Of all the forms of visual art, photography is unique in that it has the ability to capture moments in real-time, as they are happening, virtually instantaneously. Since it’s invention, the photographic camera has been used to capture moments from our everyday lives, recording birthdays, family gatherings, the building of new structures, Sunday afternoons, and late nights. With the increasing portability of the camera, its uses became even more varied. You could carry a camera in your pocket, and now, most of us do in the form of a cell phone camera. Anything worth recording, (and it is we who decides what qualifies as ‘worth recording’), anything we wish to share or remember or examine can be captured in a flash and represented to the wide world with a few swipes.
Dorothea Lange, born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895, is at least partially responsible for this trend of documentary photography. Her work with the FSA, the Farm Security Administration which was created during the Great Depression in an attempt to help the hundreds of thousands left destitute and starving by the economic collapse, remains some of the most beautiful and affecting photography in American history. Lange humanized problems and hardships that might have otherwise been viewed as abstract numbers and faraway tragedies, in many cases directly influencing the distribution of money and aid to the places in America that needed those most. By capturing in an enduring medium that which her eyes saw, she gave weight to her perceptions and experiences, and the experiences of thousands.
Her photographs have been displayed in countless museums around the world. Her series of photographs documenting the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II were considered so critical by the government body who commissioned them that they were confiscated. Lange’s work resonates with people, the same way a family photograph resonates, even when the figures in them may be complete strangers – it shows the truth of the human experience, of our everyday life, the hardships and joys and relationships which bind us all together, no matter where we live or what our economic background may be.
There’s a maxim repeated frequently in writing classes and seminars: Write what you know. As someone who writes a lot of genre fiction I always found this advice somewhat useless. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a zero gravity environment, but I can imagine it, so why shouldn’t I be able to write about it? But as I’ve matured in my writing and in my life, I’ve come to understand this rule differently. No matter what genre you write in or what medium of art you call home, it’s important to create work which resonates with your own experiences of living in this world; it is these experiences which have universal implications for us all, these emotions and perceptions which give a work of art meaning for a larger audience than just ourselves.
Write what you know. Document what you see, what you feel, what you think. Snapshots of history are valuable, whether they preserve a history with international implications or the story of one person in a larger world. They give context to our experiences, reasons to improve, and, perhaps most important of all, assure us that no matter what we’re going through, we are not alone.
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