Can this photograph be both a landscape image and one showing a human story?

June 30, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

When does a ‘landscape’ photograph suddenly become a kind of reportage image? By which I mean a documentary photograph that tells an altogether different human story.

Here’s a photograph taken alongside the River Darent, near Farningham, Kent. I captured the image from underneath a road tunnel. Although a busy-ish road overhead, it was a quiet place. All I could hear while setting up my shot was the ripple of the flowing water and an occasional heavy vehicle above. I saw the scene and decided to take a framed (by the arch of the tunnel) view of the river, the footpath and the woodland beyond. 


Looking at the picture, there’s some intriguing interplay and transitions between light and dark. There are also lovely reflections in the water and specular highlights, particularly where the water movement flickers on the curved tunnel wall. Even the colours of the graffiti either side, for me, enhance the overall scene as an intriguing rural ‘landscape’, a place enjoyed over decades by walkers and, yes, ‘graffiti-ists’ alike. 


Except, as a viewer you might argue that it’s not really a ‘landscape’ image at all. Graffiti on the walls and the footbridge and what looks like a rough-sleeper’s bed and possessions box, transforms the scene into something more sinister. Less an idyllic rural escape; more an edge-of-town, edge-of-life place that the local police and social services might want to keep an eye on.


While I concede the graffiti makes the image less idyllic landscape and perhaps more semi-rural (with a nearby thriving youth culture), it doesn’t, of itself, undermine the ‘landscape’ story. It’s still a countryside scene, albeit with an edge, where the viewer can continue to imagine a lovely walk along a river bank, sheltered from the glare and heat of the sun by overhanging, cooling trees, while enjoying the sounds of a gentle breeze rustling through the leaves and the flow of the water along the river bed. It remains a scene of somewhere mindful, where a walker might enjoy nature and some much needed Me Time


What, I concede, does really change the photograph to a reportage-type image, is the inclusion of the stowed bedding raised slightly off the ground, along with a storage box. Even including these objects tucked away quietly bottom left of the frame, transforms what the photograph is about. Now, the bed gives a heightened value to the darkness in the scene over the light and to the graffiti on the walls over the river, country path and woodlands. It has become a picture about the darker side of life, of human difficulties, a hand-to-mouth existence, a daily struggle for survival and sheltering from the elements; a vulnerable existence full of peril.


When considering this location for a photograph, I saw a few compositions that excluded the bedding and box. I could have captured a pure landscape scene, or otherwise edited out the items in the picture and as a viewer you wouldn’t have been any the wiser (unless you were a local who had seen the objects for yourself). 


So, why include the bedding and box, knowing that this would transform what the photograph was about and how it would be viewed? Well, after considering the image over a few days, I decided there was no reason why I couldn’t combine two seemingly unrelated genres. Why not share what looks like a challenging human story, in a place where other more fortunate people go to relax and enjoy a break from challenges? And after all, my assumptions here might be wrong. There may be a different story here. Perhaps the bedding didn’t belong to a victim of life but someone whose positive life choice was to live outdoors. In which case, why can’t our Outdoor Lifer enjoy a night’s rest in a lovely woodland, under a solid shelter, with a gently flowing river for company?


With this latter story in mind, romantically I considered calling this photograph ‘Wherever I lay my hat’. Less romantically, however, and going back to my assumed story, I then thought about calling it ‘Rough Country’. In the end, I didn’t give it a title. I just decided to share the image and let viewers make up their own minds. But either way, I think this shows there’s a legitimate place for combining genres and for ‘Landscape Reportage’ photographs.


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