A Sense of Longing

Article main image

As a species that prides itself in either its enlightened values or its own spirituality, we betray a stunning lack of compassion. That lack is in no way compatible with either those values or with the core tenets of the religions we profess to adhere to. While our lack of compassion appears to be erupting more and more into public view — as one very drastic example you might take the callousness with which the European Union lets migrants drown in the Mediterranean Sea, nowhere is it more pronounced than in our relationship with the rest of the fauna that, and this is where it all starts, we don’t even see ourselves as part of: animals.

Very few people appear to have any understanding that animals are not merely plants that happen to be moving about, devoid or maybe incapable of all feeling and interior life. Anyone who has ever spent time with an animal and has tried to establish a deeper relationship with it knows very well how complex it can be. There is a simple reason why, say, people who live with cats or dogs attribute personalities to all of them. Not only that, those people also know the differences in personalities very well. Furthermore, they understand that a relationship between a human being and an animal is not a one-way affair.

I should say that I can’t and won’t pretend that I personally am without my flaws when it comes to animals. I’ve lived long enough by now to know that trying to adhere to some extreme standards not only sets you up for a rather miserable life, it also makes you a pretty annoying person to deal with. My approach has been based around the idea of trying to get better in the mid and long term, while trying to be mindful and compassionate on a daily basis.

Furthermore, I should add that I have one rule for this site: I will not look at or review photography that is made around animal abuse. Over the years, I’ve received a number of books around, say, hunting. They went straight into the recycling bin.

One of the main problems is that people take their own species’ capabilities as the measuring stick with which to assess animals. Whatever is observed in an animal is inevitably compared to the properties of human beings. It’s easy to see how that approach can only serve to maintain the hierarchical relationship that forms the basis of what ultimately comes down to a self-defeating approach to the natural world. Animals are cruelly exploited — where they are not ignored and left to fend for themselves. It’s only when an important animal species is suddenly imperiled — such as when there’s a huge drop in the honey-bee population that we need for our food production, that people start to worry.

There are some signs of hope, though. To be honest, I don’t expect to see a drastic change in our attitude towards animals in my life time. But there is a growing awareness that our exploitation of animals is wrong for more reasons than one, which is tied with a slowly growing interest in products that are not produced from animals. For example, about ten years ago, it was impossible for me to find products that mimic meat at a local supermarket. I would have to go to an alternative location — maybe a local co-op — to pick up something that was, well, really terrible. Now, even the most bargain-oriented supermarket carries products that are actually often very, very good.

Recently, there has been an uptick in photography made around animals as more intelligent and sentient beings. This uptick has now resulted in a number of photobooks. To begin with, there is Yana Wernicke‘s Companions, which appears to have been widely noted in Europe since its release. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the book, so I am unable to write anything more about it.

Francesca Todde‘s A Sensitive Education was already published in 2020. It’s probably fair to say that none of us wants to remember that particular year. If this was the time when you had a photobook published, you’d be pretty close to releasing it into a vacuum (much like online writing actually). But the copy of the book on my desk is part of the second edition, released in 2021. The first edition (300 copies) must have sold out rather quickly.

As an aside, I really appreciate the fact that there is a second edition. Book publishing is an iffy business. You never know how many books you might sell, especially if your book is the very first of a new imprint (as is the case with this book). If you’re able to sell out an edition then I think you ought to be producing a second edition. I realize that that’s extra work. But if you prefer not to have a second edition, your goal is basically twofold.

First, you deny all those people who would love to have a copy of the book the chance to get one. Second, you cater to what I think is one of the worst aspect of the world of the photobook, wealthy collectors trying to get an investment (that, possibly, can be flipped for a lot of money later). You’re basically replicating the basic mechanism of the art world (creating fake scarcity), while defeating one of the most central aspects of the photobook, namely the fact that it’s (usually) affordable and thus a lot more democratic than photographic prints.

Back to the book: At the end of A Sensitive Education, there is a cast of characters, which includes Mildred, a white stork that, we are told, “considers Tristan her partner.” Tristan, in turn, is the sole human in the book, a bird educator. “Despite this strong attachment, Mildred has so fa refused the invitation to move house with him, heedless of Tristan’s efforts to build a new next and move her eggs.” There also is Bayo, a crow, who “knows Tristan better than anybody else”, Elypse, a black kite, and a number of other birds. I love that they’re all presented as their own idiosyncratic characters.

