Like many photographers and others associated with photography I am very fortunate to have been asked by a few people to share my ideas on the medium through their magazines and websites. This often takes the form of an initial email enquiring if I would be interested in collaborating followed by a suggestion that the interviewer will send some of the questions over for me to look at before we speak. Or that I can write responses to and return as a completed article via email. I always answer in the same way.
I reply that I do not want to see the questions and definitely do not want to write answers to any questions supplied. I am always happy and indeed flattered that anyone would want to know what I think about any subject or about my career but what I want to engage in is a mutually respectful conversation, not a series of constructed questions and answers.
That is not to say that I do not enjoy reading a well crafted Q and A, but for it to have flow, pace and a sense of believability it has to be based upon a conversation where both parties respond to each other and the course of the conversation is not pre-determined.
The reason for me raising this now, is that I recently purchased and read Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice, edited by former gallerist Sasha Wolf and published by Aperture. I always enjoy hearing from the ‘horse’s mouth’ when it comes to any explanation of a photographers methodology and therefore I looked forward to hearing from the photographers included. Those questioned consists of a mainly US centric group including Doug Dubois, Dawoud Bey, Alec South, Robert Adams and other American art practice based photographers plus international practitioners such as Paul Graham, Rinko Kawauchi and Manjari Sharma. So far so good!
However, there is a problem and for me that problem lies with the repetitive question structure that allows no space for a follow-up question by the questioner to the responses given. This reduces the book and the photographers insights to a dip-in and dip-out collection of quotes (an aspect further emphasised by the full-page graphic display of featured pull-quotes, a definite case of design over function). This prevents any interrogation or investigation into what the photographer/artist has said, as the questioning moves inevitably on to the same question in the same order that the previous photographer in the book has been asked.
In effect this takes an interesting and well-established collection of respected photographers and places them into a glossy magazine Q and A format complete with “what was the first camera you owned?” And a random personal fact question, that seems out of place and superfluous. In an interview discussing the format of the book with Jon Feinstein at Humble Arts Wolf address her choice of the repeated questions.
Feinstein: You ask each photographer the same set of questions. Why is this important to the book and its ultimate goal?
Wolf: The goal of the book was to be able to compare and contrast, so it was absolutely essential that all of the artists were answering the same questions. From the very beginning, I imagined readers opening the book up, finding their favourite artists or those they relate to somehow, and marking those pages and flipping back and forth comparing answers.
This may be how people choose to view and read the book but to create a structure that encourages such a flippant approach to the information it contains especially at a time when teachers are trying to encourage students to whom this book is focused to reflect upon and analyse text is I feel an opportunity missed in pursuit of a format.
It has never been easier to hear photographers talk about their work in-person and online, to engage in conversation with them through social media and at exhibitions and book signings. We are bombarded by the soundbite and inundated with the demand for the ‘quick-fix’. We have enough of this ‘constructed-answer’ approach to the interview in online blog ‘interviews’, we do not need it in a book that could have been truly informative and revalatory.
What we need is nuanced, informed discussion, based upon relevant, rigorous questioning. The journalistic qualities that good journalism has always been based upon.
You can read the complete interview between Jon Feinstein and Sasha Wolf here: http://hafny.org/blog/2019/10/a-new-book-highlights-how-40-of-todays-most-prolific-photographers-build-and-sustain-a-successful-body-of-work?fbclid=IwAR0uQvqXvTYz7OHPjsCQpxyNlR1Nk2V8aeNVvuOtZLAnD7vMfuVw_QxpoVk
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.
© Grant Scott 2019