A man walks through a demolished neighbourhood. Only the local pub has been spared. From Bulmer's Manchester collection. © John Bulmer
I'm not good at stark reality. Probably one of the reasons I never tried going back into news photography. News photos are very blunt instruments. Their job is to grab the attention of someone casually leafing through a newspaper, and tell enough of the story to get him hooked, before he gets sidetracked by a $3 off pizza coupon. Too much pressure for me. My favourite photos are when I'm able to capture a mood, and draw the reader away from their own reality and into the world that exists in my photo.
Not a lot of subtlety here. The photo won Eddie Adams a Pulitzer prize, but it didn't actually tell the real story. © Associated Press
Facebook, and Instagram, and above all, search engine image searches have pretty much put the nail in the coffin of regular photographers being instruments of discovery for the masses reading travel supplements in the weekend newspapers. We now know through the cellphones of millions, what all the most famous places in the world look like with people sporting goofy smiles at arms length from the camera.
So what need is there for documentary photographers nowadays? Plenty. Photography is awash in the rubbish of selfies, ugly Instagrams, and forgetable moments. More than ever there is a need for those who can rise to the top of this sea of mediocrity and tell a story beyond "Look at me. I'm here, and I have a camera". These are the photographers who hopefully will inspire some of those people to turn their cameras away from their faces and realize that a photograph can be so much more than another insignificant moment to store on Facebook.
Long before cellphones or the internet itself became an issue, newspapers and magazines spent enormous amounts of money sending photographers around the world to bring back images to their readers that most of them would only ever see in the weekend supplements. Now, most of these articles use stock images, largely devoid of life, as a replacement. But if you go back to the 1960s, when photojournalism was being revolutionized by colour, you would find John Bulmer leading the way. Not only was he travelling the world to bring images of exotic locales, he was wandering the streets and industrial estates of northern England, a place that was as foreign to many readers in London, and the south, as were many of the foreign destinations he photographed.
Yemen (1965) from Bulmer's World Assignments collection. ©John Bulmer
None of his subjects are doing anything extraordinary so far as they are concerned, yet within these images of people going about the rituals of ordinary life are subtle clues that tell you much more about the way these people lived. The photos stripped away much of the superficial differences of language (Those of you who haven't been duped by Microsoft into thinking "UK English" was a universal thing in Britain will understand this), and looked into the homes, shops, and workplaces of the Midlands, and northern England. Reactions probably depended much on the demographic of the reader. Many in London's east end, not the target market for The Times, had roots going back to the north, or to Wales, or Ireland, and would likely have felt a kinship with the subjects, or perhaps a bit of nostalgia for "home". To the bulk of the readership of The Times however, the lives of these foreigners probably seemed as alien as that of the Romainian farmers photographed by Bulmer on one of his world assignments.
Sun silhouettes mining town. From Bulmer's North UK collection © John Bulmer
What I love about Bulmer's work, is his ability to make visually striking images of ordinary people, in ordinary places, and make the viewer want to learn more. From many of the images in his northern collection I've seen skies darkened by fog and soot, and buildings still showing clean red brick. This speaks of a resilient population unwilling to surrender their pride of place to a less than hospitable environment. A man walking through a demolished neighbourhood in Manchester with the local pub still standing in the background spoke of the power of the state over people's lives at the time, with the pub being the last vestige of a community stuck in limbo between destruction and renewal. A teenage girl in a tattered home working to get her make-up perfect shows a much different outlook on life from the tired looking woman behind her.
Regardless of where he was, be it the north of England, France, the Middle East, or elsewhere, he revealed the simple beauty of normal life, and normal people. One of the reasons why, when I need to inspire myself to move my work in the direction I feel is the right one, I find myself studying his work over and over again.
It's also a reminder to all photographers, that in years to come it won't be your spectacular sunset, or harbour images that people will be seeking out. It will be ones that tell stories of life as it is now, because aside from being artists, we are documenting the past for people of the future, and they will want to look back at our lives, not our sunsets.
Mai Zetterling (1971), from Bulmer's People collection. © John Bulmer
Images shown here are low resolution images used in accordance with fair trade guidelines for critique and review. To review full resolution images we strongly encourage you to visit John Bulmer's website.