What struck me most about the book was the very strong sense of tranquility it exudes. I suppose that you have to remain still if you want to photograph birds, less you startle them. But that’s not really what I mean. Instead, there is something almost otherworldly that emanates from the photographs, as if one were in the presence of a completely different world that somehow has found a place somewhere in the middle of ours. Of course, in a literal sense, Tristan’s is that, a different world, given that he does not approach these animals the way I described above.

But it is one thing to understand that engaging with animals on a different, yes: deeper level can lead to a different world. It’s quite another for a photographer to be able to capture this in a visual fashion. The tenderness that runs through all of the photographs for sure contributes a great deal to this. There also are the smart choices made for the book itself. It’s a modest production (a side effect of which is that the book is very much affordable) that, however, combines a number of smart choices in terms of layout and production. As any very good photobook should do, its production choices enhance the work on display and draw the viewer into the world on display.

“They” — they being stray dogs in Palermo, Charlotte Dumas concludes the short afterword of her A Terra, “make me think about our mortality and about the space we occupy in regard to others, individually and as humans alongside other sentient beings. About what it means to belong, to a pack and to a species. I feel a sense of longing observing these dogs that together form a collective body, gentle and humble.” (you can read the full text on the publisher’s website)

There is a hand petting a dog on the cover of the book, presumably the photographer’s. On the back, there is the face of a dog, the dog the back of whose head we see on the front cover. You always need a good picture on the cover of your book, one that does two jobs at the same time. First, it has to help sell the book. Second, it should strongly communicate the idea of the book. Interestingly, while this particular picture can be found in the book — it’s shown on the title page, it differs in form from all the other photographs. Those show mostly individual dogs lying in the streets of Palermo.

But crucially, the cover picture of A Terra communicates the spirit of the book, a spirit that is pervaded by compassion for these stray dogs. In fact, any dog might be shown more than once in a given spread (or, in fact, in the whole book). In a very traditional sense, where a photographer takes a number of pictures and then proceeds to select the “strongest one” (whatever that might mean), this approach is unphotographic. But here, it only re-enforces the fact that this particular photographer approaches animals with a heightened awareness of what they are: sentient beings.

I’m thinking that in this particular case, if as a viewer you don’t already possess at least a modicum of such an understanding, then you will see the book merely as a typology of sorts of dog pictures. In other words, you would miss the book’s point completely. And I think that would circle back to the underlying problem, namely the fact that so many people are incapable of thinking about anything on this planet merely as something to exploited for their own purposes, larger realities be damned.

Survival of our species will only be possible if we manage to toss that approach over board. As I wrote, I have no hopes of seeing such a change in my life time. But that doesn’t mean that I think that it is impossible to achieve. It will have to start out on the smallest level, the individual one. This includes more photographers making work like Yana Wernicke, Francesca Todde, and Charlotte Dumas. There is a lot to be gained on a personal level. As these books demonstrate, there is a lot to be gained on a larger level as well.

A Sensitive Education; photographs by Francesca Todde; text by Francesca Todde and Luca Reffo; 112 pages; Départ Pour l’Image; 2020 (2021 2nd ed.)

A Terra; photographs and text by Charlotte Dumas; 48 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2023

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!

Whose Responsibility?

Article main image

During my recent stay in Budapest, I participated in the third Work in Context Symposium at MOME. Its theme was responsibility. My contribution ended up coalescing around a number of things that had been on my mind for a while but that up until then I hadn’t connected. The following essay is based on my talk.

If you think about photography and the way it might be talked about, discussions typically fall into one out of two possible models. I don’t mean to imply that occasionally there might not be more nuance. But more often than not, things boil down to what in effect are two very simplistic ways to treat photographs and their makers.

The first model is the artistic-genius model. In this model, the photographer is an artist and s/he is a genius. As a brief aside, I should note that the artistic-genius model is not confined to photography and that is is incredibly problematic for all kinds of reasons. There now is more and more writing around the topic. If you’re curious, maybe start with Cody Delistraty’s article.

In the world of photography, the artistic-genius model is often used as follows: “I, the maker of these pictures can do whatever I want, because it’s art”. Most commonly, you see this expressed more or less literally when, for example, a photojournalist decides to do something that violates her or his profession’s rules (here’s a recent — very cringey — example).

There obviously is something to be said for an artist violating the ordinary rules of a culture, to possibly have that culture explore its own blind spots, ideas, or themes that it would rather not look at.

