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Building Layers, Reaching Many

Guy Martin, winner of the Viewbook Visual Storytelling Grant, speaks about developments in his work and directions for photography, at his exhibition at Les Rencontres d'Arles 2017.

Guy Martin’s body of work The Parallel State attempts to understand the truth, lies and fictions of modern-day Turkey, via a visual journey through the made-up world of its soap operas and the real-life political violence that has existed in the country for the past five years. In Guy’s first interview with Viewbook, he spoke of the constraints that he felt current platforms and online possibilities for photographers imposed on adding the layers of context he wanted to give his story. At Arles, during his exhibition of the work as part of the 2017 Discovery Award, he spoke further about this, and about some of the solutions he has found.

“I never saw The Parallel State as unique to one outcome,” Guy says. “I think my work is not easily characterized, and one of the frustrations of being a photojournalist, documentary photographer or editorial photographer, for me at least, is that my work is trying to transcend some of the strictures of these genres yet has elements of all of them. It’s an attempt to push non-fiction storytelling. That goes into how I think of photography and the still image now, in 2017. I think it is narrow-minded to consider one’s work in one genre only, because of the limitations and limited avenues that would materialize. If you open yourself to collaboration, to new ways of working, to being more adaptable to the events and stories you are working on, then and only then, the work will go onto another level.”

A “hall of mirrors” depicts images from soap opera sets on one wall, mirrored by actual street scenes on the other.

Guy’s show at Arles combines very different elements, such as an installation recreating the atmosphere of constant surveillance, and a curated Twitter-feed displaying tweets from different sides of the political divide, all attempting to understand the world by dividing it into “good guys and bad guys”. A “hall of mirrors” depicts images from soap opera sets on one wall, mirrored by actual street scenes on the other. Via plinths with headphones, Guy gives behind-the-scenes information on how the pictures were made, explaining the contexts and real-life reactions. “It is an attempt to recognize the limitations of photography, the limitations of my camera lens, and my limitations as an outsider. My view is always limited, but the people I photograph see me and see the issues that I am there to document, and very differently having this information on audio is an attempt to pull back and get the audience virtually around me in the moment I was taking the picture,” he says.

“It’s a frustration for me, this idea of the photographer as a truth teller—the idea that I’ve gone to Turkey and am telling you what to look at, with a caption of who, what, when, and where, telling you the single truth,” Guy says. But sometimes letting go of this is hard for a photojournalist. “Sometimes you’ve gone through immense danger to get those images, so you feel tied to the time-stamped event,” he says. Guy is looking for a freedom from those limitations, hoping to get the metaphors and the idea of what the parallel state is out to a wider audience. “For me there is a sense of responsibility to try to show this work in as many contexts as possible,” he says. Taking the project online will open up possibilities not achievable in a physical space, particularly as regards layers of audio that will give an audience a richer and more multifaceted understanding.

A solution lies in photographers becoming the authors of their work, becoming visual essayists is vitally important.

“Having these different outcomes, these different endgames is important for the project,” Guy says, “but that can only happen if the project has the depth and the layers in the story.” Not every project will translate well into a multiplatform approach, and Guy is still frustrated by the limitations he finds for photographic storytelling and documentary online. He thinks a solution lies in photographers becoming the authors of their work, becoming visual essayists is vitally important. “If you own your project and add in as many different elements of a story as possible—not from just one specific group of people—you begin to build up layers and become knowledgeable about the subject. We need to photograph as many sides as possible, not focusing only on the victim or the underdog, but finding ways to document the different protagonists, or of photographing ‘the enemy’. With so much news and information being consumed through social media, and the social media platforms tailoring algorithms to suit our viewpoints, it is important to me to me to try to counter that, or at the very least to acknowledge that the ‘truth’ is perhaps a little more complicated, and that for an audience to default to the photographer as a third-party ‘truth-teller’ is simply wrong—and that translates very well to moving the story online and to collaborating with other people with different skill sets,” he says.

That approach takes time. “I’ve always worked slowly,” says Guy. Even shooting a global news event, you need the presence of mind to be aware of a fuller context, in a way that enriches this sense of authorship. In such situations, Guy says, he was never trying to compete as a news photographer. “I was always trying to look for something a little bit different, which would take the work away from having that time-stamp on it, and I found that the more I did that, the more I resisted the tendencies for easy classification of a country, the easy visual trope,” he says. Guy wants to create a body of work that is not only about Turkey, but makes connections for people all around the world, one that makes use of the vast audience the internet can bring. The Parallel State is not only just about events in Turkey and the rise of autocracy anymore. It could be about President Trump in America, about Brexit in the UK. The metaphors become universal. He says: “When people who have no idea about the political inner workings of Turkey see something in the work I’ve done that they can apply to their own background and their own experience…that’s special. I like that.”