On Mice, Eagles and PhDs

A Jesuit priest checks the temperature of a gang member who has

I sat watching the gecko on the wall for 7 minutes and 11 seconds. How did I know this? Well, because the clock I had set for one hour next to the computer said I had 52 minutes and 49 seconds left. I was following the advice I had seen in the article “How to Write a Thesis in One Hour a Day.”

I had agreed to write a thesis on documentary photography, using my life’s work as an example. After 30 years of working as a photographer, it was a luxury, and I think therapeutic, to be able to sit down and reflect on what I had been doing all this time.

It was a good opportunity to re-study the masters of our craft and spend leisurely hours in the library going through some of the best documentary photography books ever produced. Spending time again with the likes of Lewis Hines, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Frank, Eugene Smith — and also looking at the work of today’s visionaries such as Eugene Richards, Sebastião Salgado, Josef Kudelka and Cristina García Rodero — was both inspiring and re-invigorating.

Bits of Paper Everywhere

I took my eyes away from the gecko and stared at the screen, where I had written, “Robert Frank says: ‘It is important to see what is invisible to others.’”

Where do I go from there and how do I reflect on this statement?

The experience gave new meaning to the notion of paper warfare — photocopies from books and copies of newspapers and magazines expounding all sorts of theories and viewpoints engulfed me. I had suggestions and ideas stuck on the walls, doors and at one stage I even had bits of papers attached to the ironing board because it was the only unused flat surface I could find in our apartment.

On the floor next to the desk at my computer, I made two stacks of paper, which I called Mice and Eagles. The Mice collection contained comments, thoughts and insights from photographers, and in the Eagles pile I had writings and discourses on photography by philosophers or academics.

The Difference Between Mice and Eagles

I named the photographers Mice because they were the ones scurrying along the ground dealing with the capturing of the photographs and all the issues that go with it — technical details, the physical difficulties as well as the ethical, moral and cultural considerations that a working photographer has to deal with on a daily basis.

The Eagles are the ones who can look at what the photographers are doing from a great height and from up there have an overall picture of what is going on. They are not dealing with the day-to-day frustrations and challenges of the working photographer, so they are able to see the profession from a different perspective.

As much as I appreciated the opinions, thoughts and ideas of Eagles such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and Vilem Flusser, at times they were difficult to engage, whereas I found reading what photographers had to say more meaningful because they spoke the same language that I did.

But don’t get me wrong; I believe there is a place for both groups. We need the Eagles to be able to gather the facts over time and distance, and to examine our profession so we can maintain the high standards and values that most photographers strive for. The Eagles are the ones who write about photographic heroes and charter our history.

Why Our History Is Important

Is the history of documentary photography important? Yes, a definite yes. It is important to know about significant photographic work and its impact, as well as the development of the practice of photographic documentation and shifts in notions of ethical parameters relating to the profession. It is important to know of the people who have produced work of note and to consider how that work affects what we are doing today.

Was it worth spending a considerable amount of time writing the thesis and having people from an academic background scrutinize my words and images? I believe it was.

It gave me time to examine where my practice fits in, where it comes from and who were the masters that most influenced me. I was able to reflect on the practicalities, how the pictures were achieved and, in dialogue with my supervisors, come to really consider the intrinsic meaning of my pictures and projects.

I turned around to see if the gecko was still there. After all, I had written another line to my thesis and I only had 299 1/4 pages to go. My hour was almost up — only 7 minutes and 27 seconds to go, just enough time for another coffee.