Assignment 3 – Critical review

Fake News! Photography’s Role in the Post-Truth Era

1. Introduction

Fake News and Post-Truth are constant buzzwords in current political and documentary debate. In this review, I will consider whether the traditional link between reality and photography has been a contributing factor to the post-truth phenomenon and specifically the Fake News debate. I will look at the history of the association between authenticity and photography and how boundaries were put around what was acceptable or not in photographic practice, and touch briefly on the role of the photograph’s contribution to Debord’s ‘Spectacle’. I will also consider how postmodernism, post-truth and fake news are interconnected with one inevitably leading on to the other through its questioning of everything we previously took for granted. With social media sites being an increasingly dominant force in news dissemination, I will argue that the loss of faith in the authenticity of photography needs somehow to be mitigated, if we are to have any objective sense of what is happening in the news world.

Firstly definitions of post-truth and fake news are required, as they are not the same thing. According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth means ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2019), while fake news refers to the ‘manipulation, disinformation, falseness, rumors, conspiracy theories that some elements of politics and media use to confuse the public and to further their own agendas’ (Kalsnes, 2018). The recent advent of a new digitally based culture has an effect on various areas of social discourse, but for the purposes of this essay, it will be discussed with regard to journalism and news media. With over 62% of American adults getting their news from social media (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016), these platforms have become major players in the dissemination of news. Until recently, this role has been almost entirely unmediated, with the web platforms arguing that they were simply a device for the sharing of information, e.g. (Levin, 2018). However, after various court cases where Governments attempted to force them take some responsibility, they have now begun to make some effort to police what appears on their sites, and all the main players now employ censors and fact checkers, in a somewhat vain attempt to stem the spread of lies and misinformation, malicious or otherwise (White, 2018).

2. Photography and Reality

One cannot consider how photography relates to this change without first discussing its historical relationship with the truth. From its early use as a method of scientifically recording information (Lister, 2013 pp. 25-28, Potts, 2003 p. 59), the photograph has been almost unique in our fundamental assumption that what we see is indexical and is what really happened. It is only by understanding why photography is so closely aligned with truth that we can come to comprehend our own deep-rooted faith in its authenticity (Mullen, 1998, 97).
This has been a blessing and also a curse. While from its earliest days, images have been manipulated through staging and post-production tweaks (Gelder and Westgeest, 2011, p. 23-4), at the same time people understood that at some point the events depicted in photographs actually occurred (Barthes, 1981), and by the early 1900s the idea of the ‘straight’ photograph being an expression of a truthful event became accepted. This understanding began to be codified in standards and rules, set to ensure that original belief was maintained. As Susan Sontag argued, ‘It is easy to accept photographs as objective truth; this is why photography is so often employed in social documentation with the hope of causing change’ (Sontag, 1977).
At this time, we were confident that what we saw in certain strands of photography was unadulterated, and in particular the genres of journalism, documentary and wildlife, with lists of rules being published for competitions and prizes to limit any changes made in post-processing. Of course, this only affected what happened after the image was taken, and there was still plenty of scope for stage setting before the image was made (Brugioni, 1999, Hofer and Swan, 2005). Even now many photographers proudly declare that all their images are ‘straight out of camera’ as if this is an aim to which we should all aspire. Then along came Photoshop in 1990 (KMahesh, 2011) and suddenly it was possible to alter images to affect their meanings, sometimes subtly, and sometimes quite blatantly, although this had always been feasible (Farid, 2011). Photoshop’s association with image alteration soon became ubiquitous and ‘photoshopping’ is now a generally understood term (Collins Dictionary, 2019) which we apply to any image we feel may have been altered. Technically, it is perfectly possible to check the original integrity of most digital image through EXIF information and pixel matching, and in some ways this is more solid proof of any alteration than was available pre-Photoshop, but the damage was done.

3. The effect of postmodernism on beliefs

This practical break between authenticity and the image has been further exacerbated by parallel alterations in philosophical understanding. We moved from the stark realism of Modernism (Potts, 2003 p. 20) to the ‘assume nothing and test everything’ mood of Postmodernism, which began in the 1970s. This allowed new organisations much more scope to question previous assumptions and to take an increasingly partisan viewpoint (Sunstein, 2017), and leading to the situation in which the public are at the same time much more suspicious about what they see and read (Shen et al., 2019) and willing to believe anything that fits their beliefs (Sunstein, 2017). Hanson argues that fake news can clearly be linked with academic post-modernism and that the new preference for narrative and interpretation over fundamental truths has been picked up by the media as a methodology to underpin misleading narratives in to further their political agendas (Hanson, 2017).

