We’d like to extend the notion of an online photographic community with another new column we’re calling “FotoForum.” For the first column, the topic is “On Fear and Photography,” and we’re featuring four photographers and their responses to our question below. We hope to add the column monthly, depending on the kind of response we get from all of you. And if you’d like to, please feel free to leave your response to this month’s question in the comment section at the end of this posting, along with a link to your website.––Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb
What’s frightened or disturbed or unsettled you in the past photographically, and how did you manage to resolve this so that it ended up changing your work in some way, perhaps even enriching it? For instance, this could be something about photographing in a culture very different from your own, or perhaps something a little closer to home, such as confronting a more personal fear or demon.
John Trotter. My clothes from the attack, July 1999.
Three months after I’d been nearly beaten to death by a half dozen young men, a detective showed me some of the photographic evidence of my attack. In one of the photographs, I was lying shirtless on a hospital gurney, an oxygen mask strapped to my face, with blood oozing out of wounds all over my head. Though I remembered an old green Chevy Impala stopping and an angry man exploding towards me on the sidewalk (I was photographing for the Sacramento Bee newspaper at the time), after that first blow to my face, almost everything else was lost to me.
My attack had resulted in a severe head injury, and a cognitive fog had settled heavily over my world for three months. At Sierra Gates, a brain injury rehabilitation residence, slowly I had to learn how to walk again and, most frustrating, how to remember and make sense of my experiences. Amazingly though, because of the blank space in my memory, the extreme violence of my assault was an abstraction to me until I saw the detective’s photographs of my assault.
And that’s when the fear began to settle in. The angry man I’d remembered, a gang member, was being held for a murder he’d allegedly committed later that same week, but my other five or so assailants were walking free because the many witnesses to my attack were too terrified to talk to the police. Having been beaten severely for being a photographer, I was deeply afraid to photograph in public again.
Six months after my release from Sierra Gates, however, I decided to return there to photograph other people with brain injuries. Looking back, I think it was partly because I felt safe there, the first place I’d remembered with any clarity my new, brain injured life. It was like learning to be a photographer all over again.––John Trotter
This past week was the first time I’d ever photographed in Morocco. I spent my first day trying to decide how to approach this culture, which is very different than my native Scandanavia (I was born in Finland, and now live in Norway). I decided to try something different from anything I’d ever done before in my work as a professional photographer. The thought came to me: Who exactly is the woman beneath the hijab? And isn’t she, ultimately, not that different than me? So I decided to wear a traditional costume, and to take self portraits in the streets of Marrakesh, often using a cable release. I thought I was going to feel somehow diminished as a woman and a person. What surprised me the most is that I was treated with such respect that I felt beautiful, both inside and out. –Annette Nordstrom
Annette is in the process of building a website.
Miah Nate Johnson
Miah Nate Johnson. From my notebooks.
One of the hardest things is to set out on a new path, new thoughts, new vision. During a workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown with the Webbs last summer, I laid down a photographic essay very reluctantly. It was about depression, which is sometimes called the “black dog,” a malady very hard to reveal publicly, since this work is not only the expression of others’ sufferings, but my own as well. I was nervous. I had softer stories in my box, but this one kept nagging at me.
After a week of editing, the “Black Dog” series –– a mix of my photographs and my drawings –– the work seemed to speak more directly and more clearly. At the final exhibition, I was surprised and very humbled by the response. Some people cried. Some people thanked me. It made me realize I was not alone. I still search out this mysterious road with its many pains and turns.––Miah Nate Johnson
John Masters. Macedonian shepherd.
The work of others intimidates me until I remember that I am not supposed to be taking their photographs––only my own.––John Masters