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Informing Contexts: Week 7 Reflection

“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.

References:

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].

Positions and Practice: Week 5 Reflection

The ethics of photography is not something that I’ve previously considered in much detail, just assuming that it didn't really apply to me. After all, I typically shoot empty spaces, at night, with no-one else involved. I've certainly felt unease on occasion when seeing photographs of homeless or otherwise disadvantaged people presented in a way that seems to place their plight below the photographer's desire for self-promotion, but apart from that it's not an issue that's been at the forefront of my thoughts.
 
Unsurprisingly though, I find myself writing yet another reflection where one of the key realisations is that I have much to learn and much to incorporate into my own thinking, particularly with regard to my own practice. The work of the photographer Jeff Mitchell  was in sharp focus this week, as his image of refugees travelling from Croatia into Slovenia taken in 2015 was famously used by UKIP in their Brexit campaign last year. 

I found Mitchell's own response to the use of this image rather interesting, as instead of being outraged, he seemed to take a much more sanguine view of things:

"Photographers are there to record stories, as they happen and when they happen, in the best way we can. But what happens after that, how our images are used, can be out of our control…
 
My job – telling the story of the migrants – had been done. It’s just unfortunate how it’s been picked up.
 
It’s difficult for any agency – Getty, Reuters, AP – that circulates photographers’ images. They’re out there. And it’s not just Ukip. Newspapers also use shots in the wrong context. It depends on the political slant of any organisation.
 
You have to remain impartial. I’m there to record what happens. I know it sounds simplistic, but you shoot what’s in front of you."


Jeff Mitchell's best photograph: ‘These people have been betrayed by Ukip’. The Guardian, 22nd June 2016

In Mitchell's view, his work was done. What happened next was out of his hands and thus, by implication, not really his problem. The buck seems to have been decisively passed! The discussion around this topic on the forum this week suggested a range of views in response to this view. From my initially neutral stance where it seemed to me that, as the image was obtained and used in a legal manner, there was no real blame to be apportioned, I think I've been convinced to consider that as image makers there may be at least some responsibility for where the images ultimately end up.

This is of course a complex challenge particularly, as Mitchell highlights, in the 'digital age', but it is one I increasingly feel we are obliged to engage with in some way. If nothing else, I think it’s important to strive to protect the clarity of one's own voice and if the images are going to be used in a manner that seems contrary or incongruent with the motivation that underpinned the creation of the image, as artists we should seek to defend ourselves. Of course, this is a context-dependent argument, with the reason the images were created in the first place needing to be considered.
 
This is an extension of the idea of 'authorship' that we explored in week 3. In the case of Mitchell's work, he seems to have a less rigid view of 'authorship' and is seemingly less concerned that his photograph has been appropriated to promote a message that he may not personally agree with. Accordingly, I feel that the 'ethics' of photography is an individual and context-dependent thing and depends on a number of factors, including the sort of photography one engages in and the intended use of the images created. I can only really comment on my own motivations and respond to a personal ethical challenge. Reflecting on my own motivations for taking photographs, I would have to say that there's an element of selfishness there. A desire to express something internal, almost regardless of how, or by whom, it is received. It's like self-analysis. As such, it’s important to me that I represent the impulse that has inspired the photograph as honestly as possible. Admittedly I don’t always understand that impulse - which partly explains why I find myself studying an MA in photography - but if I have an ethic it’s the idea that I have to be as faithful to this internal impulse as possible. My hope is that the work might connect with others out there who share or are able to identify with the same impulse (I’m already hating the word ‘impulse’!)…if my work was able to connect with, or initiate communication or dialogue with others in some way, I’d be very gratified.
 
It’s also very important to me to support other artists as far as possible, particularly those who’ve had a role in supporting or inspiring my work. Sometimes just a few encouraging words is enough, but of course purchasing and promoting their work is even better.
 
As outlined here, my ethics strike even me as rather limited in scope and poorly-formed. I don’t yet feel fully-equipped to address the deeper questions of why I shoot what I do and why anyone should care. These questions seem to hang ominously over me at present, prodding me for a response. I'll need one...soon!