Recently, there has been a wholesale move towards deliberately mischaracterising work (Waisbord, 2018), exemplified by the infamous Inauguration Day crowd size debate (Kelly, 2018 p.39). These has led to a toxic situation in which nobody believes anything they read or see, so they themselves choose what to believe. Internet news algorithms then reinforce these beliefs by offering more of the same and increasingly extremist views are the inevitable conclusion (Sunstein, 2017). This has been ably utilized by political media to create ‘alternative realities’ to suit their specific agendas, which can be readily attributed to Flusser’s Apparatus manipulating Debord’s Spectacle (Mihailidis and Viotty, 2017). We prefer to believe what we are shown – a representation of reality, not reality itself.

Then there is an element which was not specifically acknowledged until postmodernist theorists pointed it out fairly recently (Barthes, 2001, Caputo, 1997). Photojournalists inevitably bring their cultural and personal beliefs and understanding of the situation along as baggage when they go out to make photographs. Everything they see is viewed through these tacitly understood lenses, whether or not they know this themselves. Equally, the viewpoint of each viewer is also mediated through similar beliefs which may or may not be the same as that of the photographer. Furthermore, any image may be used over and over again until its indexical relationship with the original events has been completely lost.

However, it is not all bad news. Two features of the current situation mitigate against this rather nihilistic view of the world. They are the rise of citizen journalism and the questioning of traditional assumptions to give a more diverse view of the world.

4. Citizen Journalism

It is impossible not to see that the vast number of images which are uploaded daily to the internet offers both an incredibly banal and repetitive worldview. Indeed, the photographer Erik Kessels has made a whole career out of considering the issue (Kessels, 2017). It is equally impossible for anyone to sift through that torrent of images and to pick out what matters and what does not. However, more than 3 billion people on Earth now own a smartphone (Takahashi, 2018), and the traditional Western based hegemony is being challenged by different viewpoints from other parts of the world (Ghedi Santur, 2016). Journalism and documentary have always had a highly Western centric viewpoint, which has been reflected through photography, with its original ethnographic and etymological elements, and emphasis on documenting the Other. The concept of ‘The Other’ in photography (Staszak, 2009), who is anyone that does not live a relatively affluent (preferably straight male) white Western life, is still very pervasive although it is now understood and efforts are being made to mitigate it (Thomas, 2016, Ghedi Santur, 2016). The arrival of the smartphone, which was taken up with alacrity by non-Westerners largely because of the lack of wired telephone networks, has offered a massive opportunity for people to make their mark and show their lives in a personal way that was impossible before (Gamson et al., 1992, Möller, 2010). It is now possible to find work by individuals living and working all over the world at all levels of society except he most impoverished, and this must be a good thing (Uimonen, 2016).

At the same time, the iron grip of traditional media on what the public sees is loosening. Citizen journalists (people who happen to be present at events and who record and upload them to the internet) give us a more holistic view of events in real time as they unfold. Their information is often published unmediated and circulates around the world instantly, and it has led to a better understanding of events which previously were edited and controlled by big media (Lindner, 2017, Wall, 2017, Wall, 2015). Their control, and the standards that they maintained have been fatally undermined(Mullen, 1998 pp. 98-101) . This has positive and negative aspects, The positive is the much faster and broader coverage of unexpected events, and also the holding to account of authorities and perpetrators (Sandhu, 2016). The bad news is that we are exposed to a censorship free view of the world with images of beheadings and violent altercations freely flowing around until Web platforms are forced to cut them off, for example the New Zealand mosque shootings (Hymas and Zolfagharifard, 2019). However, the lack of pre-verification means that we are also exposed to information and images that have been deliberately altered to support a specific agenda, and that alteration can be of the image itself, of its context and/or of usage, i.e. misappropriation.

