Either Side of a Second
Internationally celebrated as both a filmmaker and a photographer, Wim Wenders reflected on the humanitarian potential of images in his collection of essays The Act of Seeing. “The most political decision you make,” he suggests, “is where you direct people’s eyes.” As a documentary filmmaker myself, however, and having had the privilege of filming the creative working process of the incomparable photographer Peter Dibdin with the Southsiders project as part of my masters dissertation at the University of Edinburgh, I would like to offer a modest expansion to Wenders’s prophetic perspective: the process of capturing visual identity, as it happens on both sides of the camera, is not only a matter of where we direct people’s eyes, but how.
Consider for a moment – as photography inherently asks us to do – the infinite subtleties, the indefinable complexities and sprawling diversity that represents the various contexts and personal narratives in these resulting portraits of a thriving Edinburgh community. It seemed obvious from the first day of shooting that the portraiture and the documentary would be inextricably linked. I recognised that the narratives captured in each portrait would be constructed within the film just as the structure of the film itself would be built through the juxtaposition of each successive portrait, as each provided an insight into how both Peter’s interaction as a photographer and my observation as a filmmaker contributed to the sitters’ construction of a visual identity.
Appreciating the photographs as representing more than merely a historical record allows the film to explore the images as a lasting impression of an exchange, a shared moment, a seldom verbal dialogue between a photographer and his sitter – as well as a filmmaker, from my perspective, and his visionary protagonist. And as such neither the photographer nor the sitter is entirely in control of the resulting image. Confronted with the lens the sitter reacts, and the photographer responds. As the photographs are the result of Peter’s collaboration with his sitters the documentary, while remaining aware that it is also filtered through my lens as the filmmaker, is the result of my collaboration with Peter.
While a photograph is arguably a still moment without context beyond what’s visible in the frame it’s perhaps this very limitation that makes portrait photography a unique way to reflect on the human condition. I was able to confront through documentary film how each medium offered
an interpretation of narrative or visual identity that the other could not. Though each offers a different perspective, both are merely tools for communicating the human experience. A better understand of the ever changing human condition asks us all as participants in an increasingly visual culture how we use and interpret each tool and constantly re-evaluate how we visually identify ourselves.
George Joseph Miller IV