I don’t think, though, that that’s what the people who use the “artist/art” defense typically have in mind. Instead, they use a very simplistic idea of what art might be to try to construct a defense around their practice. That art itself does follow rules and ideas and that art can and should be criticized rigourously typically is excluded from discussions where “oh, it’s art” is brought up.

We might also note that even though artists can violate rules, that doesn’t necessarily mean that artists occupy a position outside of all ethical or other considerations. To begin with, all artists operate following the tradition of their medium (or possibly against it). But given that art often challenges a society, it can only do so by acknowledging the society’s larger sets of rules in some fashion. An artist who is completely untethered from that would be unable to do so. Thus why should artists be exempt from ethical considerations?

Obviously, you might argue that the artist and their work need to be seen separately. If we ignore the fact that this approach is mostly commonly invoked when some ethical dilemma pops up — more often than not, it’s used to defend transgressive (usually male) artists, strictly speaking the work cannot have emerged from the vacuum it is supposed to be now considered in. It would seem to me that to insist on a strict separation of artist and their work is just as naive an approach as to say that the artist is identical with the work.

There is a flip side to the artistic genius as well. In our neoliberal world, artists have taken on the roles previously enjoyed (if that’s the word) by court jesters. They are a part of our world, and they are acknowledged for that. They might say or show — you can just imagine the pearl clutching, parts of it is usually performative — outrageous things. Most importantly, they are financially supported by those in power: the rich.

But that’s where it all ends. Art today doesn’t really have any power left. Its role is to adorn the lives of the rich, to allow them to flaunt their societal finesse. The German art critic Wolfgang Ulrich wrote a very good book about this, which, alas, has not yet been translated into English: Siegerkunst.

The second model is the photographer model. In this model, the person who took the picture or pictures under consideration is 100% and exclusively responsible for what they depict. I’m sure that you have seen this model in action, too. It is widely used when people get upset over a picture taken by a photojournalist. How could they take the picture instead of intervening or of magically doing something that would have prevented what is being depicted in the picture? How dare they!

There’s no need to dive further into this model. It’s extremely obvious how naive and misguided such an approach to photography is. And yet it is frequently used.

If you look at these two models, they have one thing in common, and that’s the important aspect here. Both models absolve the viewer of any responsibility whatsoever. If there’s a picture that somehow triggers a larger public debate and if there is a problem, it’s the photographer’s fault. If they can sell themselves as an artistic genius then, well, they get out of jail for free. If they can’t then they’re fucked. They — and only they — are to blame for what is on view in the picture.

As societies, we have created a mechanism that shields us from having to face the consequences of our actions, however indirect these actions might be. When made to face a photograph of these consequences, we can offload the problem onto the picture, and this always means: onto the photographers.

From my somewhat polemic description in the above, you can probably see easily why all of this is a huge problem. In effect, as societies, we have created a mechanism that shields us from having to face the consequences of our actions, however indirect these actions might be. When made to face a photograph of these consequences, we can offload the problem onto the picture, and this always means: onto the photographers.

Obviously, there are cases where this approach makes sense. Plenty of photographers are to blame for what’s on view in their pictures. But if the default for any discussion around photography is one where everything is always the photographer’s fault, then it’s easy for photographers to play the artist-genius or victim card (the most recent version of the latter is by claiming “cancel culture”).

But those cases aren’t the ones that get wide play. The cases that get wide play center on the large crises we’re facing. Often, they’re photojournalistic images. In many cases, an ensuing discussion around the photography (which sadly enough is often encouraged by the photojournalism crowd that still has to shed its adherence to sheer bravado) deflect the viewers’ responsibilities for what is on view.

So instead of, for example, talking about the European Union’s failures to address their migrant crisis, instead people discuss a picture of a dead Kurdish toddler on a beach and wonder whether the picture will change anything. Well, no, because excessive talk about the picture alone doesn’t address the core issue: the glaring lack of empathy and compassion that’s driving the European Union (and that means: vast parts of its citizenry).

In the above, I have focused on discussions around photography on purpose. While I do believe that in photoland we’re in desperate need of smarter and intellectually more rigourous and vigourous discussions around photography, as photographers to automatically take on all responsibility for photographs and, crucially, to let viewers — society — pretend that they have no role in what happens when photographs are shown is a very, very bad idea.