It is also worth considering whether truth and authenticity are erroneously being used interchangeably. Something can be objectively real without being authentic, and vice versa. In The Documentary Impulse, Franklin discusses the concept of authenticity being the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (Franklin, 2016, p.6). He goes on to make the case, outlined by John Ruskin, that ‘truth of impression’ is more important than ‘material truth’. This view appears to feed naturally into the post-modernist view of the world which underpins our current dilemma. We are inundated with a deluge of online media, much of which has been neither confirmed nor verified, and which we view through our personal lens of understanding along with that of the photographer, and in the case of news media, the publisher too. This is fertile ground for the Fake News brigade, which can play on that lack of certainty to encourage certain viewpoints and to further undermine the traditional understanding of major news organisations as being more or less reliable in what they publish. Anything one does not like or prefers not to see can be labelled Fake News, and thus the concept of truth has become slippery – Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ (Wedge, 2017). In this postmodern world, it is left to each of us, individually, to decide what to believe based on what we see and the role of photographs in this chaotic arena is key. Despite all the evidence that widely circulated images may not be authentic, we still maintain an underlying belief in their ability to represent events. As Sontag said in 1977, ‘Photography furnishes evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re showing a photograph of it’ (Sontag, 1977 p.5).

5. What can we do?

Clearly, the previously paternalistic role of the state and/or large media organisations has been significantly compromised and it is doubtful that it can be recovered. We are in a new paradigm, one where each of us has to develop skills in interpreting what we see and read in a way which was considered largely unnecessary before the digital era. It has also opened our eyes to some of the historical Fake News shenanigans that were perpetrated to manipulate the public before we were really aware of it (Burkhardt, 2017, Berghel, 2017) through the lens of the photojournalist’s own viewpoint (whether overtly or subliminally) or by image selection that favoured whatever political viewpoint the news organisation held (Lyons, 2011).
In the new digital culture, our understanding that authenticity of images cannot be taken for granted is both liberating and wide open to abuse. Education is the only logical way of mitigating against false narratives; educating from early childhood to consider whether what we see and read is true or has been subtly altered. We need to learn to do our own verification of sources and reliability, to foster an enquiring but cautious attitude to news and documentary and most importantly to teach our children to question what they see too (Mihailidis and Viotty, 2017). The suggestions puts forward by Dahmen and Heider in their recent Quartz magazine article is a good starting point (Dahmen and Heider, 2017).
Finally, we also need to consider alternative ways of verifying the truthfulness of what we see that are not necessarily based on indexicality and which give more weight to contextualisation. Fake News is a problem that is not going to disappear so it is imperative that we find a way of judging it for what it is.

…the “fake news” approach to photography takes what we do with pictures all the time to its obscene extreme, resulting in a situation where a picture, no matter what it shows, means something that you want it to show, the actual truth be damned (Colberg, 2018).

Bibliography

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Brugioni, D. A. (1999). Photo Fakery: The History and Techniques of Photographic Deception and Manipulation. Potomac Books Incorporated.
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Kessels, E. (2017). The Many Lives of Erik Kessels. New York, NY: Aperture Foundation.
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Shen, C., Kasra, M., Pan, W., Bassett, G. A., Malloch, Y. & O’brien, J. F. (2019). ‘Fake Images: The Effects of Source, Intermediary, and Digital Media Literacy on Contextual Assessment of Image Credibility Online’ In: new media & society 21 (2) pp. 438-463.
Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Photography Reading Group – Charlotte Cotton’s ‘Photography is Magic’

The latest paper for discussion in the Photography Reading Group was Charlotte Cotton’s introductory essay to Photography is Magic (Cotton, 2015, pp. 1-18). I have owned the book for a couple of years now, and often dip into it for ideas. At least two of the photographers I have looked at in the past have come to my attention via this book, Hannah Whitaker and Abigail Reynolds, and it always has something new to offer.

Cotton compares modern photography to the art of magic, as in both the artist creates an ‘area within the viewer’s imagination for the magic to happen’, i.e. the viewer allows that magic to happen. She goes on to say that photography offers the potential for multiple meanings and ideas, and that the book is more about creating and playing with ideas than technical perfection. She also agrees with Flusser’s argument that the roles of maker and viewer have been altered of late. Whereas previously, ‘the tool was the variable and the human being was the constant, subsequently the human became the variable and the machine the constant. (Flusser, 2004, p.14)

The main thrust of her argument to me was that current photography has slipped the shackles of its previous rules and conventions and that the process of playing with images and trying different ideas can be as interesting and valuable as the end result. Sometimes even more so. This plays back to what Michele Whiting was discussing in her recent workshop on research, which I did not write up for this blog but my review can be found on #weareoca. Alongside this, the compartmentalisation of different art disciplines is breaking down and people can experiment across more than one (post-disciplinary art), bringing sculpture or embroidery into photography or playing with materials, for example.

