in the early stages of this process and have not yet begun to interpret or evaluate these cultures.
In January of 2008 I was invited to China by Pok Chi Lau, who for the last forty years has been photographing the interiors of Chinese homes all over the world from the viewpoint of an insider. This allowed me the opportunity to photograph China from my viewpoint – that of an outsider who does not speak the language. So all of my photographs are based upon visual clues, not on history, language, or a Chinese worldview. But I hope that my visual observations meet the standards that I set for my students – taking the time to see, leaving behind my prejudices, and describing, analyzing, interpreting and evaluating. (Images)