A recent series of photographs depicting the Polish city of Krakow by Supanit Riansrivilai, who was born in Thailand and lives in France, caused a bit of a kerfuffle over at The Black Snapper. Much to their credit, the Black Snapper folks made this the topic of a post. This is the old problem with insiders seeing other things than outsiders: If you visit a country, your perception of that country will depend on your own cultural background, which could be very different. If you live in that country you will inevitably notice different things - and seeing a foreigner show things that you might consider to be unflattering only adds to your discomfort. So unlike the Black Snapper folks I don’t see the problem necessarily in how Central Europe is perceived (even though this might play a minor role), and I also don’t see it as a question of photographic style. Instead, the main issue seems to be that there simply is no realistic versus an unrealistic or a true versus a false depiction of Central Europe or any other place. A photographer will see things based on his or her background, and while we can disagree with it and claim that “no, that’s not a good depiction of this place”, it still doesn’t automatically mean that that photographer’s view is less valid than ours (the lack of smiling children or whatever else notwithstanding). And really, if we only wanted flattering views of any given place, we’d be stuck with brochures produced by tourist information offices, wouldn’t we?
(updated below - twice)
Update: Nick Shere chimes in, noting that “there is a fundamental shallow-ness that comes from experiencing a place as a traveler or visitor, which I think often drastically limits how much the traveler can really tell us.” That is true, in a certain way, but the logical consequence, namely that only people who grew up in any given place really can take photos there cannot be the solution, can it? As much as stereotypes, myths, and/or pre-conceived or pre-fixed ideas about any given place can make its portrayal flawed (for a “wonderful” example see Peter Granser’s “Signs”), as much as not knowing a place can make a portrayal shallow, any photographer living somewhere is as much influenced by the place’s own myths and especially taboos - and we cannot reject one photographer’s myths while accepting another one’s.
The traveler’s view is just that, the traveler’s view; and we have to find out how much we can get out of it, how much there really is to be seen in the images. Given that various photographers have made a career out of traveling to places and then taking quick photographs (Martin Parr comes to mind), we need to be very careful with any kind of judgment. While the photographs might be shallow in some way, they might be incredibly perceptive in other ways. I often feel that it is that perceptiveness that bothers people, because a traveler/visitor might show us things that we prefer not to see or to admit in public (and that we would never photograph), especially not in front of strangers.
Update (13 August): Another post on Black Snapper about the role of cultural background.