Documentary Photography: The Work of Marti Corn
Documentary photography represents a photographer’s deep long-term involvement in creating a literal or artistic study of a human condition. Marti Corn is creating a visual dialogue focused on issues of social justice.
While photographic images are a universal language, there are different approaches a photographer can take to record what they see. Just as different languages have similar words, how the word is used can have a very different connotation. An image can be about everyday events, informally captured as a kind of snapshot—or a “vernacular” photograph. Alternatively, the image can be a more intentional documentary or journalistic/news-type capture.
There is a distinction between a documentary photographer and a photojournalist. Arguably, a sub-genre of documentary work might be referred to as social documentary photography that represents a photographer’s deep long-term involvement in creating a literal or artistic study of a human condition. It has been said that a photojournalist captures the current moment without creating a project or long-term engagement with that current event and then moves on to the next assignment. The documentary photographer invests time to understand and research a situation using photography as the tool for communication. The focus of documentary photography is not about a moment in a place, but the emotion or emotional reaction to somewhere, something and/or someone.
Marti Corn, if she must place her photographic style into a category, views herself as a documentary fine-art photographer focusing on creating a visual dialogue on issues of social justice. The camera is her tool to say something about what she sees. She once stated, “I share the stories of dismissed and marginalized communities through photography and ethnography.” Her images are an expression of what the subject of her images have seen, felt and experienced. For Corn, it’s all about people. Broadly, her passion is helping the viewer empathize with human-beings who live on the fringe of society.
Corn is currently focused on lives suspended in limbo while living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Kakuma was established 25 years ago, and many of the residents, in particular the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” have been there since it was established in 1991. Life here is reflected in her images of Roadside, a body of work she’s been creating the past two years. As Corn has expressed, “ … while hundreds of thousands have walked this road to find safety in this camp, the cruel irony is that few ever take this road out. They are refugees trapped with nowhere to go.”
The story of Roadside indirectly hints at what initially drew Corn to this project. Curious and concerned for those Lost Boys and Girls who were left behind, stranded in Kakuma for 25 years, along with many others refugees due to civil war, persecution, and famine, is what has sent her to travel half-way around the world twice yearly for the past two years. As Corn relates the story, more than 20,000 boys, as well as many girls, left southern Sudan (now known as South Sudan) in exodus during the genocide in 1987. After spending four years in Ethiopia, they were forced again to flee when that government was overturned, an estimated 10,000 surviving children arrived in Kakuma with the help of the United Nations. The Lost Boys and Girls of the Dinka and Nuer tribes cannot return to their native South Sudan where two million have been killed and millions more displaced, because the civil war rages on. The United States took in about 3,800 of those in 1991, but for various reasons, 410 were left behind. This was partially the result of the tragic events of 9/11 in 2001. They arrived as children but now are middle-aged with children of their own. The situation for these Lost Boys and Girls has not been resolved. Today, Kakuma offers refuge to more than 160,000 people. More than 100 travel the road each day to Kakuma in search of safety. This camp was ironically, or perhaps cruelly, named Kakuma, which is the Swahili word for “nowhere.”
Corn is an activist who has made several trips, at her own expense, to photograph and document the lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan along with those other refugees whose lives are suspended in limbo. No magazine, news organization or other group has directed her in this effort. Because of this, she is totally free to compose and present how and what she wants. Through these images, Corn is helping the Lost Boys of Sudan tell their story. Photography can be used to form and manipulate public opinion. While the Roadside images are intended to be documentary, Corn has made these images her own. Photography, regardless of genre, is tainted by the photographer’s eye (composition of the image and technique) which becomes the thumb print of the photographer on the image. Photography is like writing. Each writer, as each photographer, has their own identifiable style—a way of speaking or use of language. Like writers, photographers communicate their imagery with different visual volume and clarity. A photograph provides information but can also reflect and capture an image that allows a viewer to carry into it their own interpretation based on their biases and life experiences. An incomplete image can have multiple meanings and interpretations. A measure of a great image is one the is both clear and unambiguous.
