Just beyond the Santa Ana Artist Village Art Walk, still in earshot of a crooning street performer’s acoustic rendition of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” and right behind a sign that proudly declares the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art admission-free, the OCCCA held a reception this past Saturday for “Wide Angle View,” an exhibit on photojournalism.
Here, scarcely outside the scene of so much bustling culture, much more sobering images are seen: those of war, starvation, ruin, homelessness and suffering. Yet, alongside these are photographs of a child in a water slide, a man’s wife and his dog, posed pictures of a London-based singer-songwriter and a photographic account of Burning Man, among others. What holds these seemingly antithetical images together is simple: they are all by the same photographers.
The exhibit, which curator Gina Genis says has been 17 years in the making, focuses on the correlation between photojournalists’ professional photography and their personal work. These award-winning international photojournalists are renowned for their photojournalism, but only now is the focus shifted to include comparison to their personal photography.
“This exhibit contrasts assignment work next to personal photographs,” Genis explains in her foreword to the exhibition’s catalog. “Wide Angle View blends Superman with Clark Kent, giving us a sense of the human behind the lens.”
Each photographer is presented as a placard with biographic information: commendations, qualifications, quotations and the like. Arranged to the left of each placard is the photojournalist’s assigned, professional work; to the right of the placard are the personal photographs.
It was fascinating to see the relationship between the personal and professional. In some cases, such as with Los Angeles Times photographer Rick Loomis’ somber shots of landmine victims juxtaposed with the fierce vivacity of stilt-walkers at Burning Man, the two sides of the photographic coin strongly contrast each other.
Genis was especially concerned with this correlation, intrigued by the notion of a photojournalist witnessing some of the most terrible sights in the world and returning home to lead a perfectly normal life. She describes the roots of the exhibit in her finding out in 1994 that celebrated photojournalist Kevin Carter had committed suicide.
Carter, a South African photojournalist who became the subject of both commendation and harsh criticism for his Pulitzer Prize-winning feature photo of a starving Sudanese toddler being closely watched by a vulture as she fought to get to a feeding center, killed himself shortly after winning the coveted prize at age 33. In his suicide note, he cited being haunted by vivid memories of the horrors he witnessed through his camera lens, images he perhaps could not forget because he had been paid to have them in print all over the world.
It was with an eye to this specific facet of photography and photojournalism that Genis began to organize “Wide Angle View,” choosing photography not only from Loomis but from a myriad of other photojournalists as well, even going so far as to include a separate media room in which more in-depth documentaries are shown.
Some of the more powerful selections emphasized the parallels between personal and professional photography, tying in the subjects of professional work to what meant most to the photographer in his or her personal life.
One of the best examples was the photography of Tim Wimborne, an Australian photographer whose account of the 2010 floods in Pakistan featured images of suffering children, photographs that presented a haunting likeness in subject matter to personal photography of his own son. Both sets of images were emotionally captivating, but in staggeringly contradictory ways; though his work in Pakistan evokes distress as only suffering children can, so does his personal work to the effect of nostalgic, childlike fascination with the world.
Another connection conceptually prominent in the exhibit was the work of Heidi Laughton, whose work with NGOs like Save the Children in China and KMET in Kenya brought her to a project called “Yunnan: A Portrait of a Province.” The specific photographs in the exhibit were of the Nu, an ethnic minority whose population numbers less than 27,000. Just as she displays their way of life petering out into potential non-existence, her personal photography is a haunting mirror of Laughton’s own hardships. Taken from her personal collection are a series of photographs dedicated to her fight with breast cancer, a photo-diary of sorts documenting the descent of her health and the harsh effects of chemotherapy.
These provide the most lasting impressions on viewers because they are not only the most visually striking, but they contain in them an enigmatic, personal connection between photographer and photograph. As is with any art, the most affecting pieces are ones where the artist, whether photographer or otherwise, believes in the subjects and assignments to which they are not simply commissioned, but which they are passionately compelled to capture. These pieces make explicit the intrinsic ties between subject and artist, furthering viewers’ understandings that an intense emotional relationship exists between the photographers and the photographed — not simply imparting an image through a lens, but conveying life as they perceive it.
Wide Angle View is at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Arts (OCCCA) until March 26, 2011. Admission is, as always, free. Guided tours are available through the curator. Contact Gina Genis at email@example.com for more information.