‘Downturn’, book foreword to Downturn, 2009. edited by Lee Grant, unpaginated one page ISBN 978-0-646-51556-4
Documentary photography’s prime responsibility is to take the abstract and make it concrete, to put a ‘human face’ to broad historical events, and create from raw actuality something understandable and legible. Documentary photography came into its own and consolidated its central precepts during another global turn down, the Great Depression of the 1930s, when photographers such as Dorothea Lange shot the key icons of the style — emotionally charged images of hapless individuals caught up in global currents they could barely comprehend that tugged at the heartstrings of sympathetic viewers.
Our own global down turn is even more abstract than the Great Depression, which is its only comparator. It has no time for the plangent majesty of the phrase ‘the great depression’, instead it goes by a brisk acronym: the GFC. It started only last year when a chain reaction was suddenly triggered in the interlocking money markets, and it may be even be over by the end of this year. I have hardly felt it effects at all, I haven’t lost my job and in fact the cost of my mortgage has gone down while I have received two refreshing splashes of cash. Yet I know that it has been historically catastrophic in some way or other, because I have seen the jagged red lines plunging downwards again and again, on my TV screen and in my newspaper. And I’m vaguely aware that perhaps it has directly affected people I might know. Perhaps some of my students have found it harder to get shifts at wherever they have to work to pay their way through uni, perhaps the relatives of some of my friends might have lost their jobs, perhaps….
So there is a task here for documentary photography. And there is particularly a task for young documentary photographers. Young people are continually being accused of being disengaged from the world, insulated from social responsibility by the upholstered solipsism of youth. Yet, as they are also being constantly reminded, it is they who will inherit and have to solve the seemingly intractable problems we have created for them.
How then, do they respond to the assignment of documenting the GFC? Each in their own individual way, of course. But some themes do emerge. For instance there is a persistent concern with stuff — the end residue of that urgent impulse to consume that drives the modern economy. Why do we need all this stuff, what are we going to do with it, what does it look like? And notice how it hangs around even after we ourselves have gone and have no use for it. Another visual trope is the threshold, the spatial barrier of the gate or the fence that either separates people or forces them together. Fences, gates and walls define spaces, and many photographers in this book are sensitive to the nuances of space — both the social space of the street and the private space of the home. Those spaces are where people are forced to live together, and with economic down-turns edges get sharper and surfaces get rawer as people rub up against each other. So we have the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ studiously ignoring each other on the street an in other public spaces, while developers continue to push the suburbs out further and further by building individual houses separated from each other by darkness. Meanwhile within those houses people continue to just about manage their lives in congested and claustrophobic rooms.
Having seen these photographs I now feel I know just a little bit more about the great economic downturn of our time.
Head, Photography and Media Arts
ANU School of Art