The Inane…

BY Rogan Coles IN Notes from the field ON

…and the inept.

While viewing some of my work, someone was once given to say, “Why do you persist in shooting this shit when you could be shooting the rich and famous”? I was a little too gobsmacked to respond then and there and this, in a timely fashion.

Looking over my work and, in the greater scheme of things, it may just seem this way – as in shooting shit and this together in ways that seem to be somewhat inane and inept. I mean, what else is there to this stuff? In one shot we have some guy snapping back a fish’s head. In another, we have someone standing draped in a blanket. In the last image we have some guy fishing something out of a box. Inane and inept. The term “banal” could even be added to the mix. Meaningless, truly.

What kind of shit is this? In tracing back my roots from where my extended family herald, these shots may be nothing more than pictures of working class or native folk – kind of patronizing, kind of colonial. I don’t know, I’m just saying as I’m asking. I’ve never really been in a position to judge these things. Somewhere, there’s also been the suggestion that, given my countenance and person, that I was taking certain advantage of the “disadvantaged” – the working poor – while taking these pictures. Maybe, who knows? Never got around to asking these folk.

Given that I grew up in Africa and have lived much of my life in the Far East, that this may indeed be the way in which I may approach my work – subconsciously at least. That the disposition supported presented in this work may well be somewhat imperialistic if not imperious to say the least. And, again to ask, is this why I shoot what I shoot?

Again, I cannot truly answer? In shooting what I shoot, it’s all there in the moment. Why I was there and why I chose to be in any of these locations at the time may be another matter altogether. But, this is not up for consideration at the moment.

Of these images, and like I’ve stated, they were of the moment, in the moment. I didn’t know any of these people, then as now. And, equally, I was unknown any of them. In the moment of taking any of these images, I was as much of a stranger to them as they were and are to me and, perhaps more so. In each of these situations I was or saw myself as transient, seen as something passing. Nothing more and nothing less. If anything, a brief intrusion into their working day, perhaps something easily and equally forgotten.

From my side and this with hindsight, I seem to have put a frame around a moment and, in the process, immortalized someone or something if not the moment itself. I can’t seem put this any more simply than that.

Had I been out there photographing the rich and famous, perhaps the subjects of that work would have all been known. Well, let’s just say “better known” than any of the individuals presented in the images featured here.

To be frank, I don’t think I could have ever been as “honest” with subjects of that ilk than it seems I’ve been while taking these images. Other than selecting and framing the “moment”, here there were no compromises. I didn’t ask any of these people to pose. Didn’t even ask them to move. And, there was no one else here to mind or orchestrate the moment, just the photographer and the subject. This is the way it was, then as now.

Anything else would have been nothing more than “theatre”, something staged and contrived and thus, a compromise. Consequently, photographing the rich and famous is not quite the sort of work I’d care to solicit or pursue – paying or otherwise. Besides, the last thing I would want to be doing is vamping off the backs of the rich and famous and, in the process, being sycophant to their theatre.

At the end of the day I suppose I can now say this, I shoot this shit because there’s no one out there who can afford to pay me to shoot this shit. That I do much of this work for myself may say something else. But, which ever way one looks at it, this sort of makes my work and these images priceless and they are. Whose selling? More specifically, who is buying? No one. And, does it matter? No, not really. Like water and like the truth, this and other of my work will find its own level and this, in its own good time. Enjoy…

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Image references:

  1. The first image, snoek fishing was taken while documenting snoek fishing in False Bay, Cape Town, South Africa around 1977/78. This was the first significant social documentary project I worked on. It was self-financed.
  2. The second image features a Sotho trader heading back to Lesotho from a trading post in Witsieshoek, now known as Phuthaditjhaba, in the Free State, South Africa. This image was taken while on one of many visits to the area during the 1980’s.
  3. The last image was taken while documenting Smithfield Market. In 1991 I spent around two weeks documenting the activities in the market and the people working there. Again, this project was self-financed.

This post is the first of part of a three part series. Part 2 and Part 3 to follow.
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THE LOST YEARS PROJECT
The basic remit of this, The Lost Years Project, is to raise funds to bring this body of work and other related photography done between 1976 to around 1994 together, to digitise the negatives from which these images are derived and then, to create various products such as prints, print portfolios and books featuring this photography. There is a wealth of photography here that should find its way into the public realm – one way or the other. The PDF eBooks I have on offer here are but a small token of this effort. There’s a lot more from where all this came.
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This article was originally written and published on February 1, 2016 on a predecessor to this website and uploaded here on 12 June, 2018.

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