Foreign Subjects

I was recently in Arles, southern France, where I went to the photography festival they host every year. This is a large and extensive festival and highly recommended. The settings for many of the exhibitions – and there were over 28 venues – were quite stunning and helped bring the photographs alive. Watching the many exhibits, I was struck by something that I have long thought: that when it comes to documentary, it seems easier to make something from situations that are foreign to one’s experience than close to it.

For example, when having lunch with a commissioning editor from the Danish Film Institute a number of years ago, I asked about what the various Danish documentary filmmakers were making films about at that time. He proceeded to list all the various film makers and they were all making films abroad: China, the USA, Latin America, Africa and so on. No one was making a film in Denmark. On reflection, most documentary films and photographs tend to be shot in situations far from the home territory of the maker, whether this be culturally speaking, socio-economically or in terms of physical setting. Even if shooting within their physical territory, subjects are often foreign in a number of different ways. Documentarists seem attracted to the exotic, the deprived, the dramatic, the conflict ridden and the freaky. Perhaps because these situations provide the easiest access to striking imagery that directly evoke and provoke. Usually the consumption of these images are for the middle classes and bourgeoise in the developed and more well off contexts and documentarists are providing images that satisfy certain needs with regard to guilt, compassion, outrage and political expression.

Woman looking at wall of gruesome images

In some cases I would suggest that such documentary making is exploitative. I know many Africans are enraged by how documentary filmmakers come to Africa, find the most dramatic and exotic situations to make a film about or photograph and then take these works back for consumption in Europe and North America with the unspoken tag ‘this is Africa’. But who is making documentary films or photographs about their own home environments? A few, in relative terms.

I notice this in my own work. In my films, I try to only make films about things I can understand my own personal connection to, or that sit within my sphere of experience. From this vantage point, I believe I can reach universal themes to which people can connect their own experience. When it comes to photography, I find it easier when I’m traveling, for example, to capture striking images than when in my ‘home’ environment and it is always tempting to do what many others do; find something foreign to my immediate experience and environment. To see what is immediately under one’s own nose and then to be able to see how that might connect to wider issues is a difficult creative challenge that I think many avoid.

‘A small subject can provide the pretext for many profound combinations. Avoid subjects that are too vast or too remote, in which nothing warns you when you are going astray. Or else take from them only what can be mingled with your life and belongs to your experience’. (Robert Bresson, 1975)