She also says that the concept of Additive Versioning has become of interest. Artists may make a range of versions of a piece, or revisit it over time, or even appropriate someone else’s work and revision it. This results in a situation where there doesn’t need to be a specific ending, after which one stops and moves onto something else. She posits that when making images with digital technology, such as Photoshop, we are offered an enormous range of choices during the image making process, and that each one needs a deliberate decision, and might lead in a different direction. The stability and finality of a completed object has given way to an infinite range of possibilities, which function as a sort of playground for artists, in which they can try out ideas and come up with new ways of looking at their concepts. This feels very familiar to me, as my current interest is very much in playing with materials to see what happens, rather than producing beautiful finished pieces.

Just as a final addendum, the footnotes in the this essay are full of research gems, and it is worth taking a little time follow some of them up.

References

Cotton, C. (2015). Photography Is Magic. New York: Aperture.

Flusser. (2004) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. [online]: At: http://cmuems.com/excap/readings/flusser-towards-a-philosophy-of-photography.pdf (Accessed on 8 April 2019).

Some photographic explorations in London

On Tuesday I accompanied Kate to London with the aim of squeezing in as many exhibitions as we could cope with in one day. We achieved the Deutsche Börse shortlist at the Photographers Gallery, along with the Jessa Fairbrother show in the basement, and Andy Warhol’s Polaroids at the Bastion Gallery in Davies St. After that, we spend a good deal of time (and money) in the photography section of Waterstones in Piccadilly. The final stop was a very naughty visit to Shepherds Book binders.

I was rather more impressed by this year’s Deutsche Börse selection than in previous years, but don’t know whether this is because they were more interesting or because I understand more about their contextualisation and the aims of the individual photographers. As usual there were four bodies of work, all of which were much bigger than what was on show, and all with a documentary theme. In a single visit one can only scratch the surface of the work, which is selected as much for its breadth and depth as for its subject matter. The two on the top floor by Arwed Messmer and Susan Meiselas were quite similar in concept, with Messmer’s being about the German Red Army Faction in the 1960s and Meiselas’ being on Kurdistan, although her presentation covered a much larger theme. What interested me about both of them was that they used very little new photography. Messmer’s was all imagery made contemporaneously with the events it considers, specifically police and prison photographs. By taking some of these individual images and blowing them up, we were asked to consider them as individual images instead of one among various forensic series. I particularly liked the various broadsheet books detailing the archive from which he drew the material and the life sized images of gang members’ rooms with their detritus of dirty clothes and bomb making equipment were an effective way of giving the people concerned a voice. This was about the terrorists themselves, not their victims, and the banality of their (extremely messy) home lives was very much at odds with the chaos they caused.

Meiselas’s work also included very few new images. Most were either copies of original locally made photographs, and there was a short film showing that this still happens in very much the same way as it has done for 100 years. There were also a large number of individual stories from refugees who have made it to various European countries, which gave the3m the voice to explain why they had made the decision to leave their homes and journey abroad. For me, the impressive part of this archive was the sheer weight of research that Meiselas undertook to bring the stories of Kurdistani people to Westerners.

On the next floor down was Laia Abril’s ‘On Abortion’ which detailed the processes and individuals behind back street abortions over the last 100 years. I’ve been hearing about this work for a while, so it was good to see it in reality. Without being overtly political about it, Abril manages to convey the despair, death and injury sustained by women who were willing to take the risk to avoid having a baby, often in the face of extreme opposition from the religious establishment and the state. Stories were included from all over the world, alongside those of the people who performed the abortions, and relatives. And right in the centre of the room was an old-fashioned TV  playing a video of a white man putting the pro-life case. The whole thing was deeply affecting, and I bought the book on my way out, as much to support Abril’s work as for its content. Apparently she is going to look into the effects of rape for her next project.

Finally, Mark Ruwedel showed a series of very beautiful images of backland USA, and in particular areas where humans have been and gone and left their marks on the landscape. Unfortunately, after the Abril selection, it seemed somewhat lightweight and I did not spend a great deal of time on it. I did like his handmade photobooks though.

So, overall, this selection was interesting from the point of view of using the archive to tell stories that have been hidden before, and which bring to light some of the struggles that people in other parts of the world endure. My vote this year goes to Laia Abril, for an amazing and morbidly fascinating view into a subject which is mostly kept under wraps, both for the safety of those concerned and for the shame that society lays on all concerned, but which happens all the time in all parts of the world.