Why should a photographer travel halfway across the world to photograph people to comment on their issue and focus attention on their plight? This is part of what a viewer should consider when evaluating the image. It’s a necessary question underlying the importance of what is captured in the image. Without asking that question, then perhaps the photographer’s image is more vernacular and less an intentional statement. There are certainly enough issues to focus on in one’s own city, state or country. On the other hand, should this effort to go somewhere, foreign and unfamiliar, allow a photographer more sense of purpose and attention? Corn is not the first to focus on photographing places and the people in Africa. Noted Magnum photographers George Rodger and Stuart Franklin have done extensive documentary work in Africa, albeit not camps like Kakuma. Photographer Fazal Sheikh however did spend considerable time photographing Sudanese refugee camps in Kenya and other areas. All share a common interest in images of people sharing space and coexisting, but with different visual words.
Corn’s Roadside images convey isolation. This thousand-mile-long road connects the camp to a near-by town in Turkana where camels, goats, vegetables, and supplies can be acquired. Corn’s sepia-tone usage for the images in this collection feel perfectly aligned with the dusty dry environment. The images are clear evidence of the interwoven cultures shown by their dress and what they do each day. We see people performing a daily activity, traveling to and fro gathering the essentials needed to sustain their lives. Her images illustrate isolation. The use of so much sky in each of her images deceptively suggests a sense of freedom, but her intent is to illustrate their lives in a constant state of limbo.
Should the photographer consider what the viewer will search for in a portrait of a place? What is shown in an image like Roadside? What evidence is presented by the photographer? The photographer captures what that location, subject, or person(s) is willing to reveal. However, the placement and context is within the control of the photographer. The subject controls what is revealed, unless outwitted by the photographer to reveal more. In this setting, people are like actors on a stage. Here, the images are purposely printed in a sepia tone which tells part of the story. Looking at the landscape and the people, we feel the heat and taste the dust. It looks like a harsh place. There’s a sense of vastness yet in contrast to confinement.
Despite the tone of harshness, Corn has created intriguing and beautiful images. Her stated philosophy is to “reveal the grace and integrity in those living in oppressive circumstances.” Roadside represents the positive attitude and beauty in these lives. Despite the tragedies that sent them to Kakuma, Corn recognizes the daily effort to live and be positive about the next day. Their environment is barren, yet, in the expression and posture of the people in the images, they appear to have adapted and reconciled to their situation and somehow have found purpose in their lives.
How should the images of Roadside be studied? What is the merit of the image that depends on knowledge by the viewer of a situation? Can it stand alone? Why this refugee camp? Why this road? There are hundreds, maybe thousands of refugee camps around the world. Corn’s efforts are centered on Kakuma in Kenya, but her work is symbolic of a much larger human condition/situation. It’s symbolic of many roads that lead into these camps. In theory, roads are to take someone to somewhere to get someplace. If the viewer knows nothing about what has happened, does the image become more or less impactful? The importance lies in whether the documentation captures the depth of the moment and situation for future study. These images are successful because, as an image, they grab our attention. We want to explore them a little more deeply. It may not matter where the road is. The road has no beginning nor end in these images. Clearly, the road is well traveled. Through her photography, Corn is trying to make a difference by asking the viewer to engage with each image and question mankind’s greed for power over tolerance as evidenced in the continued civil wars which tragically affects millions of innocent lives and to question the humanity of our current system for dealing with those who are forced to take on the status of refugee.
To understand why a photographer undertakes a project, the viewer should know something more about the artist. Each image should draw out our curiosity about the photographer and why the people and places shown are important to them? Is the photographer driven by a sense of moral duty to record, document, and comment? The photojournalist is capturing the moment as news. Even news of the moment can be artistically and elegantly captured. An excellent eye and technical ability allow a photographer some measure of control over what story is told, limited by a need for objectivity rather than commentary. The documentary photographer is given credit for investing his or herself in the story, an we expect the image and a personal involvement with the people and place to reflect the photographer’s view (commentary). What is the “truth” in an image. The viewer should challenge whether the image is unfiltered and unadulterated or is it a prepared, staged construct of reality. Corn’s images have the appearance of a foreign reality and not a construct. The way she acts as a passive observer of the activity at the side of the road, gives the image a truthfulness. It’s a sharing of what she saw. The images are not obscured or abstract. They are clear, unobstructed, and concise. A successful image, whether photojournalistic or documentary, will take and hold of us, albeit in different ways.