In other words, discussions around responsibility in photography have to involve the responsibilities of the audience. First of all, photographers are members of the societies and cultures they live in. Being a photographer does not mean that somehow magically, that connection gets severed. Even if as a photographer you don’t see it that way, you always are a maker and a viewer, and as a viewer you are a member of some group or society.

The very media that use photography have been of no help. When in doubt, they’ll happily offload their own responsibilities onto the photographer. To give just one example, I stopped counting how often the New York Times ended up exclusively blaming a photographer for material they published (essentially throwing them under the bus) — as if the newspaper didn’t employ photo editors and other editors and had a huge role in all of this.

Another problem embedded in all of the above is the way we see and treat photographs. Somehow, we have turned them into these strange cultural artifacts that have magical power. I don’t think that we treat any other cultural artifact that way. When you look at how photographs are being discussed, it’s almost as if they had a consciousness of their own — at least that’s what I take away from many discussions. But they don’t.

In fact, I personally don’t even believe that a photograph means anything until it is seen by someone. And a photograph might ultimately be completely irrelevant in the sense that it matters infinitely more that it was shared than that it was made or what it looks like.

Given that we live in the day and age of fake news, and given that the tech crowd has now brought us what they call “artificial intelligence”, we might as well get to a better understanding of how photographs do what they do quickly.

The fact that many people believe in what they want to believe in — instead of “the facts” — is now widely understood. And yet, we still discuss photographs as if people would study form and content and then come to the logical conclusions that those “facts” lead them to. But that’s not how most photographs are being treated and understood.

As members of photoland, we’re unlikely to be able to change the societies we’re embedded in, especially if, as I’ve argued many times before, we keep insisting on remaining in the bubble we’re in. With the above, I intended to demonstrate that we actually have a lot to gain from a deeper engagement with our societies.

To begin with, we are members of them, whether we like it or not. But we also are currently stuck with a very simplistic approach when these societies look at our photographs. That approach doesn’t serve us well, and it also doesn’t serve our societies well at all.

If we want our photographs to have an effect, we will have to find ways to get past the way they are currently being treated and discussed. This means rejecting the usually simplistic ways photographs are being discussed. It also means rejecting sole responsibility for what they show.

If we want our photographs to have an effect, we will have to find ways to get past the way they are currently being treated and discussed. This means rejecting the usually simplistic ways photographs are being discussed. It also means rejecting sole responsibility for what they show.

But this approach cuts both ways. Photographers also seriously need to reconsider the use of phrases such as “I’m an artist” or “I’m a storyteller” (the latter almost always includes the implied but unspoken adjective “privileged”). Placing yourself outside of the society you operate in ultimately won’t do much for you. Insisting on the preciousness of your pictures won’t help, either.

If photographers want to get a better deal as far as their own responsibility is concerned, if, in other words, they want their societies to accept their own and usually far larger share of responsibility of what’s on view in pictures, then that means erasing many of the barriers that historically have been set up between those who take the pictures and those who view them. Those barriers have long stopped making sense anyway.

Most crucially, though, photographers need to have the guts to expect responsibility from their societies. What this could look like isn’t clear to me. This probably might require a number of new approaches that transcend traditional models (galleries/museums, fancy art books).

I know one thing, though. If — and this is just some random example — you make photographs around refugees or migrants and you then exhibit those pictures in a museum or fancy art gallery, or you make an expensive art book that people outside your bubble won’t buy, then that’s not going to change a thing, regardless of how much curators or critics talk this up.

Thus, the above not only concerns photographers but everyone who is active in photoland. In a world that is overwhelmed with a stunning number of problems (climate change, inequality, fascism, genocidal wars, and more), a world where photographs are the main currency of communication the professional world of professional photography has become oddly mute and irrelevant.

We need to do better.


Article main image

It’s probably fair to say that many photographers have a very limited understanding of what photobook publishers actually do. They think that they give them their book (in some dummy form), and the publisher then merely prints and distributes it. While they actually do take care of printing and distribution, even for those publishers that with very good material consistently produce the most boring and unattractive books (think Aperture) such thinking vastly underestimates the actual task at hand.

But then a lot of publishers don’t seem to understand their task at hand, either. Or rather, many of them treat book publishing as pouring books into a container where if there are any considerations about what the end result might look like, it’s thinking about the paper stock and/or making sure it’s printed with rare-earth minerals at some high-end printing house.

The end result of the container-approach contains two aspects. First, the resulting books are not really in conversation with contemporary book making. Second, almost inevitably the books end up being rather expensive, essentially making them collectors items for rich people.

