It is said that the place we've lived in at a certain moment of time is what will somehow mark you in your later years. It is also said that documentary photography can portray reality and tell the accurate truth that happened at some point in history. Therefore, should documentary photography be taken for granted? Over years, millions or billions of pictures were taken in order to express an objective reality over the world we live in. However, in the past 30 years the world has changed dramatically, by going through different periods of political changes which have had a huge impact on the everyday lifestyles of the people. In the same time, those changes have affected the way in which photographers have chosen to document reality.
In my essay I will address how photographers have played their part in these politically based changes that we've been facing and how did they choose to represent them in relationship with their inner selves. How objective were they? Or better said, how subjective? In addition, I will challenge myself to analyse two different worlds at the point time in history by taking in consideration the political background of the Occident and Eastern Europe. When speaking about these countries, we can admit that there is a massive difference of lifestyle and thinking among the people of these two European regions. While Occident has always been a place where Capitalism and human rights served as fundamental laws, Eastern Europe went through harsh times of Communism, famine and un-respected human rights. After more than 25 years from the falling of Communism, neither of the East European states can't be called a paradise. Is it just the sad experience of the people who suffered during those times a reason for this poor faced Europe? Or does the Occident have a special ingredient to sustain a healthy facade for the others to see? This essay aims to analyse what makes the difference between the documentary photography of Boris Mikhailov and Martin Parr, two artists who have chosen to represent their countries photographically. Is it their different mentality that made them capture such a different perspective on the same subject? Or is it actually the reality of it?
Born and raised in a British environment, Martin Parr has developed over years a photographic style that have been considered controversial. Choosing to photograph saturated, vivid images of the ordinary, he shares a world of lively contrast in which the political background and the English society are shaping his work. Declaring himself a passionate of humans, which he often chooses to capture in an ironic way, the Magnum member looks as well at the way in how globalisation and cultural change has affected our lives. In his book entitled "The Cost of Living" (1989), Parr highlights the Britain of Margret Thatcher and her new money economy scheme which demonstrated to recreate a new lifestyle from the people who benefited from it. Documenting the British middle-class, he focuses to represent the opposite of Thatcherism by putting in light the self-interest and welfare of the people, rather than the controversial politics and community spirit. He focuses on the material goods, but not necessary on the bad, nor the good, but on the reality and ambiguity found in it. With other words, he is practising a "kind of socially observant photography".
"Conservative 'Midsummer Madness Party'” by Martin Parr
In the image presented above, entitled the "Conservative 'Midsummer Madness Party’”, Parr documented a casual gathering of some people in Britain. The photograph itself wouldn't be the same without the fill-in flash which points out the subjects and gives them a highlighted position. In the same time, the angle from which he have chosen to capture the image, represents another points which puts in evidence the situation of his subjects: the disgrace expressed by woman's face regarding the surrounding circumstances, the disapproving face of the man having a chat, contrasted by the welfare of having a small party, even though the political situation of that time wasn't that bright. As well as the other Martin Parr photography, this image is constructed in his typically strident tones which creates that "kitsch" and "controversial" look.
However, regarding the relationship with his country, Martin Parr doesn't seem stick himself to have any established opinion about it, as he says "“I’m torn when I think about England. On the one hand, I have great affection for things like the classic English summer fête. There can’t be anything more pleasant, or more English, than having afternoon tea in a small village in Dorset. But the very people you meet there will have the bigoted views about Europe that upset me about modern Britain. I’m classic soft Left myself, but you can’t meet anyone more pleasant than an English Tory – on an individual basis. But collectively, I think, there’s something wrong with them. My feelings about Britain are a mixture of affection and concern. I’m trying to express that ambiguity“. In addition, regarding his photographic experience and style, he seeks for the unpleasant look can be found in the ordinary, he success in finding the interesting in the usual. For Martin Parr a cake is when "somebody’s spent an hour making, the ingredients probably cost 50p, and it’s being sold for a pound for charity. That home-made cake, slightly skew-whiff, made with love, is very moving. But a similar cake in a commercial baker’s with its kitsch colours is the embodiment of the consumer society at its worst. So a cake can embody everything that’s good or bad about the world”. His ambiguity and strong images are meant to portray a whimsical appearance to a Britain that is meant to be politically healthily and where globalisation and consumerism are definitions of this reality. He can be described as being a caricaturist of the British in which his own detached position is drastically influencing his photographic style and subjects. Nonetheless, he engages a subjective posture in his work which often comes as a natural habit and passion for the people of Britain.
Radically opposed to Martin Parr's Capitalist photographic experience, Boris Mikhailov, the Ukrainian-born photographer draws his attention to the Post-Communist era of his own country. Extremely affected by the effects of the Communist regime over his life as an artist, Mikhailov has always had an interested in representing the reality beyond the fake facade of the URSS. Until the fall of the Communism, his liberal, sometimes vulgar work was strictly forbidden in the regime, as he states in the interview with Jan Kaila: 'You must remember that the photo clubs were related to official institutions, which were controlled”. Thus, his work has become drastically affected by the idea of not being able to exhibit it or just for the small reason of being held on showing the reality in which he was struggling by that time.