Jessa Fairbrother is showing quite a large selection of her work Constellations & Coordinates in the basement of the Photographers’ Gallery just now, and it is absolutely brilliant. I had seen some of the images online and in journals but was completely unprepared for how tiny they are and the exquisite delicacy of the embroidery. She uses images of her own naked body as the canvas for halos, lines and curves of tiny flowers in toning colours to the images themselves. There is also some fascinating use of cutouts in the mounting which add another element of surprise. The pieces remind one of Elizabethan miniature paintings, and there is a strong religious iconographic element to them as well. They speak of her mental state in a very emotional but subtle way, hinting at some lack of reality and are very feminine. I thought they were outstanding, and would dearly like to own one. Of course, they are completely outside my price range, especially as they are all one-off pieces with hours of work put in after the photographs were made. Perhaps, one day….

The Andy Warhol Polaroids were at the Bastion Gallery, which is one I haven’t visited before. It has a very minimalist décor which suited the 60 odd works on show. The images were displayed as framed photographs which gave them an individual gravitas which we don’t normally associate with Polaroid images. According to the BJP (2019), they were made as research for his silk screen images, and the article posits that they lack individualism and play to Warhol’s nihilistic view that ‘everyone looks and acts alike and we are getting more and more that way’. I am not sure that I agree with this assessment. To me, they divided into three groups of images – individual portraits of the rich and famous, flower images and a collection of what I would call party photos. The last of these could have been taken by anyone, except that the people featured were all very famous. The flower images were surprisingly good and showed Warhol’s understanding of form and colour to good effect. The individual portraits were a mixed bag. Some were excellent, while others seemed to lack  any connection between photographer and model. To me, the main takeaway from the exhibition was that Polaroids can be shown at galleries without seeming ephemeral, providing that the framing is good, and I loved the unintentional ink trails on the very large Polaroid, shown below.

 

After all this looking, we needed a cup of tea and some rumination time and so headed off to Waterstones in Picadilly. This has always had a good photography section but things have been moved around of late and it has grown enormously. I would compare it very favourably with the Photographers’ Gallery bookshop in terms of being able to find what you are looking for and the unexpected gems which lurk among the usual technique and travel stuff. After much deliberation and the putting aside of Richard Misrach’s Border Cantos, Alec Soth’s Gathering Leaves and Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography, I came away with two books that are relevant to my current course – The Many Lives of Erik Kessels and Amalia Ullman’s Excellences & Perfections. Both will bring some good background to my Digital Identity work.

Finally, we passed on the intended trip to the Saatchi Gallery and went instead to Shepherds Bookbinders in Victoria. More money was spent on some lovely papers and craft supplies, and subsequently I have been experimenting with mocking up a woven codex book. I still need to get my head around what order to print the images I want to include, but a new book is brewing as an antidote to all the essay work I am doing just now.

 

Photography reading group – Solomon-Godeau’s ‘Canon Fodder – Authoring Eugène Atget’ (1986)

The Photography Reading group met yesterday  in a hangout, and five of us were present. The text for discussion was Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ in Photography in the Dock. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 28-51 and the essay itself was written in 1986.

After a rather slow start and after getting used to SG’s hugely academic and complex style of writing, this text turned out to be about

  • authorship, and who decides it
  • who are the decision makers about what constitutes the accepted canon of photography, and what motivates them
  • the perceived importance of a singular style
  • whether the subject can be the photographer rather than his work.

SG used Berenice Abbott’s marketing of Atget’s vast oeuvre to the American arts institutes as a vehicle for discussing the enormous power that the gatekeepers in those ‘hallowed halls’ have to both make or break the careers of individual photographers and also to dictate what work the public should be told is important (the canon). She goes into some detail about John Szarkowski’s hold on the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his commitment to making the previously unknown work of Atget an acknowledged part of the photographic canon and to bringing his work to the attention of the world through four separate exhibitions. In some ways, this trajectory to fame had much in common with the more recent ‘discovery’ of Vivien Maier’s work – the hidden genius making vast numbers of superb images that are only discovered later, and which make vast sums of money for the people who promote them.