The socio-economic aspect is bad enough. I’d be happy to argue that to a fairly large extent it accounts for the misery photobook makers in general are finding themselves in. If you make photobooks for other photographers or that very small number of rich collectors it’s very difficult to sustain your business, given that you’re essentially aiming at a very limited market with close to zero growth. You can go to photobook fairs all you want: you won’t be growing your audience, given that people outside of the bubble you’re in tend not to show up there.

But the other aspect if more interesting for me both as someone who looks at photobooks and as someone who critically writes about them. As that person with those two roles, I expect photobooks to be in conversation with contemporary photobook making.

What I mean by this is that a photobook produced in 2023, the year I’m writing this, should not look like a book that came out of, say, 1970 or 1980 — especially not given that photobook typically aspire to be art objects. Instead, a photobook produced in 2023 should look like a book produced in, well, 2023. It’s really that simple.

Even if inevitably there are fads in the world of photobook making, photobook publishers should feel the need to embrace what contemporary photobook making has to offer. Even if you think of your photobook merely as a container for someone’s pictures, there are many ways for the resulting book to look at least somewhat contemporary.

After all, regardless of whether you understand this fact or not, the object book itself does quite a bit of the lifting. A well-made book — and by this I mean a lot more than heavy paper stock plus thick printing — communicates its own relevance. It calls attention to itself as the object you can put onto your book shelf or hold in your lap. I often think that this aspect of the book is completely underappreciated: it has to be beautiful itself.

A lot of photographers worry about this aspect, fearing that if the book itself gets any attention, then what about their pictures? Shouldn’t it be all about the pictures? But if you’re so insecure about your pictures, why even make a book at all? And you’re also completely missing this one very important aspect of a well-made book: it elevates the material inside, the pictures. And that’s what you want, even if you don’t think that your photographs need that.

Yet again, Hans Gremmen has produced an example of what an incredibly well-made book can look like, a book that manages to look and feel contemporary (even though the photographs themselves were taken decades ago), a book that simply is elegant and beautiful as an object, a book that helps to vastly elevate the material — here: not just the pictures themselves but also materials produced by the photographer in the form of contact sheets, work prints, etc. The book is called Gluckauf, it contains photographs by Bertien van Manen, and it’s available through Hans’ publishing house FW:Books.

As you might be able to infer from the title, the book contains photographs taken in a number of mining locations all over the world. The photographer herself grew up in a mining area in the Netherlands. For the photographs, she traveled to the UK, to what was then Czechoslovakia and now is the Czech Republic, the United States, and to Russia. The material itself is somewhat heterogeneous with its mix of colour and black-and-white pictures and the inclusion of video stills.

For the presentation, the simplest possible solution was chosen: the material is presented as separate groupings. There are short sections of different material that are placed in between most of the groupings. The visual materials (contact sheets and pictures of work prints) are printed on black paper, using silver ink. (I don’t really want to spell it out, but I might as well: coal is black… You get the idea.) There are are extensive notes by the photographer from her trip to the Appalachian Mountains; these are reproduced on white paper.

For the work from the Czech Republic, images of completely destroyed landscapes that resemble an actual war zone, the photographs wrap around the pages. Fragments of the same image typically find themselves in different spreads. Again, this is a very nifty choice: the already fractured landscape is broken up even further visually, and the often stark juxtapositions of the fragments in each spread drive home the sheer destructiveness of the industry itself. This is photobook making at its finest.

The landscapes aside, the bulk of the pictures centers on people, often photographed in the comfort of their own homes. There is an intense sense of kinship emanating from these pictures. Even as Van Manen was a stranger for her subjects, time and again the daughter of an engineer in the Dutch state mines managed to establish a deep rapport with the people she decided to portray.

As a viewer, you can tell how deeply the photographer cared for the people who ended up in her pictures. I’m almost tempted to think that the pictures themselves weren’t so much the point of the meetings, even if in retrospect and as outside viewers they are the only things we now have access to.

But it’s incredibly refreshing to see work where you can see how a photographer cared deeply for the people in front of her camera. Instead of treating them as raw material for her work, they became an integral part of the photographer’s life. In fact, somewhere in the later parts of the book, Van Manen herself can be found in one of the photographs, blending in seamlessly: she’s sharing coffee and sweets with a group of people, and a woman named Galina is looking at her with a relaxed smile.

