When we were in Hong Kong, Paula and I had the good fortune to get a short lecture on Hong Kong history from an American expat resident. One of the things he told us as we wandered through a museum was that we shouldn’t just read the text with the displays, but also ask ourselves what the message was, and just as importantly, who is the intended audience for the message.
We tend to read text (or view photographs) with the mindset that we are the intended audience. But that’s plainly not correct. It’s hard to remember to think beyond the message and think about intended audience, but it’s probably key to getting some grip on the film and photography of, say, Leni Reifenstahl. It’s equally true for Don McCullin (make sure to follow link, scroll down, read the quotes). Those were just the first two examples that came to mind, but it’s true, I think, for any photographer. Pick a photographer, ponder the audience.
The thing is – it is sometimes hard to get a grip on who the intended audience is. Sometimes, a photographer’s audience is others (a photojournalist, say) or even a specific set of others. Sometimes, the audience is the photographer herself. Sometimes it’s the future version of the photographer. It’s the same photographer, but different audiences at different times, or even at the same time. Sometimes a photo is made with one intended audience and is pressed into service with another.
For me this all touches on the utility of photographs that I make. I keep reading that if you make photographs, but no one else looks at them, you might just as well not have made them at all, and I think that just isn’t so. A lot of my photographs are made with the specific intent that I’m the audience. Some of those photos are seen by others, and some aren’t.
The ones that aren’t seen by anyone else aren’t purposeless. They’re filling the need of a very specific audience – me. And that’s fine, because as far as I can tell, there are very few other photographers meeting the needs of that particular audience.