All this was a precursor to asking questions about whether a singular view – the personal voice – is essential for work to be recognised by the establishment, whether the acknowledged canon of the history of photography is static or changes over time, and whether alternative histories using different photographers as examples are equally valid. With regard to the first of these, one of the issues with Atget was his great variety of styles which made pigeonholing him difficult, when the fashion in the 20th century was to focus on artists with a very specific, easily recognisable style. Although still very prevalent, there is an encouraging trend more recently towards accepting photographers such as Thomas Ruff and Wolfgang Tillmans, whose style is less important than the themes they explore. SG makes a good case for questioning the solidity of the accepted canon, offering several examples of previously lauded photographers whose work has almost completely disappeared from public discourse, while suggesting that a different establishment/ different gatekeepers would come up with a variety of alternative lists depending on their own interests and fashions within their own circles of influence.

The reading group then went on to discuss the effect of funding realities on decisions about what art is promoted to the public, and how current interest in the ethics of Corporate Social  Responsibility (CSR) can affect those decisions. Also, the bottom line that exhibitions need to make money and bring prestige to the organisations which stage them and that means making hard decisions about what the public would like to see, as well as what is currently viewed as ‘the best work’.

We talked about curation and how it is a subjective process which cannot escape the prevailing public discourse and the curator’s own interests, and how different curators would produce different representations of any artist’s work. (An interesting sideline from this is the idea of giving a group of people the same archive and asking them each to produce their own interpretation of it, which I think would be fascinating).

Finally, I very much enjoyed SG’s subliminal message in this essay. Without making any direct mention of it, I realised that almost all the photographers she referenced were women, and Berenice Abbott’s image came before Eugène Atget’s in the text, despite Atget being its ostensible subject. Abbott’s role and motives in the raising of Atget’s work was also discussed briefly, but without coming to any specific conclusion.

Overall, an interesting read and subsequent discussion, as always.

 

 

 

Format Festival 2019

As part of my A2 tutorial, my tutor suggested that I should try to get to the Format Festival, particularly as two of the photographers whose work interests me are showing there, Kensuke Koike and Alexandra Lethbridge. So on Saturday, I hopped on the train and went to Derby for the day. The festival is relatively compact, with most venues being in walking distance of one another, but I was clearly not going to be able to visit them all, so I decided to concentrate on six locations, which I will go through in turn here. I saw a huge number of images, and so will concentrate mainly on the ones that drew my attention.

First up was The Quad, which had several rooms and corridors dedicated to exhibitions. It would take forever to describe them all so here are a few highlights.

Kensuke Koike – well, what can you say about his work? His speciality is cutting archival images to make new comments about this original and here, he has bigged up the idea. In an installation of about nine pieces, each image was cut and then mounted on a piece of similarly cut and hinged metal, in which is was clearly possible to see that it could be folded back flat. It was a triumph of the use of negative space, and the subject matter was images taken from Derby’s historic archive. I loved it.

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Steven Barritt’s Of Swallows and Ravens considered our notions of how the more esoteric science such as quantum mechanics and astronomy relate to our perceived reality. The work on show for this was very disparate and each piece merited some time to consider what point was being made. Interesting and thought provoking.

Lisa Ambrossio’s The Rage of Devotion was an eclectic mix of old family photos and peculiar mental performances over the period of time when she left home very young and had to start making her own way in the world. Clearly, it was not a very happy experience, but it was a startlingly fresh insight into the mind of someone battling with loneliness and mental health issues at a young age.

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Seunggu Kim’s Better Days was visually very appealing with it’s pink and green palette and its stories of Korean people en masse trying to relax on mini-breaks.

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Amani Willett’s The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer was a historical mystery and an attempt to understand her father’s need for solitude by following in the footsteps of Joseph Plummer, an 18th century hermit who became a legend in his own lifetime. It looked at themes of escape, peace and geography all at once, and really requires more time than I had to delve into.

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I then went to Derby Museum & Art Gallery to see the retrospective of Maurice Broomfield’s White Heat of British Industry, 1950s – 60s. This was a substantial exhibition by a photographer whom I was not familiar with. I would have liked to be able to spend more time there, as the images were fascinating – beautifully lit and composed prints of British industrial workers doing their jobs, and made at a time when the role of the manual worker was very much in the public conscience. There was something almost romantic about them, and more than a hint of Soviet photographic influence. Unfortunately, I was short of time and the subject and presentation were not relevant to my current work, so I had to move on.

