Sofia Conti’s practice focuses mainly on social documentary work, She is based in Glasgow, Scotland. Over the past four years she has embarked upon her photography journey as a mature student. She achieved a Distinction in a BA Photography degree at Robert Gordon University, Gray’s School of Art and is currently studying MA Photography at Falmouth University. The intentions of the projects produced are to raise social awareness surrounding issues that aesthetically enlighten the audience to evoke a change in attitudes surrounding the subject matter. Sofia has achieved several esteemed photography awards in the UK and abroad, most recently with the Portrait of Britain. Her work has been exhibited at the Royal Academy 195th Annual Exhibition, The Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Landings 2021.
The intent for ‘The Glasgow Effect’ was to illustrate how the East End urban landscape continues to be a place of desolation; neglected, and overlooked, resulting in issues being often forgotten or dismissed. Susan Sontag (1977) argues that, “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one-and can help build a nascent one.” (Sontag 2007:19). Throughout this process I explored the concepts of New Topographics, place/non-place and liminal space (day and night photography) by constructing a surreal environment from the reality of the situation. The rationale behind this being to demonstrate how sections of these locations continue to be placed in a state of limbo, unable to evolve.
The aim was to raise awareness on The Glasgow Effect by producing an ambiguous narrative that has an aesthetic allure which grabs the audience’s attention to review, reflect and consider what is being portrayed. Mark Neville remarks, “I’ve always felt that because photography deals with reality, I’ve got an ethical responsibility to try and change the world” (Neville cited in Warner 2020). I made a conscious decision to continually consider how best to represent the community that has less opportunities than other sections of society.
Todd Hido comments, “As a photographer, I want to tell you just enough with the pictures to activate your desire to know more.” (Hido 2014:28). With that in mind the photographs produced where formed by my subjective view as a non-native, current resident, and a photographer. The prime focus was to enable the audience to form their own interpretation as “part of Barthes strategy is to erase authority figures and to replace a single voice with multiplicity” (Seymour 2017:41), and with a collective consensus it would spark discussions on the topic.
When it came to the ethics, authenticity, and representation of the East End I embraced the fact I am a resident and a non-native which allowed me to regard the community from various perspectives. In the beginning, I felt the daytime photographs objectified the landscape in a harsh and literal way. I observed the subject matter covered was somewhat autobiographical, with Covid-19 halting the possibility of collaborations, it became my responsibility to interpret this respectfully. Similarly, George Shaw’s paintings presented familiar British housing estates commenting that, “It has been said my work is sentimental. I don’t know why sentimentality has to be a negative quality. What I look for in art are the qualities I admire or don’t admire in human beings” which is what I am looking for (Shaw cited in Artnet n.d.). Like Shaw, Peter Mullan directed, wrote, and starred in ‘Neds’ (2011), that incorporated his experience of 1970’s working-class Glasgow’s gang culture. In an interview Mullan spoke of younger generations repeating the cycle due to the environmental conditions (Mullan cited in The Guardian 2011).
Being surrounded by ‘The Glasgow Effect’ daily it made sense to incorporate my take on the issue to illustrate the cast away sections of society. Sontag discussed, “Someone who is perennially 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 2004:71). With that in mind as an outsider I am perplexed why little has changed with the community disregarding the decay.
The Barbican, London, Strange and Familiar: Britain (2016) exhibition exemplifies daily living by international photographers tackling social, cultural and political life since the 1930’s, which connects to my work (BBC News 2016). Even French Photographer, Raymond Depardon demonstrated life in 1980’s Glasgow, stating that, “A Glasgow photographer would not take these photographs because it would be their everyday world.”, combining this with the human choices I made as an outsider has exemplified the reality (Depardon cited in Brocklehurst 2020). Studies have shown Britain’s obsession with class dates back to the 19th Century. The ‘Social Class in the 21st Century’ notes, “Longstanding problems such as poverty appear to be getting worse even though we live in more affluent times” (Savage 2015:3). Personally, observing these ethical concerns allows the audience to regard why this still occurs.
Traditional landscape photography is traditionally associated with a controlling gaze. Terri Loewenthal a contemporary practitioner, never uses her gender to make a feminist point but indicates, “I’m not sure that a male photographer would approach landscape the same way I do.” (Loewenthal cited in Palumbo 2019). Originating from Edinburgh, now a resident of Glasgow and a lesbian of mixed heritage I strongly believe has contributed to constructing a considered image.
