Exercise 6 – The Dad Project and The Country Doctor

Comparing The Country Doctor with The Dad Project

The fundamental difference between the two photo stories that are described below is the relationship between the photographer, the subject and the work. W.Eugene Smith was the classic “concerned photographer”, he invested in his subjects to such an extent that he often lost himself in his projects (i) but he remained an outsider looking in. Briony Campbell is not just an insider but is one of the subjects of story, she appears in isolation as herself and as part of the relationship with her father.

The Country Doctor (2) is a politically motivated photo story, choreographed, preplanned and premeditated as part of a story to support the Republican standpoint on private health care. The subject was preselected for his good looks and many of the photographs are staged. It is often held up as a great example of the photo story, and it probably is, as long as we remember its context and the level to which the audience is being manipulated. It might be exaggerating slightly but it is, in effect, propaganda.

The Dad Project (4) is so obviously the opposite to all of those elements that it practically needs no further explanation. It is personal and intimate but we know from Briony Campbell’s essay (5) about the project that she still went through the process of planning the direction, but not the individual pictures, of the project with her father as an active collaborator to that process.

We now look at Country Doctor from a distance of 67 years but it is hard to imagine that it had a strong emotional impact even when first published. There is an overall narrative but it is a fabricated linear story along the lines of a “day in the life of” or here ” a week in the life of”; to build the story we are given a series of cameos, each one is touched on quite briefly, there is no effort to build these sub-plots to have any shape or emotional texture. “An Old Man Dies at Night” is a set of three photos, sad but ultimately clinical.

The Dad Project is about emotions, love and loss, loving relationships and even the momentary but still intimate relationships formed between professional carers and their patients. A common reaction to this work is to cry. It literally brings tears to the viewer’s  eyes, we connect and totally relate to Ms. Campbell and her family and place our own stories into the context of David Campbell’s story.

In summary the difference is the one explored by Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her essay Inside/Ouside, as summarised in Ashley le Grange’s book (7). The true insider will always create a different and more intimate viewpoint that the concerned outsider, for some subjects the outsider can move inside enough to provide a insider’s viewpoint but, in The Dad Project, part of the compelling nature of the work is that it is truly unique, only Briony Campbell could have provided this viewpoint.

W.Eugene Smith – Country Doctor

I looked at W.Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor during TAoP within a wider essay looking at how Gene Smith had been physiologically impacted by his coverage of the Pacific War and how this altered his approach to photography. (here)

This is what I had to say about Country Doctor:

In The Genius of Photography (1) Gerry Badger puts Smith’s post war work into the context of two opposing ideologies that prevailed in post war Europe, on one hand the reaction to the horror of a six year war was to withdraw into one’s self and soley take responsibility for one’s own actions; Badger labels this as the negative response. On the other hand the positive response was the humanist approach of heightened social concern, a response that Cartier-Bresson, Capa, W. Eugene Smith and their fellow Magnum photographers exemplify. This became known as the “concerned photographer” approach.

Smith epitomised this approach, an obsessive artist who was notoriously difficult to work with, who progressed from sentimental narratives with political undertones about “good people” such as Country Doctor (1948) (2)  and Nurse Midwife (1951) to an in-depth study of Pittsburg (1955 to 1957) and eventually to Minamata (1975). This was a move from sentimental observer to involved crusader and the changes in his narrative style are informative.

Country Doctor is one of the best known examples of the classic Life Magazine photo story. It is considered in depth in several sources including by Michael Freeman in The Photographer’s Story (3). Freeman says that Country Doctor is widely regraded as the first of what Life Magazine would call a “Photo Essay”, a presentation style made possible, perhaps desirable and essential by the large page, illustrated magazines that had evolved in the 1930s.

Smith and his, long suffering, photo editor, created an approach and a final layout that would become something of a template for the photo essay.

  • The opening page is a strong, scene setting shot of the doctor on his rural rounds – (1 x Photo)
  • The next four double page spreads are stories within the story, sub-plots, describing four different aspects of the doctor’s working life
    • “He must specialise in a dozen different fields” (9 x photos),
    • “An accident interrupts his leisure” (5 x photos),
    • “An old man dies at night” (3 x photos),
    • “He sets a badly dislocated elbow and amputates a gangrenous leg” (7 x photos)
  • The closing double page spread is spilt between,
    • left, a closing statement and three images, “Community absorbs most of his time” (3 x photos)
    • and, right, a strong closing shot of a tired doctor drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. (1 x photo)
  • 29 photos in total

Each double page spread is different and the photo sizes and aspects are varied within the pages and the overall story. Life Magazine found a photogenic subject and setting and Smith had no qualms about setting up individual shots. Smith said that “The majority of photographic stories require a certain amount of setting up, re-arranging and stage direction to bring pictorial and editorial coherency to pictures ….. it is done for the purpose of a better translation of the spirit of the actuality, it is completely ethical.” (3). This statement and the fact that we know that there was a significant amount of stage direction in capturing Country Doctor seems to set the photo essay or photo story aside from what we consider to be photo journalism. Smith very much saw himself as an artist and admitted to being “constantly torn between the attitude of the conscientious journalist who is a recorder and interpreter of the facts and of the creative artist who often is necessarily at poetic odds with the literal facts.” (1). These two statements by Smith help to reveal something about the photo story as a medium:

  • The images might be set-up and stage directed to communicate what the photograph sees as the essence of the narrative.
  • The photo story, presented in the style of Country Doctor, implies a linear continuum but, in reality the sequence of the overall story and what is included or excluded in the sub-plots may have occurred in an entirely different sequence.
  • It seems important to recognise that the photo essay or story in this form is an editorial not a news story. The stage direction, sequencing and editing are all interventions on the part of either the photographer or the picture editor.