What in the photograph is unfamiliar? A viewer is usually comfortable with images that comport with their own perception of the world. For most viewers, Corn is introducing an unfamiliar landscape. What may be missing for the viewer is how unfamiliar that landscape also is for the people suspended and isolated in Kakuma. Here, the viewer has most likely been presented a very different place with people conducting their daily lives in a very unfamiliar fashion. All the images give the viewer just one perspective. Corn has chosen to direct our view as if standing there by the road ourselves, as she was. It’s a straight eye-level view. It’s not a study with 360 degrees of selected images. It’s not an aerial perspective. The artist anchors our feet firmly in one place. Because of the simplicity in the composition, her images yell at us to look at the people. They allow the viewer to look at the people on that road and study them, witness what they are doing, how they travel, and what they carry, and possibly imagine what it would be like to live this kind of existence.
A photograph should not need words to accompany and explain the image to engage the viewer. An image should speak for itself. That does not mean that an explanation doesn’t help deepen an appreciation for an image. Robert Capa’s image of the beach’s surf during D-Day could have been taken in many war locations, but it is a powerful, classic image regardless of knowing where it was taken. Lewis Hine’s images of a little girl in a factory is compelling even if we do not know in what city or country it was taken. August Sander’s pre-1945 images of women, farmers, laborers, and others in his series “People of the 20th Century” are powerful images regardless of where they were taken. The same is true for Gordon Park’s series on gangs in Harlem (or his iconic “American Gothic, Washington D.C.) and W. Eugene Smith’s images of a country doctor. We gladly look at and engage with the images of any of these photographers. The explanation allows us to appreciate and engage more deeply in the image and event. When the image alone can make the viewer engage, study and appreciate the composition, then, perhaps, it has become “art”, whether in a photojournalistic or documentary style.
Documentary photography, like Corn’s work, is a visual story about lives and needs. A photographer like Corn may be motivated by emotion to click the shutter, but the image now has its own voice and speaks for itself. When the context of the image is understood, she gives voice to those Lost Boys and Girls who've suffered a horrible tragedy and human failing. Kakuma is a limbo set in the margins of a society that has become a permanent “temporary” existence. Her photographs show it as an inconvenient truth for the involved governments and organizations with conflicting priorities. She is shouting to the viewer that no responsible party is stepping forward to give this road a destination for its travelers. To that extent, these photographs provide direct evidence of that failure.
In Roadside, Marti Corn has placed us in a voyeuristic position to examine a place where humanity and inhumanity exists, where few of us wish to venture. Through her images, she has contributed to our geographic and worldly knowledge of a place far beyond the comfort we inhabit. Somehow, her images allow the viewer to feel that people all over the world, and in particular, Kakuma, are people the same as us. But, we cannot be comfortable with that feeling. We, the viewer, are forced to contrast our place, family, friends and sense of community with those in this refugee camp. Armed with the story behind the image, we are unsettled as we are confronted by the evil, destructive, self-serving people who killed, displaced and orphaned the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and the other refugees forced into this place with similar stories. While the images on their own are engaging, the story Corn shares forces us to look closer and reconcile what we see in our own mind. These are images of a place where none of these people are from. It is not “home”, yet a place they cannot leave. It is land they don't and cannot own. They know that they can never return to home. Their only future is what they do in the present, with little incentive to build a future. Yet, there is a sense of normality and optimism that they can one day leave. It’s been 25 years for the Lost Boys of Sudan who were brought to this place because of circumstances they could not control. We, the viewers, can leave Roadside and return home.