Is the photographer a storyteller or a history writer? There are so many ways to approach this question, and so many strands that could be unpicked, some of them not really very productive to exploring the key point at issue but important nonetheless. For example, the question presupposes a clear dividing line betwen storytelling and history writing which implicitly separates the two on the basis of fiction vs fact. But it can be argued that any good storytelling has at its core a substantial element of fact; and conversely that the recording of history is not a purely factual activity but always involves a subjective and/or politically expedient viewpoint.
Likewise, some documentary photographers – Cristina de Middel being a notable example – adopt storytelling techniques and even include outright fictional elements to aid in the communication of a historical narrative. Even Bernd and Hilla Becher, perhaps the most restrained of all documentary photographers, show us a selective, edited world that has much in common with the landscapes of fairytales, in that every building is a tower.
Going further into the question of subjectivity vs objectivity we come to the nature of reality itself, which has occupied thinkers in fields ranging from metaphysics to perception to mathematics and quantum physics. Is the world around us an objective fact existing independently of us or a subjective construct created by our minds?
Then there is the question of whether the camera ever tells the truth or is capable of doing so.
With all these caveats in mind I would say that essentially I feel that there are indeed broadly two approaches to photography, one of which constitutes a commentary on the world and the other which expresses the photographer’s personal creativity. For the reasons touched on above these are not mutually exclusive, but operate as a kind of motivational force. My own default approach is the former, but one of the reasons I enrolled on the OCA course was a recognition that I am by nature and habit very practical, organised and methodical, and I hoped to find and develop the messy, random and creative side of myself.
Pollen (2018) argues that in terms of neurological function this divide is based on the difference between the brain’s creative aspect and its default mode network (DMN). He provides compelling evidence that in creative mode the neurons fire intensively and randomly, while in DMN they fire much less and stick to established pathways. His main focus in the book is on the apparently highly therapeutic aspects of the creative mode and the fact that it can be triggered via psychedelics such as psilocybin, but he also observes that the creative mode can also be generated by spiritual pursuits such as meditation, and that this also corresponds to a sense of spiritual integration with the world widely reported by participants in the psilocybin studies he cites.
In my own work I know I still have some distance to travel to really let my creative brain run free, and this is certainly something I continue to strive for. The catch-22 of course is that it’s not something that can be approached via the orderly, analytical DMN brain which is my own default mode. It’s something that involves letting go, trying things for the sake of it, playing around with no prior plan, and making fewer images that are concrete and descriptive, and more that are metaphorical and suggestive.
References and resources
Pollan, M. (2018) How To Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. London: Allen Lane.