Assignment 4: ideas

The critical review is something we are encouraged to think about throughout the course, and as I have progressed, I have noted points of interest, quotes and general thoughts. Looking back on this, my issue completing this assignment is less about finding inspiration than being able to choose just one of these subjects, and more importantly, how I manage to distil far ranging topics into something I can explore in 2000 words. The notes below are my thoughts about potential directions and avenues for further exploration:

The aestheticisation of the documentary image

The question about whether it is ethical for an image of suffering to be beautiful or stylish is something that has interested me since I first read Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ a number of years ago. It is also something that I have come across directly and indirectly through my further reading as I have progressed through the course. Interestingly, it is also a subject that some of my documentary hangout cohort have chosen as their subject – something that may cause me to avoid this myself. A couple of quotes I noted are here:

“To aestheticize is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it.”

Ingrid Sischy “Good Intentions” (article on Sebastião Salgado, the New Yorker, 1991. Cited in Levi-Strauss, 2003: 5

in: Levi-Strauss, D. (2003) Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography & Politics. New York: Aperture.

“The ills of photography are the ills of aestheticism.” Cited in Warner Marien, 2014: 438

Allan Sekula – On the invention of photographic meaning (1975)

in: Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

The construction of history/the heritage industry/the commodification of the past

This question is something I have been interested in for some time and a possible subject for Assignment 5. Also, I like the idea of continuing a line of enquiry from the critical essay to the final project. I live in an area that was built on heavy industries that have long since disappeared and I have an internal conflict about wanting to recognise the importance of this aspect of local history while being concerned about this descending into rose tinted nostalgia. The work of Paul Reas was a particular influence on me in this regard, particularly ‘Flogging a dead horse.’ (1993) (I have written a reaction to Reas’ work here.) Reas is addressing this subject from a particularly acerbic and political standpoint, one of the readings of the work is that it is opposed to the ideology of Thatcherism and the Conservative governments of the 1980s. The passage of time has made the series gain in historical, rather than political relevance, and I cannot see myself producing work that is as scathing as Reas. The interesting change in the last 25 years is that the sort of heritage industry experience Reas presents is now commonplace and informs our ability to understand the past. Some of the images in ‘Flogging a dead horse’ are from Beamish museum which is 5 miles from my home and somewhere I have visited regularly – it is a kind of Disneyland for the past but also somewhere I am extremely fond of – my ambivalence towards this is perhaps something that may be better explored in photographs than an essay.

“Heritage is gradually effacing history, by substituting an image of the past for its reality.” Robert Hewison in Corner and Harvey, 1990: 175 (cited in Wells, 2009: 64)

“This kind of commodification of the image continues to raise complex questions about how history is constructed and photographs employed to visualise the past.” Wells, 2009: 64

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Can photography elicit social change?

The idealist in me has always believed (hoped?) that photography can be a force for good in the world and improve things. For example, I greatly admire the work of the Amber Collective and Side Gallery in Newcastle which is dedicated to documenting working class people of the North East, telling their stories and providing agency for communities and people that are often marginalised.

Although my opinion that this work is important and worthwhile has not changed, the view that I previously held about its ability to make any tangible, positive change to the lives of the people presented has sadly moved to a belief that this is unlikely. Looking back at the tradition of this type of photography throughout history, I am struck by the fact that examples of change having been achieved are based on received wisdom rather than fact. Work like that of Jacob Riis is fraught with ideological concerns such as the need to maintain the distance between the working and middle classes rather than create any sort of societal equality.

Riis and others were mainly concerned with creating a situation where poverty was alleviated just enough to mitigate crime against middle class people rather than any concern for those photographed.

I discussed this topic with fellow students as an agenda point of the fortnightly Forum Live hangouts facilitated by OCA tutor Clive White. It is interesting that as soon as an idea is articulated any issues with it become clearer – the first answer to my question was ‘no’ followed by the realisation that this was a subject that it would be difficult to confine to 2000 words.

Power relationships within documentary photography

The idea for exploring various power relationships within photography came from a tutorial with my first tutor Simon Barber as I described my interest in the ability of photography to elicit social change. Citizen journalism, the #metoo movement and #blacklivesmatter were all discussed as potential subjects.

Abu Ghraib

Errol Morris’ book ‘Believing is seeing’ (2011) is something that I come back to and re-read on occasion as it is a fascinating exploration into the many contradictions that typify photography and truth. In the book, there are two essays which discuss the infamous pictures that came out of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq which appear to show abuse of inmates by American soldiers. There are a number of elements that fascinate me about this story: the images are imbued with an authenticity because of their technical limitations; the power relationships between the soldiers on the ground and the army hierarchy/politicians; gender politics – particular revulsion was reserved for a female soldier who featured in some pictures; and, how they expose the way governments carefully manage what images can be released from a war zone, in this case, showing a particularly unsavoury side to warfare and exposing the myth that western occupation is a force for good.

War photography and control

The difficulty with the Abu Ghraib story is that in order to focus just on that would require emphasis on details that could bog down the argument. Perhaps the significance of these pictures needs to framed by the changes in how governments have controlled war photography since Vietnam – a war that is anecdotally said to have been lost because of images shown in the media. An interesting and provoking essay on this subject is featured on David Campbell’s blog.

Compassion fatigue

Working through the exercises for part four I became interested in the subject of compassion fatigue and began to think that this could have potential for the critical review. (This paper by David Campbell was of particular interest to me.)

Again, the difficulty here could be how to find an aspect of the subject to discuss that would cover some of the interests I mention above such as power relationships, ideology and the effect of the photograph on the viewer without becoming too meandering. The aspect of this subject that particularly interests me is that in order to believe compassion fatigue is a true phenomenon you first need to acknowledge that photographs have the ability to affect us. The notion that we can then become desensitised to imagery leads to the question about how a photographer seeks to eliminate this problem with their aesthetic choices – something that can potentially lead to increasing ethical dilemmas.

One thought on “Assignment 4: ideas

  1. Simon Chirgwin says:

    ‘I have an internal conflict about wanting to recognise the importance of this aspect of local history while being concerned about this descending into rose tinted nostalgia. ‘ – there’s definitely something there to get some purchase on!


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