One of the books I refer to time and again is In Our Time. It’s a fascinating, sometimes heart-warming, but more frequently horrifying collection of images that capture 50 years of turbulent human history.
From moments of world-shaking social and political importance through to intimate portraits of very personal experiences, what unites these photographs is an aesthetic and an attitude that surpasses mere reportage.
The images come from Magnum, a collective founded in 1947, set up to give photo-journalists artistic freedom and control over the rights to their work.
Their archives, as the foreword to the book explains: “are a repository of the masterpieces of photography of the past half century”.
In large part, these are impactful, thought-provoking images that are incredibly revealing.
They offer up a rich sub-text, communicate complex stories and, in many cases, require no contextualisation to convey meaning.
The weary truism about good pictures saying a thousand words is thoroughly inadequate when applied to these photographs, because they provoke an immediate emotional response in a way that no words can.
There’s been much comment in the media regarding the images of Rachel Whitear, crouched with needle in hand, discovered three days after her death in a bland Exmouth student flat.
The story attached to it is cautionary and heart-breaking; the parents’ decision to publish is courageous, given that their pain becomes public property and their history becomes subject to unwelcome scrutiny.
The commentators have now dismembered the matter: ‘Shock tactics – do they work?’, ‘Releasing the image – why did they do it?’, ‘Drugs policy – the mess we’re in.’ And so on.
A friend of mine has a 13 year-old son, who described the story – note, the story – as horrific, and said that it would discourage him from ever countenancing any kind of involvement with hard drugs.
For him, any weighty broadsheet analysis is simply academic.
This tragic photograph has been presented to us in a fiercely directed, and prescriptive manner.
Ultimately this detracts from its significance, because it becomes a straightforward two-dimensional illustration, stripped of real depth, a vehicle for an issue, rather than being left to speak for itself.
The papers are full of the absolute horror of the graphic image of the dead body.
On the contrary, what is most powerful about this picture is its utter banality. It has no pretence to the aesthetic of a Cartier Bresson.
It doesn’t shock or provoke like, say, Gilles Peress’ brutal picture of a dead man in a pool of blood on an urban pavement on Bloody Sunday.
If you hadn’t been told, you’d not necessarily know that Rachel was even dead.
By hyping the horror, the power of the picture is diminished.
By investigating and unravelling the story, from start to finish, the media has left little room for the exercise of imagination, which is perhaps the most potent tool in developing – each of us, for ourselves – a true and personal understanding of the sad human significance and emotional implications of these images.