Good photography moves. It moves on one level in a physical way, via the trick of framing and light, off the print, alluding to events or happenings off the page, or to histories and grabs into other times. And it moves, of course, in an emotional way.

Documentary photography, from news stills to more abstract and artistic approaches should move beyond the image to capture the context of the event or the nature of life in that moment, that place.

The latest display from the Open Society Foundations in New York (available online) meets these goals admirably.

Moving Walls is an annual showing of documentary photography from up to 7 leading lens-men and lens-women which displays at the Open Society head-quarters in New York between May and December.

This year, five selections are on display, with images from northern Asia, the Middle East, Sierra Leone, China and Ukraine. Each display and each photographer has stilled moments which hold faces and gestures, body language and landscapes to give a series of fingerprints of our world. There’s environmental issues, justice, war, protest and escape from dictatorship and each thematic line pulls hard at each viewer, perhaps around the wrist to lead, but perhaps around the throat to better focus the mind.

Katharina Hesse contributes 12 photos from her series looking at the plight of North Korean refugees and at the borderlands between the DPRK and China. Moody shots of the Tumen River, across which many escapees from DPRK wade and swim and powerful images of refugees with their faces covered leave an air of stolen identities, emptiness and silent suffering.

Well-known news snapper Yuri Kozyrev chips in with a series of shots from various theatres in the Arab Spring. While the work is quality and the moments compelling, this gallery perhaps suffers by working on ground well-covered and in a generic news coverage method well-practiced.

Fernando Moleres plunges into a male prison in the ironically-named Sierra Leone capital, Freetown,  and slices off a number of compelling images of men and boys incarcerated. Moleres’ theme is the imprisonment of boys in this poverty-pocked and judicially challenged country. The sombre skin tones, the squalor and the air of heavy desperation pervade each shot. The series depicts a crisis of normality in that long since failed state at the arse-end of the contemporary world. But, there’s humanity there too; a smile from an inmate, a gleaming eye, an air of despair but an undertone of hope.

Images of China are often hubristic and thrusting; skyscrapers and new roads. Ian Teh has flipped this genre on its head in his study of the Yellow River Basin and on the environmental impacts of that country’s historic rise. Accompanying notes state that most of modern China will be urban by 2017, and that environmental petitions – the standard means of complaint for most – tripled between 2002 and 2006. In 2010, 13.8 million new cars were sold in China. These images define the back-stories to those facts.

Finally, there is Donald Weber’s peer into a police single interrogation room in Ukraine. It’s not what you’d expect. Its a well-lit room, with a more or less comfortable chair and table and an attempt at wallpaper on the walls. Amid this rather touching assemblage various rogues and accused innocents are paraded. Says Weber in his notes, “I began to see the modern state as a primitive, bloody and, sacrificial rite of unnamed and unchecked power.” The portraits are weighty for what they don’t show.

Like the best photographs, which all of these are.

NB: the above photo is from Katharina Hesse’s study of refugees from North Korea


The online display is available here. If you’re in New York any time until December 13 details for a visit to the display are here.

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Peter Fray
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