St Westburgh’s Church – This somewhat bizarre and freezing venue was the location for the Kassel Dummy Photobook Award. I spent a long time there looking at different book formats. There were numerous examples of books with inserts, different page sizes and varying papers, (including rubber and fabric covers) as well as more traditional styles. The second prize winner, Watertanks in Mathare Slum by Filippo Romano was one that caught my eye. It was made up as a lined jotter with handwritten notes, although the original jotter has been printed on a much stronger plasticised paper which gives it an odd, texture – no longer the original but something else. I also enjoyed Sensor, by Holger Krischke, Thomas Haubner and students of University of Fine Arts Münster, which was a multisensory scrapbook with bits of sandpaper, bubblewrap etc. alongside the images. Plenty of food for thought here.

The Smallprint Company exhibit was in a lovely old-fashioned print studio and consisted of a mere thirteen small images spread about the walls alongside all the usual paraphernalia of a working studio. Unfortunately, there was a workshop going on and I felt a bit inhibited about really examining the work, which was a shame as it was fascinating. Five photographers produced collaged under the title of The Office for Revised Futures. I particularly liked Fernando Martin Godoy‘s landscapes with rectangles seamlessly inserted, and Hannah Hughes Flatland collages, which were tiny and mysterious. I would like to delve into her work in more detail in another post.

Pickford’s House – the two exhibitions here were The Blue Skies Project by Anton Kusters and Ruben Samama and Radical Visions: Camerawork Revisited. The first of these was a series of 1078 Polaroid images of the sky at each of the locations of Nazi concentration camps. The sheer number of images was mindblowing, and it was an object lesson in how one doesn’t need to address a subject head on to make one’s point. I took a quick look around the Cameraworks exhibit, which was obviously highly political, and not particularly relevant to my current studies, but it was interesting to see what was going on in my teenage years, news of which largely passed me by at the time.

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The unexpected highlight of this venue was a room full of toy theatres. I have been considering using the ideas of tunnel books and miniature theatres in some work for a while, and so this was fascinating. I came away buzzing with ideas about what I could do using current images as the base.

The Eagle Market – last stop of the day, and I was feeling a bit footsore and weary by now. The layout of the work did not help and I needed a cup of tea and a piece of chocolate cake to fortify myself beforehand. The exhibits were spread out over the large covered market in unused stall, and were very poorly signposted, so one had to walk up and down all the aisles to find everything. The Alexandra Lethbridge exhibit – The Path of an Honest Man was here. It is not my favourite Lethbridge series (that honour going to Other Ways of Knowing) but I was interested in how she used a variety of very different shapes, layers and subjects to consider the body language of lying. It was all monochrome and rather austere.

The other highlights for me were a very large piece Indecisive, by Dominic Chapman, which used Photoshop layers to very good effect (see image 1 below), a set of beautiful collages of Punjabi families overlaid with regional print patterns by Yasmin Nilupa(Image 2 below) and a series called An Englishman’s Search for the Irish Border by Tristan Poyser, which spawned a subsequent public participation project on how people viewed the border, by tearing images in half and writing a sentence to describe their feelings about Brexit.

Overall, a good day out, and I’m surprised I managed to get so much into a single day.

Exercise 3.3 – Breaking the news?

In some ways, this exercise is very similar to the last. We are asked to review an image of an impending tragedy and to comment on the ethics of the photographer. The image is one showing a man standing on the tracks of the New York subway with a train bearing down on him. The man, Ki Suk Han, was killed moments later. The image caused uproar when it was published shortly afterwards with the banner title’ This man is about to die’, with people in particular focussing on the photographer’s motives. Apparently, the photographer, an off-duty photojournalist just lifted his camera when he saw what was happening with the aim of letting the train driver know there was a problem with his flash, and took the photos almost on autopilot. Subsequent studies of what happened established that Mr Han had been deliberately pushed off the platform by an agitated man who had been bothering other passengers, and whom Mr Han had attempted to calm down. It later turned out that this man had severe mental health issues.

Public outrage seems to have focussed on two aspects of the New York Times front page story, which included the image. Firstly, should they have bought the photograph and published it, and secondly was the motivation of the photographer questionable? It is a strange fact of modern life that we tend to focus our fury on people other than the perpetrator, and this is what seems to have happened here. The man who actually caused the accident is invisible in the image and in much of the reporting, while the photographer was roundly condemned for a variety of failings, including not trying to help the victim (although nobody else did either) and making money from his death. Questions were also asked about whether the New York Times had broken the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and in particular the section on Minimizing Harm. Having looked at this, I would argue that there is scope for concern about this element of this Code, namely that journalists should

  • Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if other do.

