Let me start with the claim on Mélanie Dornier's Website: „Photographe documentaire et humaniste qui raconte des histoires en image et s'interroge sur le monde qui l'entoure.“ Her dedication to social documentary photography may provide a guiding line for looking at her portfolio about „Richard“. – The subject that this series is focused on and the terrain the photographer entered with this project certainly seems to be a tricky one. There are blurry boundaries between an interest in history, the urge to collect weapons and other military gear and the wish to revive a past. It seems to be important to keep in mind, that this opaque subject and the potential ambivalence that comes with it might ask for a critical reflection.
The series of 19 photographs contains 10 images with Richard, the only and therefore main character, visible in the frame. It would seem a useful exercise to separate those 10 photographs from the other 9, because then it would become apparent that the images with Richard are clearly the stronger and more interesting ones. This is not to say that in a documentary series like this one, the main character has to necessarily be visible all the time. This is rather about the question, why those photographs including him are – at least as far as I am concerned – almost always the better ones: better composition, more interesting dynamic, offering several levels of reading.
I will try to identify possible reasons for this: With the person in front of the camera, the photographer may be getting into a different dynamic and interaction with the subject. Also the mode of observing is different when we follow a person, however remotely, with the camera than that of wandering the space alone while taking pictures. As a viewer of the photographs will also first notice the human presence in the picture and read the environment in relation with the person in it. – So maybe certain ways of interaction and of observing are more befitting to the photographer than other ways of looking. And a project about one person's world can ultimately be understood best in relation of that very person with their – natural, historical or self created – environment.
In all this we should also keep in mind that there is a close relationship between photography and memory, personal biography as well as collective understanding of history. By collecting items from the past and then arranging them into scenes this man has found his own way of re-working or re-creating the past. The media layer – be it this photographic series or videos disseminated online – then adds to the layers of memory, also shaping or re-shaping it. Alas, memory as such is only rendered useful if it provides a basis for personal development or for a collective understanding of history and – ultimately – the present. Here the question remains in what way can photography be productive in this process. Maybe I am demanding too much from a documentary about one man, but it might be helpful to keep such questions in mind.
If looking for potential areas of improving the series as an ongoing project, I would like to come back to the comparison of the two groups of photographs. In the section „Art“ on her website, Mélanie Dornier shows images with a clear focus on aesthetic qualities. Are those images less „documentary“ than other ones in her portfolio? I would say, No. They even seem to be telling more of a story than other more descriptive photographs. A similar thing applies to the photographs with Richard in them. Those display higher aesthetic qualities in regard to composition, work with light and colour. I would recommend working stronger in that direction, even with Richard being just a tiny figure in a space or landscape. I would look for interesting light on the objects he collects and for a way to work with the scenes he seems to be staging. There seems to me to be potential for photographs telling us even more about his obsession and his way of dealing with the past.
Surely a clutter of objects in a dimly lit space presents more challenges to the photographer, but here it might be relevant to go closer and look stronger at the details – they might tell us more of the story of the objects than a shot of an entire room with nobody in it. Old things and garbage are not per se interesting, they only come to life in detail or in relation to the person that deals with them. – And, finally, a photograph with strong aesthetic values can also be a strong and useful documentary photograph that captures our attention, engages us emotionally and – ideally – inspires us to think.