Predator or Collaborator?

The photographer Daniel Meadows describes this as the “documentarist’s dilemma”: whether the photographer is approaching the subject as a predator or as a collaborator.

Meadows was giving a talk last night to accompany his recently opened exhibition of documentary portraits from the 1970s and 1990s – Daniel Meadows: Now and Then – at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It swiftly became clear that Meadows was very much a collaborator in his practice. His aim, he said, was to express the uniqueness of every person he met. And the relaxed, open nature of his many portraits showed that photographer and subject had met as equals sharing a simple human moment. No predator could do that. Predators take but collaborators make images. Indeed, Meadows said he is still in touch with some of the people he had originally met on the street and photographed in the 1970s.

Daniel Meadows (1974): Florence Alma Snoad. Her striking features have inspired a string trio by the Slovene composer Brina Jež Brezavšček.

So, an appropriate talk to hear when the topic for Week 4 of this course is collaboration. It was also quite humbling. Meadows described himself as a lifelong “documentarist”. There was no trace of the lofty auteur or photographer as hero-celebrity, just quiet friendliness and observation. And no question that Meadows’ archive which he has generously gifted to the Bodleian Library is a joint effort between practitioner and subject.

This is clearly the way to go in my practice, though overcoming nerves about approaching potential subjects will be a challenge. Still, I’m very grateful to Meadows for another comment about not comparing oneself to others which, he said, he did rather a lot when starting out: “My pictures didn’t look like what good pictures are meant to look like. It took me 40 years to realize that I was just making my pictures, and that was fine.”

Daniel Meadows: Now and Then (2019) [Exhibition]. Weston Library, Oxford. 04 October-24 November 2019.