My own reaction to the image was to consider it in relation to other similar images, and the internet is rife with these. Almost any of the images in this series – 45 haunting photos of people in their final moments before death has the same issues as the NYT one and adverts for series such as this regularly turn up on my own Facebook timeline. To me, the issue stems from the NYT’s decision to print the photograph and to run the story, not with the photographer who made the image. That person was acting automatically, and could not realistically have helped the man, but the NYT publishing of the image and story were, in my view, pandering to lurid curiosity rather than providing useful news. The fact that it was also the NYT is relevant – it is a broadsheet newspaper that considers itself to be at the more intellectual end of the journalistic range. If the National Enquirer had published it, I don’t believe there would have been a similar outcry.

Exercise 3.2 – Decoding a transgressive image

I started out with a plan to do some work about Roger Ballen’s Theatre of the Absurd for this exercise. Ever since I first saw it, and particularly his series Outland I have been distressed by them, and did not really know why. But unpacking those emotions is something for another day. The image I want to discuss is the one below, of a young girl named Omayra Sanchez, who was trapped by the catastrophic mudslide which followed the eruption of the  Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Columbia in 1985. She was found quite soon by rescuers, but despite every possible effort they were unable to free her and after 60 hours of very public anguish she sadly died.

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In the image, only the girl’s head and shoulders are visible and it is clear she is trapped in water and debris. One hand (heavily discoloured) grips a wooden pole and the other can be seen lying beside it. The girl is looking straight at the camera and her eyes appear completely black. The expression on her face is one of despair and also acceptance – she knows she is going to die and cannot do anything about it. Even struggling is beyond her.

I find this image distressing on a number of levels, but will discuss two in particular. Firstly, it is difficult to define where the image should be placed within the photographic canon. It comes from the documentary genre, but it is not normal reportage in which the people in foreign disasters are always perceived as Other. The girl is looking straight at the camera and we cannot avoid making a connection with her and imagining her suffering. This is a real person, in agony and we cannot look away, yet we are completely helpless to solve her situation. At the same time, her eyes are almost alien in their blackness and are impossible to read.

The other issue is a much larger ethical one. Is it right to publish images of people in such distress? What motivated the photographer to ‘shoot’ this image and the many others that were taken over the period of her slow and agonising death? Is it ok to make money out of someone else’s suffering, or to observe instead of trying to help? And is it intrusive or exploitative?

In the West, the current norm is to sanitise death. We avoid having to confront it visually because it is disturbing and feels intrusive. News media go to considerable lengths not to offend their viewers and readers by withholding images they consider too gory or too personal, and thus we are not directly exposed to the horror that being human can entail.  The heavy shielding which we experience is probably partially itself to blame for the Othering of those from foreign parts. Hideous death and violence is Not Something We Do, apparently. However, this really is a sanitised bubble. In other parts of the world where I have lived, the local news media is full of images of gory deaths from traffic accidents, shootings and the like. Intrusive – yes. Exploitative – yes, too. But somehow more honest as well. These things happen whether one wants to acknowledge it or not. To quote Susan Sontag,

“Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.” (Sontag, 2004:

The term disaster porn has now been coined to express our macabre fascination with the suffering of others, with its connotations of secrecy, illicit voyeurism and shame, alongside its ubiquity on the internet. If we want to look hard enough, it is now possible to find images detailing all sorts of horror, from the bodies of people who fell from the Twin Towers tragedy to videos by people who know their plane is about to crash. It is somehow part of the human condition to want to observe these things from a safe distance, and I am sure there is plenty of psychological research to explain one of our less attractive characteristics.

But back to poor Omayra Sanchez and her impossible situation. The image comes up each time I open my blog at present, and each time I am appalled at her predicament, and ask myself whether it adds to the sum of human understanding to see it. And each time I am not sure; it humanises suffering, but also fetishizes it as well.

Below are a couple of links which explain a little about the disaster porn phenomenon, for interest.

http://blogs.reuters.com/jackshafer/2012/10/30/the-strange-allure-of-disaster-porn/

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sirota/our-addiction-to-disaster_b_441745.html?

https://www.theeastafricanreview.info/op-eds/2019/01/19/disaster-porn-and-the-white-gaze-why-the-new-york-times-just-wont-respect-the-dusit-attack-victims/

References

McMahon, E. (2016) ‘In 1985, She Became Trapped Beneath a Volcanic Mudflow — These Were the Final 60 Hours of Her Life.’ In: firsttoknow.com [online] At: http://firsttoknow.com/the-final-hours-of-omayra-sanchezs-life/ (Accessed on 28 March 2019).