To take this point a little further, Freeman tells us that the Denver bureau chief for Life magazine story boarded the narrative in the form of 45 images in a shooting script to guide Smith’s work on location and many of the final shots did come from this storyboard.

In Country Doctor the magazine wanted to entertain their readers with an interesting human interest story and to report on the modernisation of medicine at the local level (3). It was not social documentary photography in the sense that Life or Smith were campaigning for any change, nor were they drawing attention to the plight of the doctor or his patients but they did want to remind Americans that they had no need for state funded health care.

Briony Campbell – The Dad Project

Briony Campbell was engaged in her masters in documentary photography when she decided. after much deliberation, to film and photograph the last few months of her father’s life. The end result, The Dad Project (4) is a gentle, loving, documentary about her father, herself and the relationship they shared. In her essay describing the creation of the work (5) she talks about the complex, self analysis she had to engage in to be able to simultaneously be a loving daughter and the photographer and curator of a piece of work that, on face value, explores death, one of the taboo subjects of western society. In reality the work is far more about life than death, it is a celebration of her’s and her mother’s love for her father and is a tribute to his driving desire to have historically provided for his family and to contribute to his daughter’s work now. In a few photographs and a short ten minute film edited by the Guardian film department (6) we are introduced to a selfless man whose purpose in life was to give and it is this, and the love of his daughter and wife, that are the the lasting memories of this work.

There are three intertwined narrations in the photographs. The first documents David Campbell’s decline and is the linear thread that holds the project together. The second is the relationship between David and the project and with Briony and the third is the story of Briony’s emotional journey.

There is a complexity here that an objective, concerned documentary photography could never hope to achieve. The dual role of daughter and photographer plus her father’s, and her mother’s, desire to support the project means that she is working on an emotional precipice. She is open about the conflicting choices of reacting as a daughter and carer versus getting the shot, a conflict that is often discussed by photojournalists but for them the choice is usually clear, they can always fall back on the argument that it is their job to get the shot. For Briony Campbell there are no let-out clauses, she has to confront and resolve these conflicting requirements and, by publishing the work, she opens up that decision making process to the audience.

The captions she adds to the photographs are, as ever, key to communicating the full complexities of the work. They ensure that, for example, we see David in the ambulance that is taking to him to the hospice for the final time, and sense her admiration for him as expressed through the words of the paramedic. The soft effect created by shooting into the light could have made this a mawkishly sentimental photograph but the caption emphasises the positive reaction of the paramedic, a reaction that we can see in his face, and that leads us to see the strength of character still present in David and how his daughter has woven this sad moment into a thing of beauty.

From the perspective of considering this as a photo story her use of shots of the sky, of sunlight through trees, of the light falling on her own face and her own tears add the third and very powerful dimension to the project. These photos chart her emotions during the last months of her father’s life, they photograph the unphotograhable in a way that only works when intertwined with the other two story lines but the approach is, in no way, weakened by this interrelationship.

It is the project that many of us wished we had done when we lost loved ones, a tribute and the recording of a memory that adds more value to a useful life now ended. Its power lies in its common theme, the majority of the audience immediately relates to the subject and instinctively understands Briony’s emotional journey and, in some ways, this is its differentiator. A significant proportion of documentary photography brings us new information, alerts us to something we didn’t know or where we are not properly informed; here we are given no new information, we know and understand every element of the story so by sharing her father and her grief we are given the opportunity to use this work as a key to unlock our own emotions.

Notes on Text

( i ) Following his departure from Life Magazine in 1955 Smith joined Magnum who found him an assignment to photograph Pittsburg for a book by Stefan Lorant. This was intended to be a three week job but Smith spent 2 years photographing the city, missing the deadline for Lorant’s book and turning down Magnum’s last ditch attempt to sell his series because the potential publisher would only use half the pictures Smith believed they needed to tell the story. Some of the Pittsburg photos can see on the Magnum site and they are in stark contrast to his work for Life.

Sources

Books

(1) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: how Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(3) Freeman, Michael (2012) The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative. Lewes: The Ilex Press.

(7) le Grange, Ashley. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Kindle edition. Oxford: Focal Press

Internet

(2) Smith, W. Eugene. W.Eugene Smith’s Landmark Photo Essay, ‘Country Doctor’ – Time Life – http://life.time.com/history/life-classic-eugene-smiths-country-doctor/#1

(4) Campbell, Briony. The Dad Project. (accessed at brionycampbell.com 15.2.15) – phttp://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/?overview

(5) Campbell, Briony (2011) The Dad Project [Briony Campbell essay] (accessed at brionycampbell.com 15 .2 15) – http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf

(6) Campbell, Briony. The Dad Project Film (accessed at brionycampbell.com 15 .2 15) – http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/

 

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