silver and plata

One of the themes that came up in discussion with Santiago Porter tonight was his work as a photojournalist. He was constantly drawing distinctions between photography and photojournalism, and how he sees photojournalism as responding to editorial needs rather than being conducted by the priorities of the creator alone. It’s a bit of an artistically suffocating, press-driven world in his experience, one that has far too strong a tendency toward sensationalism and even exploitation.

He mentioned all this by way of explaining that he has made a point throughout his career to separate his work as a photojournalist from his work as a photographer and an artist. One way of doing that is taking photographs “in the first person,” choosing to tell his own story (as a photographer can) rather than that of others (as a photojournalist does). Another is shooting in black and white, rather than in color. Another is developing photos with the gelatin silver process, rather than digitally. (Even and especially if that gets you less plata.) In these ways, he keeps his work as a photojournalist separate aesthetically and otherwise from his work as an artist. It is also for him a way of making a statement, of reserving his artistic work from the norms and demands of the oversaturated visual environment in which images are currently produced.

This was an important lesson for me, though in a different medium. One of the things that struck me about Porter’s work – which is truly beautiful, please do take a look – is how long it takes. Many of his projects span years, such as his portrait series in the wake of the AMIA bombing, completed nearly a decade after the fact. Part of this is personal, waiting for inspiration to strike and whatnot. But a lot of it is a deliberate introduction of time into his work, for that work’s aesthetic benefit. Those portraits would be less touching if the absence were not so clearly long and painful and enormous: when the baby whose mother was killed goes from nine months old to nine years old, we feel that distance in all its tragedy.

I’ve been struggling with these ideas, too, as I look toward graduation and going into the workforce as (most likely) a journalist. I am always saying that I’m nervous about becoming a journalist, because I love writing too much. But in fact, I think I can learn from Porter’s attitude toward his work as I launch into my own. Just as photojournalism and photography are two related but wholly different disciplines, so too journalism and writing. If I am going to be any good at either, I have to be able to separate them. That means taking time, and working on fewer projects for longer. It means deliberately working in different forms, not allowing my writing to be dictated by the norms and demands of journalism – liberating myself from the constant need to opine and to publish. It means allowing my writing privacy and gestation and, God knows, editing. 

I’m grateful for Porter’s example in this respect. I feel myself constantly collecting little life models as I go off on my own soon. I didn’t know how I was going to handle this question until I was looking at it. It’s simple really. Be disciplined, but crucially, be independent.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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