A Humanistic Commitment
In her famous treatise on photography, Susan Sontag makes the comment that ‘To photograph people is to violate them’, to turn `people into objects that can be symbolically possessed’. Granted this is an observation we can equate with most fashion shoots and in situations where the camera is used as an instrument of voyeurism (which is not necessarily a prurient interest). Taking photographs of people without their prior consent is what Sontag was on about; to use them for personal gratification. And she is right. Even today as I write this introduction to one of Australian’s leading documentary photographers, debate rages over whether the incorporation of a seemingly insignificant historical image of Aboriginal children in a 2006 installation artwork, was ethical.
To take and publicly use a photograph is a socio-political act. I am talking here about that much maligned area of camera-work variously referred to as `documentary’, ‘street’ or `photo-journalism’. Since the 1980s and 1990s, when staged photographic tableaux took the limelight and as computer manipulation of camera imagery became the norm, so-called ‘straight’ photography has had to fight charges of being old fashioned and even obsolete. Furthermore, such is the mistrust of newspaper and other mass-media images to convey the truth (reporting human activities as much as the natural world) that skepticism clouds many viewers’ responses to the simple black and white photograph.
Hence it is a certain bravery that is required by the dedicated documentary photographer to continue to look beyond prejudice and fashion and reveal through his or her camera the wonder and complexity of this world, its biting cruelty as much as its moments of humor and transcendence. John Pilger writes that the best journalism `is seeing the world from the ground up, where ordinary people are, not from the top down, where the powerful reside’. When the work of Charles Page is reviewed across forty years, it is this perspective that welds together not only his series of prison inmates and Red Cross missions in war zones but his street scenes in far flung places of the globe and even his ‘take’ on the old steam train, issues from a sense of active human involvement. In his depictions of Antarctica, it is the husky run and Mawson research station that concerns Page as much as the sublime splendor of seemingly infinite ice. This artist has always known his position as being ‘on the edge’: quietly observing, engendering trust in his subjects to chronicle decisive moments of struggle and dispossession, capturing the dignity of lives not usually taken notice of.
He is a product of a working class family (his father was a long distance truck driver) and Page grew up to have a similar appreciation for travel - not as a leisure pursuit but with purpose in mind. He was of conscription age in the late 1960s when the Vietnam War was panning out to be a political misjudgment and a horrific violation of human rights. In Australia, he received his formal qualifications in photography in steps, letting life and work intervene, and he now holds a doctorate. The modus operandi of his long and distinguished career is to develop series of photographs which pay heed to his beliefs and observations, interacting emotionally yet with the practiced eye of a professional.
Cross Roads Themes
Throughout his career Page has also recorded that icon of modernism, the steam locomotive, and the impact railways have had on people (both positive and negative). Now the coal-fuelled train has become a curiosity in most places yet the silver gelatin prints he has produced which feature them, to quote Sue Smith, `effectively chart the great arcs of history’. Whether these engines with billowing smoke lead their carriages through Victoria in Australia (where Page grew up), or transport cargo across the South African savannah, or over the Jing Ping Pass in China, traverse remote parts of Mongolia and India, we the viewer are taken on a journey over four decades and five continents.
An exhibition was mounted of these photographs in 2000, appropriately in Ipswich where the Railway Workshops is a prized landmark and stands for an industry that once boosted Queensland’s economy and that city’s profile. For this event, Page had to select from approximately 6000 negatives, culling down to images that show the train as chief protagonist, either directly or indirectly. It may be glimpsed between colonial-style houses (as in South Australia), or proudly declaring itself as a bastion of industrial progress (as in South Africa). Sometimes, the human drama of a station farewell casts the train into the background (as in a Victoria subject of 1975), or night-time creates its own theatre as flash bulbs and reflectors aid the shots. Elsewhere, sinewy bodies of Indian railway laborers, matching the hard endurance of the coal they carry on their heads and the iron chariots they serve, come forward.
The history of photography throws up a number of antecedents to match with Page’s work. For instance, Lewis Hine and his 1932 book Men at Work, which demonstrates the dignity of labour in mines, factories and mills in America’s Depression years is just one touchstone for his railway workers in India. The trajectory continues to Edward Steichen and his Family of Man project in 1955 which brought documentary photography to wide attention through its traveling exhibition and publication. Perhaps the most relevant early predecessor for Page, however, is the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson’s identification of ‘the decisive moment’. This is when the artist recognizes the instant he has been waiting for, when he wills the camera to act as his visual agent. And this is not restricted to the Trains series.
Boggo Road 1989
The artist’s chief project at the end of the 1980s was located in Brisbane (where Page has been based since the beginning of that decade).The camera’s continuing authority to testify, to function as an eyewitness, is clearly demonstrated in his photographs of incarcerated individuals at the Boggo Road Prison, remembered as one of Australia’s most de-humanizing jails. Although, as Scott McQuire states, `Photographing the “social underbelly” so easily slides into social voyeurism’, this is avoided by Page in the close-ups he takes of the inmates and, importantly, the prior dialogue he has had with them. He negotiates the doubly difficult path of being a “free” citizen and Caucasian, photographing Aboriginal men in a situation where such a power relationship is rarely so acute.
