institute for documentary studies

{Week 10: Photo}

Week 10: Photo

Midway through the semester, our photography instructor, Nelson, looked through all the images we’d taken so far: the good, the bad, the blurryHe looked at the photos for my final project, a photographic essay of a family with two Caucasian mothers and their adopted Chinese daughters. “But what are you trying to say?” he asked me.

“I was just trying to capture,” I said.

“But you’re photographing a non-traditional family in a traditional way.”

What I gathered from Nelson is that you can point at something with your camera, just as you can point to something with your pen. “We don’t need another document, we need your opinion,” he advised.

I’m learning that photography is not all that different from writing, a medium with which I’m much more familiar – and just like with writers, it takes photographers a while to find their personal voice, too.

Inject yourself in there, he urged – ever the artist, based on the precipice of fine art and documentary.

With Nelson as our teacher, we photographers walk a fine line here at Salt. Our photography and multimedia classes are rooted in two very different methods of operating: While Nelson is a fine artist, our multimedia instructor — Anne — is a photojournalist. The two classes offer different perspectives: At Salt, this semester’s photography class blends fine art with documentary, whereas Multimedia adheres to a strict set of journalism ethics. While balancing the two can be a bit of a juggle, it’s added an extra element of exploration and possibility into our work.

With a background in fine art, and as a RISD graduate, Nelson’s invested in the impact of the piece more so than the mechanics of how it is made. We’re encouraged – only in photo class, mind you – to set up our shots, or to direct our subjects, in order to reveal an emotional or conceptual clarity.

Nelson’s method as an artist is sometimes unfamiliar to our still-emerging sensibilities. But it’s also offered a lot of freedom to think of how we present our work, how we envision it, and to embrace our projects through a different approach.

When it came to Nelson’s suggestion – to inject myself into the work — I pushed back. I don’t know how to do that, I said. I know how to do it with a pen, but I’m not sure how to do that with a camera.

“So use your pen to augment your photo,” he said. “Write.”