All of this makes Gluckauf an absolutely essential photobook. Especially the container-book crowd might want to look at what the photobook has to offer when a publisher is willing and able to embrace the many possibilities of contemporary photobook making.

Highly recommended.

Gluckauf; photographs and text by Bertien van Manen; texts by Fabian de Kloe/Patricia van den Ende and Marcia Luyten; 168 pages; FW:Books; 2023

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!

Against Narrative

Article main image

There can be no doubt that the current trend of narrative-based photobooks has led to an increased understanding of what photographs do when they are placed into a context designed to communicate a larger story. In the most extreme case, a photograph might do more than one thing. It might communicate something on its own. But in the company of others, it might take on a different meaning.

In light of the latter, placing photographs next to other photographs to explore their communicative potential always is a good idea. Even as comparisons of photography with other forms of art are problematic, given that superficial similarities might deceive one to misunderstand one’s photography (see all the comparisons to poetry), maybe we could say that placing photographs next to other photographs is comparable to exploring resonance in music: will, and obviously I mean this in a metaphorical sense, another photograph be able to make this one vibrate, possibly in ways previously unforeseen?

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the narrative approach to photobook making has now gone too far. Over the past few years, I have been receiving regular questions along the lines of “do I need a narrative?” These questions typically come from photographers who have been quietly amassing their work, only to be confounded by how the photobook itself is currently being discussed.

For those of us who are older and who have seen more than one fad come and go, it’s easy to dismiss the question. Of course, you don’t need a narrative in your work. But imagine being a young photographer, fresh in school. Imagine that you’re photographing landscapes or maybe portraits. Or maybe you’re making abstract work. Imagine the excitement of looking into the potential of photography, possibly for the first time in your life having your heart go faster — only to realize that seemingly everybody is using pictures in ways that yours won’t work in. Then what?

I think you can see how this poses a pretty large problem for these photographers. It’s one thing to have ample experience with books and to be able to navigate the various pitfalls created by them. It’s quite another to be such a young photographer. This is someone who experiences photography’s creative potential in a way that us old hands simply (and sadly) don’t get to enjoy any longer. But this is also someone for whom the number of possibilities are bewildering, someone in need of gentle and useful guidance towards a deeper understanding of the medium.

Please note that I’m using the term “young” mostly in a metaphorical sense. Even as many of these photographers are biologically young, someone whose experience with photography starts at a much later age might easily experience the same confusion.

The most immediate solution to the problem is simple: as critics and especially educators, it’s our responsibility to carry everyone — and not just those who happen to follow along the idea of narrative-based photography and photobook making.

At the same time, there is another problem with narrative-based work. Especially if you focus too much on your supposed narrative before you have even finished photographing your work, you run the rather large risk of shoehorning your work into a very predictable and usually very shallow corner. After all, the nearest narrative is always only a few obvious pictures away, possibly after some short and equally obvious snippets of text plus some vernacular materials have been added.

Thus, what we’re currently witnessing is not only a fad. We’re also witnessing a deluge of very simplistic photobooks that work well enough but that — let’s face it — nobody needs to look at more than once. I won’t given any examples, I’m sure you can easily think of many on your own.

Working with narrative can thus also be a trap for those attracted to it: easy solutions — in fact: solutions that are too easy — make themselves available too quickly and too conveniently. A narrative-based approach too easily shortcuts the true creative potential of photography. It offers the simple and easy solution one can think of at the very beginning as a good outcome, allowing for the work to follow a simplistic and shallow script.

Instead, though, good photography arrives at its conclusion only after a typically large set of trials and errors. “Fail again,” Samuel Beckett decreed,  “fail better.” That process isn’t necessarily enjoyable — at least not at every point of its journey. But it is only through this type of process that more complex narratives as much as more complex narrative-free photography projects are developed. You’ll have to allow for your own work — the pictures you take — to outsmart your own ideas.

How do you do that? Well, you don’t think about narrative at all when you start your work. Narrative is the great attractor of simplicity when it’s being placed at the beginning of the creative process.

And again, as critics and educators, but also as photographers, it’s our job to discuss the work we’re made to see in a fashion that will call out those simplistic solutions for what they are — instead of mindlessly celebrating each and every narrative-based book (especially if it comes wrapped with the usual design- and production-based bells and whistles).

In the end, the lack of criticality that I perceive in the community hurts us all. It makes the job of those young photographers much too hard when in fact it should be our collective duty to help them develop their work. And it also makes the fad of narrative a lot more shallow than it needs to be.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!