First steps into documentary photography

I recently returned to Vietnam for three weeks to further two projects I’ve been working on since 2012. It felt like coming home.

The projects are on fishing communities and life around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. Here I want to reflect on the former and share some new images.

Like many photographers I have always balked at labels applied to what I do. I don’t think of myself as a ‘street’, ‘portrait’ or ‘travel’ photographer. Admittedly some of what I do fits into these categories, but only in retrospect. I never set out to photograph according to a particular aesthetic style.

To date, I’ve amassed a lot of images on Vietnamese fishing communities but have yet to make a serious effort to organise them for presentation.

However, thinking about how best to present certain projects keeps bringing me back to the question: Why do I make photographs?

It has begun to change how I think about what I do.

Increasingly, successful single images – rewarding though they are – leave me wanting more. They seem isolated and fragmentary as if in search of a wider visual context. To my way of thinking, this is an open door into documentary photography.

I’ve read a good number of books about documentary photography over recent years and studied a lot of photo essays/books for clues as to how this form works. These studies extend to other forms too – novels, movies, etc.

This research raises a host of issues about sequencing, design, layouts, coherence, momentum, resolution and narrative. I can’t pretend to have developed any skill so far but, I feel this going to be a focus for developing my photography for some time to come.

I am not even sure if my usual free wheeling approach – relying on chance – is appropriate. My background in social science research tells me this ‘action research’ approach is valid.

However, it just feels too haphazard. More preliminary research seems warranted but, this risks pre-conceiving a narrative and finding images to confirm it rather than discovering a more accurate story from the visual evidence.

I actually hesitate to use terms like ‘storytelling’ and ‘narrative’. My post-modernist tendencies (too often) remind me of the limitations of photographs to wholly believe any particular narrative their author might claim for them. I’m always to conscious of other possible versions.  As Susan Sontag put it: “’Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy…”.

Having said this, I am inclined to think of the work in these two projects as ‘documentary’ in nature even though I haven’t yet figured out how best to tell their respective stories. Perhaps, for consistency, I should say my interpretation of their stories.

For now, the images below are a quick look at work from the project on fishing communities rather than any attempt at showing, let allowing telling, a coherent story about Duy Hai fishing village where they were shot.

I’ve thought about the sequence of this latest set as presented below – simply following the process of landing and selling the day’s catch. However, work on a more complete selection and arrangement of images, drawn from the several visits I have made to this location over the last five years, is still to be done.

(These images were shot between 4-6am in near darkness. This meant a departure from my usual preference for daylight shooting. Having only a very small flash with me, it’s limited reach contributed the separation of the figures from the background).

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10 thoughts on “First steps into documentary photography

  1. Reblogged this on Daniel Paul Marshall and commented:
    i’ve learned a great deal from John’s posts. They are written clearly & communicate a great deal on how we can approach photography not just technically, but also philosophically.
    John asks searching questions about the photographer’s role in society, which i find essential & displays his consideration for the subject he photographs; especially important with tourists just clicking away at locals without a second thought for how locals may feel about it— i myself in my guesthouse get it: they see a white guy cooking their breakfast & photograph me without asking & i’m actually not cool with them doing this.
    John’s photography is also first rate.

  2. A very good series, John. Darkness helps to understand the real mood of these people suspended between water and earth.Their skinny bodies outlined by flash increase the sense of precariousness. BRAVO!

  3. What a fascinating look at a fishing community in Vietnam. I can also say ‘it’s like coming home’ to many places I visit and document. Being able to gain their trust is a satisfying thing, and I work better when I know I have permission to take pictures of them. You’ve written a piece that is thought-provoking, and makes me want to question how I want to present my images as well. The images made early in the morning captured the hustle and bustle of the scene. Well done.

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