However, after the fall of USSR, Mikhailov decides to represent and highlight the real face of Ukraine. In his series entitled "Case History (1997-98) he plays the role of a photojournalist, experiencing how the Totalitarist regime affected the people of his country. As the government fell, most of the people where left in the street whiteout a home of their own and Ukraine didn't have any source of stable economy to rely on as the local economy used to be fully controlled by the state during the years of the Communism. Adopting this unfavourable circumstances, Mikhailov decided to direct his own photographic documentary and present his subjects as being a 'class' of the Ukrainian society rather than victims of the unfortunate destiny of former USSR. But, in reality he seeks for the uncanny where the unpleasant scars, naked and poorly maintained bodies of his subjects are reflecting the political situation of his country which dreams for a better future. He is looking for the greyest, dullest and saddest images or for the drama of the ill, the alcoholic or the drugged. He presents his theme as following: "I explain this series from the point of view of the post-Soviet situation. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was followed by the dissolution of the Soviet consciousness". The homeless (bomzh) portrayed in his work are people who are "afraid of everything: people of their own kind, and strangers, militia and the boys", he adds. In the photograph presented above, Mikailov documented the poverty and as well the idea of a free market as being something new to everyone in Ukraine at that time. For some of the images in the series, Mikhailov is using this concept as a work tool, paying some of his subjects in order to gain trust and reveal their inner selves, as this can be the only way he can play his director role and achieve his goals. He does not necessarily want to point out what's real in an objective way, but what is real from his subjective way of seeing his own country.
Image from “Case History” by Boris Mikhailov
In the image presented above, the he portrays two men carrying some filthy animal ribs on the poor streets of Ukraine. This painful images creates an atmosphere of poverty and un-secureness in which Boris Mikailov highlights the immense social disintegration, a begging of an anarchy and strong decay for the Ukrainian society, a decay for which he has struggled to portray.
When talking about the relationship he has with his country, he states that many things changed and he lost the connection with Ukrainian society. However, he doesn't show any form of regret, nor happiness as he describes this action more as an artistic evolution, rather than a psychical status: "I am still a member of that society, but society does not need me so much anymore… if an artist was successful in the west, he also became successful at home-but nowadays, success in the Post-Soviet society doesn't mean anything at home".
Analysing the documents above, it is not hard to admit that both Martin Parr and Boris Mikhailov have been strongly influenced by the political backgrounds of the countries they lived in. If the introduction stated the question of documentary photography being a proof of reality, I would answer that this type of photography is the subjective reality of a person. Adding to that, documenting a place which lives in your heart is more than being a simple photojournalist traveling across the land of your homeland. It is about how you view yourself in relationship with that place. As an example, Martin Parr's personal opinion about the Great Britain can be easily certified when looking at his work: the angles that he uses when photographing are far from being intimate nor detached. They are impartial but strong and they are defying more politics, irony and welfare than personal and direct implications. On the same line, Boris Mikhailov's art is more intimate and vulgar. He gets involved into the subject's life and he searches for it until he finds something that can be psychically attached to his photographic ambitions and frustrations for the regime he lived in. He look for that political influenced image that can tell the truth, or, better said, his truth.
In conclusion, their mentality is what makes their styles so different. Even though they are photographing in almost the same period of time, their style are not similar in any way. For example, while Parr''s images are full of the positive, normal effects of the globalisation where the typical is photographed in a unusual way, Mikhailov goes for dramatic situations which were forbidden to photograph back in the days. Therefore, the political situation in both United Kingdom and Ukraine have played a massive role in the influences and roots of the photography of these artists. The environment that they used to live in their early years, demonstrated to be one of their strongest influence in their documentary photography. It also demonstrated the fact that even though they are both documentary photographers, their personal impressions about their countries, braided with the political backgrounds of them, are creating a subjective perspective in the photographic work of both Martin Parr and Boris Mikhailov.
Dennis Kavanagh. (2011). Thatcherism and the End of the Post-War Consensus. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/thatcherism_01.shtml. Last accessed 19th March 2015.
Gunilla Knape, 2001. Boris Mikhailov: The Hasselblad Award 2000. Edition. Scalo Publishers.
Martin Parr. (2003). Cruel and Tender: the Real in the Twentieth Century Photography. Available: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/martin-parr. Last accessed 18th March 2014.
Martin Parr (1988). Photo Gallery. Available: https://www.magnumphotos.com/CS.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53AJJYY&PN=1. Last accessed 20th March 2015.
Sandra S. Phillips, 2008. Martin Parr (Phaidon 55's). 0 Edition. Phaidon Press.
Sue Hubbard. (2001). New Statesman. Vile Bodies. 130.4554 . 38
The Telegraph. (2004). Ordinary lives, extraordinary photographs.Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3615454/Ordinary-lives-extraordinary-photographs.html. Last accessed 20th March 2015