CLOSE UP: Lewis Bush asks ‘What is the Point of Documentary Photography?’

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© Lewis Bush

Shutter Hub member Lewis Bush was born in London, studied at the University of Warwick, and then went on to work as a consultant researcher for the United Nations HIV/AIDS task force. He has been developing his own projects since 2012, focussing on drawing attention to the forms of invisible power that operate in the world. In his own words, he states that he starts ”from the standpoint that power is always problematic because it’s natural resting state is arbitrary and untransparent. Irrespective of the intentions of the people and institutions possessing it, this is the state to which power constantly seeks to return.”

In his projects, Lewis incorporates photography, video, and data visualisation. He has curated several exhibitions and published a number of books.

His work has been nominated and shortlisted for commendations, including the Tim Hetherington Visionary Award 2018 and 2017, the Luma Rencontres d’Arles Dummy Book Award 2018, 2016 and 2015, the Magenta Foundation Flash Forward Award 2017, the Self-Publish Riga Award 2016, the Photo Espana Book Award 2016, and the Bar Tur Photobook Award 2015 and 2014.

You can find out more about Lewis’s work on his website.

 

© Lewis Bush

© Lewis Bush

What’s the point of documentary photography? This is a question I often ask myself, in moments both good and bad. It seems to me to be an essential part of doing anything that you constantly question why you are doing it, how you are doing it, and to ask what the consequences of those choices are both for you and for the world around you. Why be this thing, I often wonder, and not one of the other careers that have at different points seemed to beckon me towards them? Why am I a photographer and not, a teacher or a historian, professions which at times seem to me to have so much more utility? If you ask this question, and you don’t like the answers, it seems that something needs to change. Maybe that’s why some people never ask it.

Part of the point of doing documentary photography is of course that I enjoy it, and controversial though it might be to say it in these utilitarian times, that is an end which is justification in itself. I enjoy the puzzle and the challenge, of developing an idea, figuring out how best to approach it, getting to know people, learning about something secretive and complex, and finally bringing all of that together in a form which will spark imagination and ideas. I particularly enjoy the peculiar form of documentary I pursue, which attempts to meld many of the traditions and concerns of social documentary, with visual approaches taken from fine art, and research techniques lifted from investigative journalism. When I am causing disquiet to people in all three of these groups, that is maybe when I am enjoying myself most.

But enjoyment isn’t reason enough to put something out into the world. Professional artists who say they just make art for themselves are I think, a little disingenuous, it is a childish response to the threat of critique to reposte “who cares what you think anyway” after you have quite clearly asked to know exactly what a stranger thinks. It seems all the more disingenuous for someone who makes work about critical issues, issues which beg to be seen, talked about, discussed, whether that discussion is positive or not. One of the points of documentary photography for me is that it can be like a magnifying lens on a problem, and while it is unrealistic to expect photography in itself to change or fix that problem, that focus alone can have its benefits.

One of those benefits is that engaging documentary photograph can I think cause something akin to what the Brazilian pedagogue Paolo Freire called conscientização or consciousness raising. It can engage people with issues, and it can develop their criticality about them. Documentary photography can be a form of teaching, and by this I do not mean the paternalistic, didactic image of a Victorian classroom, lines of desks attentively faced to the front (although it certainly has sometimes been that sort of teaching), but rather I mean teaching in the radical, emancipatory mode exemplified by figures like Freire. Documentary photography might not cause audiences to take to the streets in protest against the particular issue or problem being depicted, but it perhaps helps to build up their intolerance and perhaps resilience to such things in the future.

And the future is to me the other half of what makes documentary photography feel like a worthwhile pursuit to me, because I see it very much as an act of record keeping, of documentation for the future. To this it can fairly be pointed out that the records I keep are highly subjective, but the trainee historian quickly learns that this is true of all records, and that the accounts to be least trusted are those that try hardest to hide their subjectivities.

© Lewis Bush

© Lewis Bush

© Lewis Bush

Metropole, my series on the redevelopment of London by ruthless property developers and anonymous overseas investors is, I hope, an example of this. Redevelopment in London is often conflated with gentrification, because the things often occur in close proximity to each other, but they are in fact distinct processes. If gentrification is exemplified by the image of the latte drinking, fixed gear riding young professional, redevelopment (in London at least) is exemplified by glittering towers of luxury apartments, many of which will be bought by anonymous overseas investors, or change hands rapidly through a process of irrational value accumulation known as ‘flipping’. Redevelopment has a real and profound impact on the city, from displacing large numbers of people uprooted by redevelopment, to exacerbating homelessness, to eroding the local political process through unaccountable lobbying and occasionally even bribery by developers.

Several years ago I began photographing these developments in a highly subjective way, which is intended to distort their images into monstrous nightmare, emulating the disorientating nightmare experience by many who currently or formerly live around them. These images are combined with appropriated examples of the way property developers view these schemes themselves, images are just as much a fantasy or a distortion as my photographs, but lean in the exact opposite direction. The last portion of the book is a series of texts, case studies on major developments and developers revealing through meticulous research the dubious and sometimes outright corrupt methods they employ in order to build these schemes. Tales of tax evasion, shell companies, political lobbying and more.

I can’t stop what is taking place in London, I’m not sure any one person could. The processes are too deep, too complex, too long running, and ultimately just too forceful. The institutions and individuals behind them too powerful and numerous, the mechanisms of accountability that can be brought to bear against them are few and weak. But what a series like Metropole can I hope do is to refocus people on the issue of redevelopment and gentrification in London, through that perhaps making them readier to resist it, and as a result making it just a bit harder for developers in the future.

I still have misgivings about describing what I do as documentary photography, and so it seems do others who invariably introduce me as an artist, a label I’ve always disavowed. Often alongside asking myself what the point of documentary photography is, I often find myself asking if that’s really the right word for what I do. Perhaps, and without wishing to make light of any of these professions, there are fragments of teaching, fragments of history, alongside a mixture of much else.

© Lewis Bush

© Lewis Bush

Metropole is available to order from Lewis’ online store and from the publisher Overlapse.


 

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