Today’s interview subject is Francis Hodgson. Over a long career in the photography world, Hodgson has worked in many roles—in galleries, as a critic, on juries and as an academic. In 2008, he helped found the Prix Pictet, an award dedicated to photography and sustainability. Each year, the award aims to uncover outstanding photography that has been applied to confront the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our day.
Managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Hodgson to learn more about his deep-set belief in the power and effectiveness of photography.
[Portrait by Anton Corbijn]
LC: What special power does photography have in telling stories about the world and showing us our surroundings?
FH: Photography, even though we know that it’s full of artifice, keeps this urgent relation between the real world and the image. One of the things that persists in the medium—even after all the changes that we’ve seen—is the notion that when you go out and make pictures in the world, there is something of the documentary in those pictures. Photographs refer to real things, they are anchored in the real world. And if a photographer has seen well enough, then a viewer has no choice but to see following him or her, something which has implications bound within it.
This notion is very fundamental to my belief in the power of photography and in my experience of the Prix Pictet. People, even those who are not radical, when confronted with an image that conveys a theme or an area of concern are then led to see the need for change. In other words, to see something clearly enough is, in itself, to see the need for change.
Or, to put it differently: Photographers tend to photograph things they want you to notice. In most cases, it’s a sunset, and all you can say is, “Yes, I agree. It’s beautiful.” But when you apply that ability to environmental questions, the viewer is forced to say, “This isn’t right. It shouldn’t be so.”
LC: When you introduced the Prix Pictet’s selection on the theme of Earth, you were quite certain about photography’s ability to make a difference. Now that the Prix Pictet is in its 6th year, can you discuss what kind of impact you feel that the previous winners (and the prize itself) have had. Do you think photographers/artists make a difference?
FH: I really do. Photography is transnational, transcultural. It is understandable without any kind of gloss. If the whole chain of distribution—not just the photographer but also the people who distribute it—are clear about the messages they’re trying to communicate, then it has a tremendous force of being irresistible. It’s easy to resist a text; it’s very hard to dismiss a powerful image sitting in front of you.
Handled right, photographs have a real power to get messages across—probably better than any other medium. Now, of course, a great majority of photographs have no real message to transmit and thus no message is brought across. But amidst the vast number of images produced every day—a kind of mulch, if you will—you find that great and powerful things are allowed to flourish.
Now, I don’t think photographs always argue in a linear way. The ability to carry messages can be allusive, referential, highly personal and a photograph can carry just as well a prejudice or argument as a factual position. Photographs have all the inflections that you can find in any other form of communication. Nevertheless, if you are presented with Edward Burtysnky’s images of the Three Gorges Dam, there is clearly something at stake in regards to the environment. Through photography, you can put any message you like onto a subject—and photography does that much, much more powerfully than most of us realize.
LC: In terms of judging photography—what qualities are you looking for? Is it a rational decision, a gut feeling?
FH: I think the first judging moment is gut: one responds to things. But one’s gut is not an untrained facility—one responds to things for specific reasons, in-built from what one has done before. Take for example, the famous art critic, Bernard Berenson. Part of his job involved identifying the authors of Renaissance paintings for commercial clients. Every time Berenson was called into one of these situations, he would pronounce a name the moment he saw the painting, even before he had finished passing through the doorway. He would then come to a more usual viewing distance and correct himself, saying he could be wrong 100 years on either side. Then he would reach a more scholarly distance, scratching the wood, studying the brushstrokes and so on. Again, he would correct himself, give or take another 100 years. But always, even after ten years of mulling about, of careful research and analysis—he would always return to that first gut judgment.
That’s my metaphor for what happens when you are judging a competition. You are immediately moved by something; you then have to justify it to your fellow judges. This is an extraordinary process in which each person examines and explains why they believe in the power of something and in which each person’s opinions are moderated by the other experts’ views. In the end, you don’t have unanimity but you have the sense that everyone’s opinions have really been tested by other people who care.
All of this relates to a concept of mattering. Mattering can be put on a photograph at any point after the photograph has been made. The photograph can matter hugely to the photographer, it can matter to the subject, it can matter not at all to either the photographer or the subject but be found on a junk heap decades later and then made to matter by some cultural historian.
Photographs cease to be trivial objects and become hugely important cultural artifacts in this miraculous moment. In other words, mattering is granted to images—again, the junkyard image doesn’t matter until someone discovers it and argues convincingly why it’s important. Good viewers bestow good photographs with mattering during the viewing process and the judging process is simply a formalized version of all that.
Remember: vast, vast numbers of photographs are complete garbage—they don’t matter to absolutely anyone (even the person who made them). But the wonderful part of mattering is that it’s not always implicit within the thing itself—it’s within anyone’s power to bestow it. We’re all at least somewhat literate in photography and so we all have the potential to grant images some importance that maybe they didn’t have on their own.
— Francis Hodgson, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: Francis Hodgson will be judging entries to the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015—enter now for your chance to get your work in front of Hodgson and the rest of the world-class jury. There are also a host of other great awards. You can find out more about the competition on our dedicated page.