Recently, Bruno Boudjelal was interviewed for the Leica Camera Blog about his work from Algeria. Boudjelal is a photographer whose work fascinates me because of his vision. The photographs he makes are complicated and messy. The stories he tells have no clear beginning or end. His work is very open to interpretation. This video shows him are work in Paris photographing immigrants from Algeria. Boudjelal finds opportunities for pictures where I am apt to not see anything. He pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable for a “successful” photograph.
I usually show Boudjelal’s work in my classes because he is the antithesis of the majority of photographers that are discussed. He makes recordings of his experiences whose meanings are not always clear. Other photographers make crisp declarative statements about the world while Boudjelal uses fragments. With a background in documentary photography I can appreciate the complicated stories he is attempting to tell. Stories of homeland and family are universal and fascinating when the stories involve foreign countries clouded in mystery. The mystery in the pictures adds to the viewing experience.
The first time I experienced his pictures was in an issue of Leica World from 2004. The pictures were from his Algeria series and they showed blurry and seemingly hastily composted moments from an exotic country. It was during this time I was starting to question the limitations of working at a newspaper and I wonder what was out there besides my narrow view of photography. Boudjelal opened my eyes to a seeing a way that highlights the experience of photographing, not just the finished photograph. Within a year from first seeing these pictures I was applying to graduate programs to expand my photographic horizons. The act of considering this work to be valid forced me to think about what it means to make a picture. Does it always have to be clean and orderly? Does it always have to be sharp? Is there more than one way to photograph?
Working in newspapers for nearly decade indoctrinated a certain aesthetic in me. To say these aesthetic is clean and orderly would be an understatement. Letting go of those ways of seeing have not been an easy process for me. It is still ongoing as I continue to question what it means to make a picture in 2013. Having spent some time researching Boudjelal I know there was a time when he made images that were “correctly exposed” and “sharp”. How he is working now is part of his process and it evolves. Learning that was a revelation to me. The older work did not draw me in as much, being more traditional black and white reportage. It was the shift to color and a willingness to challenge the ideas of composition and sharpness that made me think about his work.
When I teach I often tell students to embrace the idea of intention. Be intentional with your technique. Boudjelal’s work is the definition of intention. It is consistently on the edge of what is photographically acceptable that the technique can’t be anything but intentional. That is my take. There are times when the response to his work is more negative than positive and I am pleased by that, because it shows me students do not readily accept everything that I show. I show work that challenges their notions of what is acceptable photography.
Defining acceptable photography is what this post is boiling down to. Is Boudjelal’s work acceptable. For me, and others since he is a member of Agence VU, his work is more than acceptable. VU is an agency with a distinct aesthetic. It is a vision that is more challenging and contemporary than other agencies. It is easy to say that every photographer has a unique vision. VU is a living breathing unique vision. Boudjelal is not the only one challenging what is allowed in photography.
Reexamining my ideas on Bruno Boudjelal forces me to deal with a murkier conclusion. Simply put I dig his work. That is too easy of a conclusion. I am past the point of trying to mimic work to grow. No matter how hard I try, that work is passed over in the viewfinder or in the loupe during the editing process. That might not sound like I wanted it to. What I meant to write is that no matter how much I try to loosen myself up to see in a “freer” manner, my photographic muscle memory works against me. The same thing happens in the during the editing process. The more I try to work in a freer manner, the more formally strict I become. It is like I can’t escape my journalistic training.
The ideas I am turning over keep looping in my head. They keep coming back to me and my process. When I was younger it was easier to challenge known ideas because I had not them become ingrained yet. Now, it is more challenging because I am at a point in my creative career where experimentation is a luxury. That is probably why I have restarted this blog, to experiment. To clear my head from some of these thoughts that have been rattling around my head for some time. Thoughts that are taking up precious space. Once I get them out of my head I will be able to move on to something new. Something new for me lives in the unknown world, like the world the Bruno Boudjelal works in.