… this exploration of second nature represents not a retreat from photojournalism but a more rigorous approach to looking.
This is from the 2012 Damn Magazine #33 essay ‘Oblique Angles: Guy Tillim’s Unordinary Journeys’ by Lyle Rexer found in the book Guy Tillim (2015):
As a photojournalist, Guy Tillim pretty much functions inversely; that is, he chooses to point the camera at the place where the obvious action isn’t. Shooting in his home continent of Africa — whether in areas of conflict or post-conflict, during elections or evictions, he is fully present, albeit taking shots in the opposite direction. In other parts of the world, it’s the same story, with his photos looking more like tourist images. The intrigue lies in the fact that when he is aiming for nothing specific, the resulting images are the most potent of all. Amen.
Here is your dilemma: you come into a strange place. You have a camera but no preconceptions; no agenda. You’re not interested in spectacular tourist views or in compiling a scrapbook of memories, and in any case, you aren’t really sure what’s important or ‘memorable.’ There’s nothing happening, no conflict. Nobody even asks you to take his picture (or not to). You have a camera; what do you do with it?
… “Clearly, the photos are of something,” says Tillim, “just not, perhaps, of any particular thing. Nothing and everything, together, is that possible, or just a state to aspire to? Put another way: perhaps the only question when standing before a scene with a camera is why point it in one direction and not another? The absence of context that results by isolating only part of the scene precipitates a kind of crisis.”
A double crisis really: the act of framing any scene is inherently tendentious, but the individual image on its own often can’t convey much of anything, regardless of whether it is emotion, ideas or even what it was like to be there. Add to that a photojournalist’s increasing reluctance to “trade in inarticulate images of suffering and despair,” as he puts it.
[line break added] Tillim wanted to use his camera to understand and evoke these places he did not know, but he also wanted to avoid prescribing what viewers ought to think or feel. In a sense, he wanted to put them in his place. “Compositional drama and the picturesque I tried to avoid.” he adds. So, how to proceed? “A political position would be to include ‘ugly’ elements in a beautiful scene, to disrupt our photo myth making. But this is unacceptable. It’s exchanging one form of projection for another,” he adds.
… Tillim came to the city [São Paulo] in part because it was not Rio, not picturesque, perhaps the ultimate second city. “I had no agenda,” he says, “I just walked until I got tired or the sun went down, whichever came first. I wanted to avoid most images in my head, I was bored by them.”
[line break added] A nondescript street with a fallen tree in the background; a busy streetscape in which the pedestrians appear like computer renderings, diptychs of high-rise buildings deliberately cut off — no favelas, no social dramas, no indication of development or inequality, but something intangible emerges: a kind of intimacy, the intimacy of pedestrian vistas. This contemporary flâneur evokes the light and spaces of São Paulo, the ordinariness, but also the peculiar wonder of being there. These photographs come very close to realizing Tillim’s idea of images as spaces to roam around in and make new discoveries — his second nature.
For the artist, this exploration of second nature represents not a retreat from photojournalism but a more rigorous approach to looking. “I see the exercise as an attempt to learn my craft,” says Tillim. “Not to turn away from an expectation of photography, but to embrace its possibilities. Not really to get out from under the responsibility of being a ‘witness,’ but to become a reliable one.”