I started to write because I could not find a writer.
Or at least that is how I have explained this shift from simply making photographers, to producing works that now rely as much on writing as they do on making images. My three years of work in India, The Idea of India, and the recent work in Pakistan, Justice in Pakistan, are a result of a longing to add complexity and depth to my works. After hoping for years to meet – fortuitously or intentionally, someone who would put into fabulous text the ideas I was trying to capture through images, I realized that I may never find the kind of collaborator that so many others I know have some how found.
I am thinking of some very fine works produced, and still being produced, by writers and photographers working together. Edward Said’s work with the Swiss photographer, Jean Mohr comes to mind. Their book After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, is for me one of the finest examples of such a collaboration, and perhaps one of the finest books of photography ever produced. Their individual commitment to the cause and struggle of the Palestinians was of course something that led to their meeting, and their interest in working together. I also suspect that it was their mutual respect for each other’s talent, and their ability to see the possibilities offered by it. That is, as a writer Said knew and understood well, the power of a photograph, just as Mohr understand the wider horizons and imaginations words could bestow upon an image.
John Mohr has of course produced a few books with the amazing John Berger – works like Another Way Of Telling, At The Edge Of The World, A Fortunate Man: The Story Of A Country Doctor, and my personal favorite, A Seventh Man. Theirs has been an amazing exploration of the visual, and of society. A Seventh Man remains perhaps one of the finest, most humane, explorations of the immigrant’s experience in Europe. Nothing produced since has evoked with such pathos and clarity, the exploitation, repression and sheer bigotry that welcomed the non-European immigrant labor ‘seduced’ to help rebuild post-war Europe. Even Jim Goldberg’s fine work Open Sea – a project I greatly admire, falls short when it comes to visual and intellectual insights into real lived lives.
More recently, I have followed and studied with great admiration, the nuanced and determined work of photographer Rob Hornstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen, who seem to have hit on a fabulous idea to document the Sochi region of Russia which will soon host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Their work has been a unique documentation of a troubled region, focusing on cultural and individual stories to raise questions and insights about the broader political and historical issues plaguing the region. Their work, The Sochi Project, has already resulted a number of unique books, articles, essays and an online site. The two seem to be very much in sync and of a temperament that garners mutual respect and understanding. Hornstra remains, despite a method that should have me yawning, a fascinating photographer and I find myself inspired by his eye. But in collaboration with van Bruggen, he has gone beyond mere photography. That is what I think an amazing collaborator can help you achieve.
I have also admired the work photographer Joakim Eskilden has done with his partner / writer Cia Rinne. Together they produced the project The Roma Journeys which I have always loved. Eskilden is an amazing photographer, and though his work with Rinne, is more conventional in approach and production that Hornstra / van Bruggen, it is nevertheless beautifully produced.
I once told a friend my reasons for starting to write and she laughed. So you think you are a Mohr and a Said! I tried to explain to her that it was actually because I was neither, and would probably never be. That is, I started to write because waiting for a collaborator like Said may simply be futile and becoming a photographer as wonderful as Mohr simply impossible. I realized that the larger mistake would be to wait, and not write at all. I still have not found one. I still have not met anyone who so understood and resonated with my ideas, intentions and aspirations, that I just had to work with them. Well, actually that is not true: the same friend who laughed at me was perhaps the one person I did want to work with. No one has read me with the sensitivity and clarity that she did. But she refused. And then later walked out of my life. I am grateful for the insights that she did offer, and for the encouragement that she did give. But it was all too short, and ended all too abruptly. But that is a different story.
I started to write because I felt that I rather offer the mediocre than nothing at all. And despite my weaknesses as a writer, writing has nevertheless added fascinating new dimensions to my photography. The entire The Idea of India project emerged mere months after I began writing. It was the largest departure from my usual approach to photography, and it was made entirely possible because I began to write. Writing allowd me to start to use photography as a vehical for the imagination – I am forever in debt to my friend Peter Lagerquist for pointing that out to me.
And so I write though I wait in the hope that there is a meeting, a coincidence, an accident, or an introduction that brings a collaborator into my work and life. Until then I plod along, offering my own small essays and poorly edited texts (hey, editing can wait, its the ideas that need to get out there!). I look at these amazing works being produced by the likes of Hornstra / van Bruggen, Eskilden / Rinne, and many others, and remind myself to keep going, never stand still, and never stop looking.