It is the fact that it is Vietnamese people themselves who are driving the project to get these pictures seen that is striking. I’ve written it before but it bears repeating that the full content of pictures is just as much made by those who see and use them as by the photographers (or camera operators) who did the original practical business. Pictures only really acquire any importance when they have something to do. Here is a fine example of a group of pictures which have found their purpose. Call it what you like: documentary, memory, perhaps even something tending towards conscience. Between a former diplomat with gentle eyes and a new generation of people who are hungry to be shown what they cannot recall, these pictures have quite suddenly become something. They’ve become an asset and a collection of stories and an invitation to understand more clearly. That’s what we call an archive of photographs, and it matters for all sorts of reasons which were not predictable when the pictures were first made.
(via John Ramsden – Everyday Life Continued | Francis Hodgson) Emphasis added.
I really, really like this. Probably because I don’t care for the idea that art should be above having a purpose. (cf. This post on Evans’s “a document has a use, whereas art is really useless.”)
But I also like the emphasis on how, even though these are not necessarily presented as great photographs, they are also not presented as implicitly anonymous. (Of course, it no doubt helps that the photographer in this case is a white dude in a foreign land.)
One of the hopes I have for photography in the future is that we will see less and less treatment of “vernacular” photography as a special genre apart from others. As time passes, it is less and less necessarily true that “found” photographs are anonymous ones, and it is also less necessarily true that the people with the ability to reorganize and recontextualize works of art are curators and academics. My (probably unjustified) hope is that it will also be less necessarily true that the latter depends on the former.
The only problem with stories like Ramsden, Maier, Cushman, etc. (aside from in some cases exasperating repetition), is the exaggerated exceptionalism that is implied when we single them out to build stories around them. A lifetime of good photography is not all that unusual in the past, and will be even less so in the future. So let the question not be, “is it a good photograph,” but “is it a photograph we can put to good use.”