Instead of the prisoners being portrayed as victims, Page forthrightly (yet intimately) takes us up close to the individuals, allowing their defiance and sheer survival to speak out. He does not direct his subjects, but watches and waits for the action, posture and context to align into a fully resolved composition. Sometimes there is a touch of wry humor, such as the sunglasses worn by one of two prisoners photographed together, which reflect not a sunbathed Queensland beach but the enclosed, claustrophobic jail-yard.
Red Cross Missions – War Zones 1992-1997
`The first time I went overseas I went to South Africa and worked at a hospital as an unqualified male nurse…I was often involved with people in really traumatic situations’, Page explained to Clare Williamson in early 2000. Naturally wary of exploitation by photo-journalists engaged in humanitarian activities, he retains an objectivity in his own work and believes that although individuals may not benefit directly from his photographs, others will. Documenting crisis situations under the banner of the International Committee of Red Cross, has taken him to conflict zones in Afghanistan, Malawi, Somalia and Chechnya. In addition, he has recorded refugees in Columbia, subsistence living in India and hospitalized children with HIV/Aids in Thailand. Such has been the regard of Page as a discreet and empathetic documentary photographer that he has engendered wide support for these projects. Along with the Red Cross, the United Nations, Australian Armed Forces and the United States Marine Corps., have opened the necessary doors for recording people in extreme situations.
Page’s antecedents here are the compassionate portraits by Dorothea Lange and other photographers associated with Roy Stryker’s documentary work for the United States Farm Security Administration in the 1930s. They are also indirectly linked to Robert Capa’s war images of the Spanish Civil War (which prompted Picasso’s most compelling painting) and later with the Magnum tradition of photo-journalism, such as the Wayne Miller who drew attention to the poverty of dispossessed black Americans.
Who can easily dismiss the boy soldier in Afghanistan with both his legs blown off by landmines, who continues to fight with the aid of rough-constructed prosthetics or the rudimentary box crib with a dying boy in Somalia. These are not mawkish images, but rather they seek out our compassion at the same time as recording humankind’s capacity for violence. Through them, Page reinforces photography’s power to bear witness. Even when an elderly woman opens her book of the dead to him (portraits of slain family members in Chechnya) it is about that individual wanting to reach out and say ‘this happened’.
Given the emotional investment and the raw, bleak contexts the war photographer endures in order to depict his subjects it is small wonder that the beauty of the natural world is at times a beacon. This was the case when Page journeyed to the Antarctica under the auspices of the Australian Antarctic Division. On the ADD’s website the artist explains that after Somalia and an earlier visit to Afghanistan, ‘I desperately needed a change of subject matter and environment.’ The experience was more intense than he had anticipated, explaining, `Antarctica was unique and its influence still pervades my work’.
For Page (and the other artists privileged to travel here in the recent past), the vast ice sheeted continent with its oceans populated by icebergs and its dramatic polar skies, brought him close to the sublime. It shows in the way he composed images of ice as fractured minimalism and clouds as vapor-like traces. Sharp angled icebergs were photographed to emphasize their grandeur, muted at sunrise, black and white abstract forms in full light. Yet, as mentioned earlier, this artist is instinctively drawn to human action and habitation. Hence for every image of Antarctica’s grandeur there is one that shows the last husky run at an Australian station, for instance, or the surreal coupling of a washing machine propped up on ice and a quizzical penguin looking out towards the camera lens.
Street Scenes 2000-2005
During the past half decade, Page, the inveterate traveler, has interspersed his University teaching with trips to China, Cuba, Hong Kong, Korea, Paris and not least to outback Australia. These trips are never solely for pleasure, rather his optical nerve is triggered by the rapid industrialization of so-called third world countries, the implications of a social underclass in his own country and the effects of Western-led globalization.
Without the need for words, the artist challenges his viewer to ponder the environmental costs of steelworks in a remote village in China where unsafe technology is used. Such images invite narratives that the viewer will also bring. He is aware that `documentary work has necessarily required him to negotiate a path between this push and pull of subjective vision and objective investigation.’ In Seoul, he draws attention to the city’s reliance on the car, the fact that pedestrians are supplanted by freeways. Nearer to home, in Katherine, Page alarms us with a photograph of a child with a firearm, dispensing with any perception we might have of Australia being a benign, laidback country. The composition of this image, with its strong black shadows and searing white geometry increases the menace of the young Aboriginal subject. It underscores this artist’s ability to simultaneously provide a platform for uncomfortable truths and his skill in using black and white film’s infinite range of expression.
In Hong Kong (2005), we are jolted by the discrepancy in wealth and values that its inhabitants live by (despite communist China taking over sovereignty from Britain). Ideologies are slippery when greed takes a hold, it seems. Such dilemmas, and others, are evident in a work such as that showing a Calvin Klein jeans billboard, where the model is portrayed as a disheveled youth of the street, while a hunched vendor pushes her trolley of empty cartons along in front. Right up to the present, Charles Page demonstrates an unassuming and deep humanity. With compositional and technical confidence, he has and continues to produce series of documentary photographs that are ethical, thoughtful and unsentimental, never clichéd. The best of them catch you in the throat, revive activist feelings or cause you to wonder at the extraordinary in the everyday.