“To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.”
Ingrid Sischy, 1991
Week 7 asked us to consider how we respond to images and whether photographs can evoke change. Reviewing the work we covered this week, I realise how closely these ideas are linked with my ongoing struggle to understand visual narrative and find a more coherent way to articulate my own themes.
The concept of a ‘visual soundbite’ was proposed, an idea that’s immediately attractive, capturing as it does the challenge of trying to produce a readily digestible, emblematic image that perfectly encapsulates an idea, resonates with an audience and remains memorable. Although in political terms the soundbite is viewed somewhat pejoratively, as a superficial and often essentially meaningless tidbit to feed the news cycle, when applied to photographs this seems to me to be a good way to imagine a photograph that communicates effectively. As Sontag (2002) wrote:
“In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it. The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb.”
In many ways, photographs become part of a collective memory, a way to enter into a shared experience of a time or event. In my own experience I think of two images that seem to epitomise this idea. The first is from the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana.
This image instantly comes to mind when I think about that wedding, which took place in 1981. I was 3 years old at the time. I have no personal connection to, or experience of, this event and yet it’s branded into my consciousness. I’ve seen this photograph so many times over the years, in various settings (celebratory plate anyone!), that the memory of this event feels almost real to me…I almost have an ‘I remember where I was when’ story for this moment!
The second image that comes to mind is that of Pippa Middleton entering Westminster Abbey during the wedding of her sister Kate to Prince William.
This is another image that’s notable for being strongly attached to my memory of an event that I never actually witnessed. I was at work on the day of this wedding and then had to catch a plane straight after work, so hadn’t seen any of the wedding. On my arrival in Australia I was surprised to see the buzz that had arisen surrounding this image – talk of Pippa’s bum was international at this point! Pippa’s profile rose dramatically almost as a direct result of this photograph, or so it seemed, and launched her into a career in public life.
I’m confident that both of these images would be easily recognisable to most people anywhere in the developed world, an exemplar of the power and universality that a single photograph can achieve.
This leads smoothly on to the question of whether photographs can be used to inspire change, if as argued, they are able to communicate so powerfully? A sub-question here might be how photographs manage to capture your attention long enough to challenge you to consider the issues presented and whether this requires ‘shock tactics’ of sorts?
Personally, I struggle to see how a photograph can provoke change, certainly by itself. I can however conceive of images being used in conjunction with text, moving images etc. to stimulate debate and potentially inspire change. I suppose there’s a spectrum of communication, on which you could place all of these modes, with the acceptance that certain modes of communication will be more appropriate at different times depending on the objective and the audience.
The work of Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado was examined in detail this week, both from the point of view that one of his stated objectives was to bring the unfortunate plight of certain disadvantaged communities to the attention of his audience, as well as from the opposing viewpoint that his work is actually too aesthetically beautiful to be truly representative of the lives of the people he is supposedly advocating for, thus losing its power to speak on their behalf.
The quote at the top of this piece is from an article by Ingrid Sischy where she ruthlessly eviscerates Salgado and his work, arguing that it’s always more about him than about his subjects. While her lengthy deconstruction sometimes edges into what feels like a vindictive personal attack, I'm inclined to agree with her main points, namely that aesthetics seem to supersede subject and context and that this ultimately serves to take the focus away from the issues Salgado claims to be concerned with and instead places it on himself, his technique and his ‘artistry’.
Considering my own work, I have to ask if the way I’m trying to depict and discuss loneliness is commensurate with the subject, or whether in fact I too might fall into the trap of favouring aesthetics over an honest presentation of the issue. If my genuine concern about the importance of the solitude/loneliness/isolation question is buried under a self-aggrandising insensitivity, concerned only with a personal pursuit of beauty at the expense of all else then I will have failed in my objective and the project will not have the power to communicate that I truly hope for. This is something for me to reflect on as I continue searching for a suitable narrative strategy.
SISCHY, Ingrid. 1991. Good Intentions. [pdf] Available at: https://paulturounetblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/good-intentions-by-ingrid-sischy.pdf [Accessed 20 Mar. 2018].
SONTAG, Susan. 2002. ‘Looking at War: Photography’s view of devastation and death’. The New Yorker December 9 [online]. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/looking-at-war [accessed 20 March 2018].