A colour vision – A subtle colour documentary

The 1980’s saw a shift to colour in newspapers as there was a technological stability in colour materials and a profusion of colour amateur snapshots were deemed to have a ‘naive realism’ (Bate p.63) Due to the general public acknowledging the use and veracity of colour more photographers and publishers began to use this medium.

Gradually the influence of colour photography pervaded the sphere of documentary. Photographers, publishers and NGO’s have recognised that B&W images can have a negative impact on the narrative they wish to tell. B&W ‘stories’ are seen to be ‘gritty, sombre’ and possibly to ‘spoon-feed’ the audience. In this vein, after the UN chose to review progress on the eight Millennium Development goals, Britain’s leading charities co-ordinated a photographic project to be undertaken by seven photographers from Panos Pictures. Eight Ways to Change the World tended to adopt a conceptual approach more to engage the reader rather than obviously point out the issues, the photographers involved ‘prioritised the use of colour and a subtle reportage style’ using positive quotes from the subjects as captions in places. In 2000 the goals set by leaders from the 189 countries in the UN included an end to extreme poverty and hunger, reverse the spread of HIV/Aids and malaria, and to give all children an education.

The photographers were Ami Vitale, Chris de Bode, Zed Nelson, Tim Dirven, Adam Hinton, Dieter Telemans and Pep Bonet.

Eight Ways to Change the World, held in conjunction with DFID, Concern, VSO, ActionAid, Plan International, Interact Worldwide, the Panos Institute and WaterAid, has been exhibited in London and Edinburgh. Most importantly, this style of photography, as asserted by Jeffrey Sachs, special adviser to UN secretary general Kofi Annan, ‘highlights our common humanity. We look at photos of people living in extreme poverty but see first and foremost their humanity and spirit and dedication, even in the midst of extreme deprivation. Their eyes don’t call for our pity but for our camaraderie and partnership and empathy.’


Read the article ‘Seeing and Believing’, written by Max Houghton for Foto8.

Select two bodies of work from Eight Ways to Change the World (2005) that show different conceptual and visual styles and write a short reflective commentary in your learning log. Both bodies of work should be in colour. Discuss aspects like information, aesthetics and expression.

‘Seeing and Believing’, written by Max Houghton for Foto8.

Within this article Max Houghton alludes to the West’s attitude towards ‘exotic other’ in his description of the prevailing ‘paternalistic…perception of “them”, those overseas, and less fortunate’. He acknowledges that the fault lies not only with the media but also with the NGO’s, who either commission the newspapers stories in the first instance or facilitate those on the ground. Despite the good works undertaken it was crucial to revise how various groups of people were being represented; the countries the people and the issues should be fully understood and to do so the best people to be taking photographs should be the indigenous peoples. Paul Lowe, then a photojournalist and lecturer at LCC stated ‘it’s most significant to use indigenous photographers to represent their own country when there is no local voice at all, so all we ever get is a western point of view.’ Houghton also expresses the concern that ‘the very language of photojournalism is a white man’s language.’ Adrian Evans , the director of Panos Pictures, felt that NGO’s should teach photojournalism as part of their remit; Aina Photo set up in Afghanistan is a prime example of a success story, with one of their images used by the international press. This is important for several reasons, one it helps with the psychological rebuilding of the countries involved, teaches skills to those interested and talented enough, allows for (hopefully) an independent press with images using their own voice, and fills a gap when Western press loses interest in the concerns of the country.

The article mentions Photovoice, a London based NGO which is still operating and whose mission is:

to build skills within disadvantaged and marginalised communities. To achieve this, we utilise innovative participatory photography and digital storytelling methods. These skills enable individuals to represent themselves and create tools for advocacy and communication. Through this, and through developing partnerships, we deliver positive social change.

With the advancement of digital photography and the ability to rapidly transfer files across the globe I see no reason why local people should not be trained and encouraged to fulfil this role. With the Arab Spring and current events unfolding around the world I think it is vitally important that stories are told from the perspective of the indigenous people.

I can think of two exhibitions that I have seen in recent years where photographers have been given the opportunity to address ‘the dialogue between the local and the global’.

Firstly, Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography

In 2011, Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography highlighted the work of 17 South African photographers, all of whom live and work in the country and whose images were made between 2000 and 2010. The photographers’ projects were linked by the depiction of people and a self-conscious engagement with South Africa’s political and photographic past.

and secondly

Work from Eight Ways to Change the World 

As we are researching colour and conceptual ideas some of the photographers’ work is easier to discard than others being B&W or fairly ‘straight documentary images.’ However, we are asked to examine different conceptual approaches and visual styles so I have elected to look at Ami Vitale and Dieter Telemans.

Ami Vitale’s body of work covers the goal of improving maternal health and the reduction of child mortality and many of the photographs are fairly traditional mother and child portraits.

  • The images in the PDF file are all concerned with the women; there are no adult males featured
  • the lighting is varied; natural, candle light, interior, exterior
  • all shots, bar one, are internal
  • the images are all intimate moments of women and their children or immediate childbirth
  • The text and images work together to reveal how basic the medical care is, how there is still a lot to achieve, but do reveal a positive outlook, and that women are empowering themselves to implement change for the better.
  • Vitale uses different vantage points, differing depth of field, negative space and also fills other images with background detail.
  • Using colour she shows the rich vibrant colours of the clothing, which would be at odds within a sombre narrative, however these colours work with the overall positive message that Panos Pictures et al were trying to promote.
  • the text is mainly factual with no emotive or sensationalist language
  • The text includes statistics but also provide personal information about the subjects, who are all individually named, which make the audience empathise more with the situation

‘The power of photography is that you can look at an image and instantly feel something. I’ve been on this mission to tell stories that connect and inspire people and at the core of that is empathy. Empathy is more valuable than any piece of gear or beautifully crafted image’. (Ami Vitale, 2016)


It was actually quite difficult to find images from the pdf online so I have printed and annotated images in my learning log.

The second body of work I opted to focus on was the series of images by Dieter Telemans, who explored the importance and availability of clean water.

  • Unintentionally, the body of work I chose also focuses heavily on the females within the community, and the responsibility they have from a very young age to keep their homes supplied with water
  • the images reveal the enormity of the task and extreme hard labour that faces all generations of women within these areas e.g. the grooves in the rocky side of the well
  • the 8 images are all very different, there are close up portraits with very shallow depth of field, panoramic wide angle group shots showing celebration, and several surreal images showing flowing water, blurred movement and large areas of negative space
  • Only two of the images refer directly to the subject naming a young girl, Marietou; all the others simply refer to ‘girls’, ‘women’ or ‘woman’ within the frame
  • as with Ami Vitale the text is mainly factual with no emotive or sensationalist language

The modern audience is more familiar with colour imagery – internet, colour newspapers and magazines etc – so by choosing to employ this format both Vitale and Telemans are tapping into the newer way to present documentary narratives. No longer do people want to be emotionally manipulated, in fact there has been much speculation about the effect of grainy, black, depressing visual ‘charity overload.’  These images show the reality of the countries and their plight without over stressing the downsides and promote more of the positives. Colours reveal a more truthful image and the way of life and customs, as Lisa Hostetler (Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) wrote,  ‘By allowing the contemporary world’s colours to speak for the character and flavour of contemporary life’.