Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Paul Close – A Snakebox Odyssey

An absolutely fascinating set of travel portraits. Close isolates his subjects against a white backdrop set up in there environment, which simultaneously contextualises the individuals and displays their common humanity. Each photo is presented with their answer to the question “Is there one thing that could make your life better?” As Close notes in the well hidden supporting statement this simply emphasises the commonalities of widely differing people and cultures.

By odd coincidence I came across this site shortly before discovering it in one of the exercises, which asks me to consider whether the same work displayed on a different site is documentary. I have tried to understand why this is more than a trivial question and am struggling a little. For sure it is not what Walker Evans described as “documentary style” but that’s where the difficulty ends for me. It appears to be documentary on a number of levels:

  1. A record of various cultural types across Africa – in this context I think the white backdrop device prevents the series from dropping into the same rut as earlier “colonial” photography. Somewhat counter-intuitively I feel the backdrop removes some of the feeling of looking at “other” perhaps because it isolates their humanity.
  2. A record of a motorcycle trip across Africa – in this sense it is clearly a record of places and peoples visited and has the potential to act as a visual diary
  3. A record of the desires of a mixed sample of humanity at a given moment in time. It would be interesting to be able to compare the wishes expressed in the caption with a similar experiment 50 years ago, and perhaps 50 years from now. How would those desires have changed? Would they be closer to or further from typical western desires (assuming ours is still the dominant culture in 50 years time)
  4. Finally, I think it documents the fundamental desires of people everywhere, pinpointing that the differences are by and large superficial.

For me the whole series is refreshingly free of victim imagery. In spite of the completely different approach to portraying a culture I feel it shares with the work of RAX a basic desire to show people as what they are – people like us, with their own desires and problems.

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