photo by Jack B. Combs
Documentary photography walks a fine line between empathy and exploitation, between what to shoot and what not to shoot. Hard to define, the struggle is present every time a project begins. I make photo-documentaries rather than single images, because this process takes me through time and creates a more complete story.
A photo-documentary may take weeks or months to photograph, plus time for personal involvement in the lives of those being photographed. It is necessary to become immersed in their lives, developing close relationships so that when I shoot, I am not a stranger or interference. There must be an element of trust between us or the story will be incomplete. Trust allows me to be included in private moments. People know that I am their friend with or without my photography equipment.
When working in my darkroom, I often think of Eudora Welty in her kitchen late at night, as she printed her pictures of rural southerners. During the Depression, Welty had personal relationships with most of the people she photographed (on return visits she would often give photos back to them), creating a sense of trust between photographer and subject. I too have this strong desire not only to take pictures, but to share the experiences of my subjects, and hopefully, to give something back to them through the act of recording their lives.