One of the things I have enjoyed most about these courses – now I’ve learned that they are atlases not straitjackets – is that they encourage you to think a bit more deeply about things that, maybe, you’ve toyed with before but never really put any effort into.
Archaeology is one such thing…and too my surprise it actually has quite a lot in common with documentary photography. For a start it has to tell a story based on an incomplete – very incomplete - set of evidence. Bear in mind that a photo essay of 200 images that took weeks to produce might contain no more than a couple of seconds worth of exposure time. An awful lot happened when the shutter was closed.
As Bahn notes – some simply ignore “how terrible and unrepresentative the data are, and use(ing) them regardless to produce stories.” It does not matter that they are trying to be professional – the choices of artefacts and themes, or compositions and camera angles, reflect the prejudices and beliefs of the storyteller. Archaeology, Bahn effectively suggests, has it own version of the camera never lies which has only recently begun to be addressed. As he points out, all the surviving texts of the battle of the Little Big Horn differ significantly in key and basic details – and photographs can mislead even while accurately portraying part of the story (see the image of a ‘student’ kicking in a window here).
The compass of documentary photography, for all that it is frequently thought of in terms of street, social and press photography is also broad paralleling archaeologies view form ancient humans to satellites. Another quote which resonates – “What you threw out in the garbage yesterday, no matter how useless, disgusting, or potentially embarrassing, has now become part of the recent archaeological record.” And the dog-shit that was neatly bagged up, and left hanging or lying to rot by the footpath can make an interesting, and questioning, subject for a documentary photographer.
One final thought to finish – which comes from the end of the introductory chapter: “Archaeology is a perpetual search, never really a finding; it is an eternal journey, with no true arrival. Everything is tentative, nothing is final.” Its seems to me that the same is true of documentary photography – whatever I have to say is just an interpretation – a future photographer can look at the same things and see them differently, teach us something new, reveal my prejudices. Storytelling is an art – even if it uses scientific tools.
Bahn, P., 2012. Archaeology: A very short introduction. Kindle ed. Oxford: Oxford University press.
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