From a photographer’s point of view, photography is about finding meaning — meaning not just in the sense of understanding what we see around us, but also meaning in the work we want to create, why we create what we do, and the stories we are telling through the process and the final work.
Photography is, and always has been, a medium for visual communication. Though some of the very early photographers might have said otherwise, particularly as photography was first seen only as a means of recording a scene or subject placed in front of the camera (obscura), an image that could be produced in hours, not weeks or months (as through painting).
Today, a plethora of images competes for our attention on a daily basis, in advertising, news, art, and social media. It has therefore never been more important that an image provides us with more than just a record of a scene. A photograph must convey its intent clearly and quickly, be it through emotion, shock, or a pleasing aesthetic.
One of the most powerful photographic genres for communicating and telling stories is that of documentary. So to kick off this column, I invited Troy Goodall, Auckland-based commercial and advertising photographer, to talk about one of his recent images.
I do, however, need to start with a bit of a disclaimer, so as not to disappoint readers, or take away from the devastating situations many photojournalists around the world face on a daily basis. Troy’s image, while having the visual impact, feel, and look of a documentary photograph, has in fact been captured through staging.
This ‘portrait’ is just one in a series, taken as part of a collaborative project between Sky TV’s History Channel and Auckland advertising agency DDB (and photographed by Troy). The project involved the creation of fake trenches and re-enactments, in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, as part of New Zealand’s WWI centenary commemorations of the Gallipoli landings, an Anzac tribute to honour all the soldiers who went to war.
The intention of the project was to raise awareness, and provide ‘spectators’ with a glimpse of what soldiers experienced living in WWI trenches. The scene itself was painted in black and white, so as to emulate images found in film archives of the war.
As is the aim within most documentary photographs, Troy wanted viewers to have an emotional connection with the soldiers, and “to feel closer to an important part of New Zealand history.” It was this very emotional pull that initially struck me with the image, and as a viewer, it becomes very easy to feel empathy for the subject and get lost in the narrative being presented to us.
This empathy and connection was enabled by Troy, when creating the portrait, through placing himself in the position of the soldier, “So the images became more of a moment in a narrative that the viewer could be part of,” rather than it being a straight portrait.
In creating the series, the main challenge Troy faced was that the re-enactment was a live event which encouraged public interaction. As the event was also being filmed, it was challenging for him to find opportunities to, “jump in and spend time shooting.” However, a luxury not accorded to photojournalists in real-life situations was being able to watch the re-enactment several times before starting to photograph. This meant Troy was able to work out the times, angles, and images he wanted to capture.
Despite the fact that the image has been based on a staged event, it has the effect it is intended to have. The skill of the photographer is evident in the precision of the framing and timing of capture, bringing to us the soldier’s powerfully soulful and empty expression, truly communicating the experience — and providing us with the story — of living in the trenches. It’s a story, even as a re-enactment, no less powerful than the many well-known ‘real-life’ documentary photographs we have witnessed.
You can find more of Troy’s images from this series, and his other work, at troygoodall.com.