Photographer Anthony Luvera who is gay, collaborated with the LGBTQ+ community in Queer in Brighton (2014). Luvera remarks, “In this sense I feel more inside the work, but in many respects my interest in the problems of representation and the sense of representational responsibility is the same.” (Luvera 2014). This thoughtful ‘gaze’ is about breaking away from stereotypes. Yes, I depicted the decay, however the night images combine the warmth from the tungsten lighting in comparison to the coolness of day ensured the community was given the courtesy they deserve. John Szarkowski’s five photographic characteristics specifically ‘The Frame’ was key to my works overall narrative. Szarkowski says, “The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is the beginning of this picture’s geometry” (Szarkowski 1980:70).
My approach was similar to Stephen Shore’s ‘Uncommon Places’ (1982), using a tripod to slowly consider what goes in and out of the frame to spark intrigue. Shore comments, “To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility, that’s what I am interested in.” (Shore cited in Clay 2018). Revisiting certain locations allowed me to see more possibilities like Shore and Hido. That certainly improved my examination of spatial awareness when appraising potential compositions. Whilst certain images did not make the final edit, trying new variations allowed for a range of images that incorporated the colour, atmosphere, and detail, as the perspectives aesthetically demonstrates neglect. Experimentation was carried out on the aesthetic value of the day and night. Within the imagery produced it was evident both portrayed the message of the community’s alienation. Photographers like Alec Soth, Robert Adams and Todd Hido portray everyday banality, yet regardless of the time, they tell stories that allow the audience to negotiate their own reading like my project.
The day illustrated the same themes as night; still the night offers an unfamiliar sight, that becomes a less literal interpretation of the desolation. It has a form of beautification due to the exposure of the orange street lights and post-production. It produces an atmospheric scene of fact and fiction as Richard Misrach’s said, “it engages people when they might otherwise look away” which is vital to awaken the audience as a method of inciting change (Misrach cited in Brogden 2019:98). A continual review was carried out to evaluate if I was ethically representing the community which was personally challenging. Exploring liminal space like Soth’s, ‘Hypnagogia’ (2016), examined the process of people in a sleep limbo that created a “dreamlike experience” by altering reality (Art Rabbit 2016). When incorporating elements e.g., street lighting it produced a phantasmagoric landscape, yet posed technical issues with overexposure. Further research and experimentations surrounding in camera adjustments, shutter release timings, and post-production resulted in a vast improvement. Boosting the saturation of the orange lights in post-production resulted in an uncomfortable quality to help the audience to understand that scenes like these should not occur.
The ambience of the day and night photography is noticeably different. From the trial phase, the day appears to have a hard take on the community with cooler tones that potentially could anaesthetise the audience. The night produces a strangeness which conveyed a subtilty to outline division between them and more affluent areas. The extensive depth of field and distant perspective allows onlookers to examine more of the environment to illustrate as Jesse Alexander mentions in Perspectives on Place, that the dark can “transform” a location, in my case to create an eerie atmosphere (Alexander 2015:104). Highlighting the landscape in this way shows the viewer my sensitive approach of the run-down vicinity that the day simply cannot achieve.
Initially I set out to photograph the East End by day to depict the unwanted and neglected locations in a New Topographic style. Little did I know that the expedition into liminal space would start my exploration of night. The night’s allure enabled the everyday reality to become surrealistic, strengthening the depiction of the bleakness. Struggling with the authenticity and ethical representation was a concern, however it became evident that certain bodies of work can be subjective. Keeping a similar distance when photographing helped the work to remain a Social Documentary project rather than being an emotional singular view. Representation of this kind is how the stereotypical views associated with the community will change.
TP: You don’t consider yourself a photographer, however you are bringing photography into the ‘real world’ where is where certainly it exists today – something you discuss as ‘digital dualism’. The tone of your book is wonderfully celebratory about photography, rather than being perhaps more pessimistic about living in a contemporary image world (to allude to Sontag’s writing in On Photography for example).
