You’re having a great weekend, and you’ve just taken forty photos of a cold drink on a table to get the message across. Was there enough water beading on the glass? Is the sky blue enough?
You might be trapped in what documentary photographer and University of Wollongong lecturer Tom Williams calls the ‘narrow aesthetic of the money shot’—and to hear him talk, you might wonder why you bothered. The same camera could literally stop a war, with the right image.
“I have so many inspirations,” Williams says. “That includes photographers like James Nachtwey, and he’s very bold about his photography, very direct. He will say, ‘I want this work to run in the global mass media, to have a tangible influence’.”
He’s referring in this instance to Nachtwey’s famous images from war-torn Sudan in the early 90s, which were in fact partly responsible for mobilising global effort to help the people caught in the crossfire of a very dirty war. Nachtwey is a brilliant photographer, and the skill is evident in the photos, but the subjects—skeleton-thin men crawling into famine relief centres, starved and dying children—speak far louder than the technique.
“It’s obscene to aestheticise photos coming out of Treblinka or Sudan,” says Williams. “To talk about composition or lighting, where that particular shadow cuts in, how it’s framed. Instead it’s in the nature of photojournalism to focus on things that don’t always appear in mainstream press; and to communicate concisely.”
“You can make invisible people visible again.”
It’s the principle behind Williams’ own work. For projects like his Neighbourhood, he looked at a community close to him, blocks of high-density housing in Sydney’s Redfern and Waterloo.
“The towers were scheduled for demolition and I wanted to show real faces and stories as an alternative to statistics and assumptions.”
The people living there were diverse as any group of city-dwellers, but all were united by a shared precariousness: living in homes that could be snatched out from under them, through eviction or redevelopment or both.
Projects like this regularly span many years—for Neighbourhood, Williams spent more than 11 years following these people and documenting their lives. Relationships with his subjects grew over time, and with them, trust. This meant access to very private, truthful moments, and Williams is careful with the privilege.
“Photography allows you to meet people you might not otherwise; and to see new aspects of life. But when I’m invited into people’s lives, I have to be respectful. It’s a sacred duty, in a sense becoming a personal chronicler. It’s about asking questions, telling their stories.
“And it’s definitely not about taking something away.”
Tom Williams is a lecturer in photography at the University of Wollongong. Explore how you could study photography and the arts with UOW's range of creative arts degrees.