WHO ARE WE, WHAT ARE WE DOING, WHERE ARE WE GOING??

Archive: written for PhotoForum as an editorial, 1994

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As photographers, I assume we are all attempting to achieve some sort of results with the images we create. At this point in time, just over 150 years since the start of it all, and on the brink of major changes in image making and distribution, there needs to be serious consideration of the place and usefulness of photography.

Already, society has quite different ideas about photographic images than say 30 years ago.

I think it is true to say that most people can usually pick a so called documentary photograph i.e. one that is making some attempt at depicting a part of the world as it was at a particular time and place and camera angle. This goes hand in hand with the idea that if the photograph challenges our version of reality too drastically, we may question the circumstances of its making or even its authenticity. Many, for instance did not believe initially that the images of Nazi atrocities were genuine. But most people still believe there is at least something truthful in such images.

At the same time, the photographs don’t hold anywhere near the same power that they used to. Possibly from the over-abundance of images, and their juxtaposition with ads and other stories in the media, we find it easy to digest an article on anorexia, and a clothing ad with a skinny model on the same page, as just one of many examples. Images have become just part of a continuous line of entertainment, and we like just a little bit of shock in our entertainment.

If we make such images for use in the media we become complicit in the purveyoring of horror as entertainment. It is one thing to be committed to a cause as an imagemaker, but now there is such an abundance of images and issues, and the media is so specialised, that editors can pick and choose as they like.
So in a way, there are many more possible outlets, but fewer possibilities.

There are formal and informal rules on what can and can’t be printed, what stories will fit a particular media profile.
Editing (in the negative sense of the word) happens either by photographers self editing to sell the story, or by the editors’ concept of their audience.

As Noam Chomsky points out, the media is there to deliver an audience to a market. The audience is a strata of society, and the market is the advertisers. Most advertisers are interested in targeting a relatively comfortable, well off, politically conservative or uninterested group. So the media is there to deliver this group to them. A contained world view has to be given with not much scope for radicalism or activism. We have to be aware of where the media are at if we want to work with or use them.

Now, what about audiences? Firstly, people read or watch what they want to, and with the specialisation of the media, the audience is less likely to be struck by things that don’t conform to their world view. Secondly, I feel that people have become inured to virtually all images that can be thrown at them. We (the audience) can glibly watch starving, war torn, tragic events unfold on a screen, while we converse, eat, etc. Similarly, we can flip through Time, with Rwandan children dead and fly- blown, and remotely wonder about their collective fate.
But, this is the crunch.
We are not moved to do anything more than perhaps give a few dollars when a collector guilts us.

In a talk this year at Auckland University on conflict photography, Ron Brownson continually pointed out that many of the images he was showing were considered ‘too hard’ when they were made, and were not used at the time. Some were only released decades later. Presumably this was when their keepers decided that the images had lost enough of their rawness to be acceptable (and thus ineffective).

We are discouraged by the seeming complexity of the worlds’ problems. My belief is that problems smaller in scale stem from larger scale, more serious things, and these relate to a lack of respect of humanity, and a lack of vision of the future .The striving for a high consumption, ego based lifestyle, has given us a self centred, money oriented world, where true compassion has no part. And to my mind, this is where ‘concerned’ photography is letting itself down. It works within that ego and money based system, when it should be criticising it. It has not widened the boundaries that it can explore, and has been subsumed by the system, so that it just produces more fodder to be marketed. It seems hard to say, but what is the point of spending a lifetime, or risking a life, to get images, if they are to become entertainment and income for the mass media owners?

We are led to believe that art has a part to play in raising important questions that don’t come up in the daily course of life, or cannot be raised elsewhere. But here again, it seems that ‘art’ has been subsumed by the art market, and everything it produces is a potential consumable product. Dada, Conceptual, performance, fluxus etc. attempted to loosen themselves from the market, and recent artists like Hans Haake, Sherry Levine and Barbara Kruger have tried to show the workings of this market. but how successful have they been? It seems they too have become part of the widening scope of the market, and serve the same elite. Again the parameters are not wide enough. I think photographers working in the art market also need to look very closely at the system, and those who manipulate it.

Too many artists like to ignore these issues and carry on believing that they serve only their own goals, while still making work in order to survive.

If we do not face up to such things we inevitably serve those who have the power, by either our indifference or our active complicity.

Unfortunately, I have no answers to the problems I have tried to raise. In part, by raising them, I hope to get some interesting replies, which may suggest directions for these answers, and would be used in another newsletter to start a dialogue. (there were no interesting replies to this piece)

S. Sontier

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