“The illiterate of the future, it has been said, will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph. But must we not also count as illiterate the photographer who cannot read his own pictures?”
Walter Benjamin, 1931
This week saw me emerging from the fog of recent exam stress and trying to regain a foothold in this course, while also still grappling with the idea of narrative (an issue that is probably going to scupper my MA chances unless I get it sorted ASAP!).
The work this week focused on the ubiquity of images today and the idea that this might lead to the establishment of cultural ‘myths’ or result in all-powerful ideologies.
The importance of being able to interrogate one’s own images was proposed, an idea that got me thinking. I’m not sure that I’ve been particularly interrogative of my own work to this point. This is almost certainly why the way forward from here seems so hard to discern, as I seem to lack the means of analysing my own work and putting the key elements together into a useful blueprint for further progress. This is becoming super frustrating to be honest. As well as my apparent inability to interrogate my own work, I have been considering this week whether or not my images ‘stand up to scrutiny’ in any way. Do they bear anything more than superficial analysis with respect to the themes I am claiming to be trying to explore? Maybe I am just illiterate after all.
While that might sound like a bleak conclusion, I am still confident I can figure it out given time and more contemplation (and shooting of course). I know what I want my images to say, at least in headline terms. Possibly, I need to be more specific with the work, which may then make it easier to see the best way to articulate these ideas.
Another idea worth considering this week was that of ubiquitous images setting up a pervasive narrative that eventually becomes accepted as the ‘truth’ of a particular situation. The photographs of the National Geographic magazine, which over the years has tended to put forth a rather idealised vision of the unexplored world as primitive, subordinate and meekly accepting of Western dominance and superiority, were used as the example of this idea of narrative that becomes subliminally dominant.
I don’t think this idea of a dominant narrative is at all new. Having grown up in a society where the commonly-held perception of black males is of them as a physically intimidating, intellectually unrefined homogenous whole, I have been personal victim of this establishment of a cultural myth on numerous occasions. It only requires that the party holding the power of influence decide on a narrative, for that story to take hold and be accepted by the majority, and this is a pattern that has been repeated many times throughout history.
I’m not sure how much it’s ever possible to challenge these myths, without the apparatus of widespread dissemination of an opposing viewpoint. It’s difficult to be heard as a sole voice whispering against a torrent of noise from a powerful opponent. I do think there’s value in acknowledging where one’s work might be making use of established ‘myths’ though, and that there might be an alternative view, although I don’t believe that an individual practitioner necessarily has a responsibility to represent more than one side of an argument.
Of course, seminal artists manage to present a new perspective, stretching our understanding of an established truth and showing us a new way to see something that was previously stable and familiar. Even then, I believe it takes repeated re-statement and reproduction for the new view to become the new truth, in due course.
In my own work to date, there has definitely been some reliance on some of the commonly-held assumptions about the night and its associations – danger, crime, menace, fear, mystery etc. This has been largely intentional. It’s important to concede that there will be future stories for which this milieu would be jarring and inappropriate. It’s also possible that my current story will benefit from being told in other ways too, rather than simply relying on the night for ready-made context.
And there we are…back to the narrative (aargh)!
LE MASTERKLASS. 2017. ‘Étiquette : personal photographic expression’. Available at: http://lemasterklass.com/tag/personal-photographic-expression/ [accessed 11 March 2018].