NJ: I think that ties in pretty close to the sort of positivity in the book relative to some other photobooks, as well. My background is not in photography; it’s in Social Theory and you can probably tell that from the people I’m citing throughout the book – so I’m a bit of a tourist in the photography world or the art world and so that’s been interesting how many book talks I’ve got to do at galleries and museums. A lot of my book is written as a critique of all the other books you can read on photography because so few of them could even touch on what’s happening with say, Instagram or Snapchat. So I thought there was a real gap there, and if you wanted to pick up a book on photography, really the only thing you could read about was art photography, professional photography, photojournalism, art or professional uses of photography. But of course, the vast majority of images being taken today have nothing to do with the rule of thirds, or what’s appropriate to run on the front page of an newspaper – so I wanted to write something that was taking on the vast majority of images being taken today.
So I do allude to this idea of a dichotomy, although it’s a somewhat loose one, between traditional photography and social photography. I offer a few different definitions throughout the book about the sort of ‘objectness’ of traditional photography, how it strives to convey information or make an artistic aim, but in any case it’s the ‘image object’ that’s really central – whereas in the ‘social object’ – the image object fades away because I define social photography as much more like speaking. It’s a discursive act much more than an informational or artistic act and in that way a social photo can disappear,
I mean on Snapchat literally, there could be a timer that self-deletes in the same way that when you’re talking to somebody you may not always record what you’re saying if you’re hanging out with your friend you’re probably not putting on a recorder and recording everything. That’s the perspective that I wanted to write about – all these images that people are taking who don’t consider themselves photographers – the vast majority of images taken today are not taken by someone who sees themselves as in the medium of photography ‘proper’ and so I think part of the positivity is because I think it’s really important to look at how people are talking today just the everyday-ness of taking images, how you communicate with your friends and family. To me as a sociologist, that’s extremely important. I think in the photo world a lot of the photo theorists, when you pick up books about photography in a book store, it’s not just everyday people talking to each other with pictures. Whereas, as a sociologist, that’s what you study, you study how people behave, so it gave me a different perspective – I think I’m inherently interested in how people are talking to each other, so therefore I’m inherently interested in the very mundane every day photos that people have on their phone cameras. I think that’s where the positivity comes from.
When I first started writing the book, there were a lot of discussions like, why are people taking pictures of their lunch, that’s such a boring and stupid photo and it’s not a great ‘art’ photograph, It didn’t’ obey all the rules that you might want in an ‘art’ photograph, but you may have sent it to your friend who because you both went to that same restaurant a year ago and you were reminiscing about that. It’s a social good, not an artistic good. The question is not ‘Did it obey the rule of thirds’? The questions are ‘Were you smart, were you funny, were you creative, did you respect the other persons privacy in the photos’?. It’s these social questions and those are things I try to look at in what I call the social photo.
We can maybe have some fun thinking about how photography was more or less social in the past, surely the Kodak Brownie camera; shipping a photo album with the camera, that you would then want to fill up. That seemed more social a photographic act than it was before. Or the Polaroid camera in the 1970’s where the camera was like a toy and you could just pass it around – and you’re take a picture and just hand it to somebody – and sometimes those were kind of ephemeral. And of course, today people take images with digital cameras all the time. I’m trying to discuss the impulses behind taking and sharing those photos. Another thinker who is very important to me is Danah Boyd who writes a lot about social media, and I think she’s provided a very good model of how to be critical of these technologies yet still extend empathy to the everyday uses of it, into the users.
TP: Do you think the ‘Kodak Moment’ helped photography become a truly democratic medium? What do you think really makes that difference between ‘art’ photography and ‘social’ photography, Is it context / subject matter, for example?
NJ: I’m rejecting the ‘art’ framework of it, I see photography as something that we’re learning to speak with, we’re learning to talk with images – but I think talking and speaking with images is merely something that is something for an elite few. The title of the book already assumes that and the reason for that is that once you connect a camera to the internet. I remember having a digital camera, but I wasn’t taking pictures all day with it, you wouldn’t take a picture of your Latte – you’d have no reason to even when you had a small digital camera. It could fit in your pocket; you could take as many pictures as you want basically for free – and you still didn’t take that picture. The key difference was once you had an audience, and once you make a picture of something you can communicate with very easily, suddenly that Latte changes.
Whereas before, I would have to figure out a very interesting picture of my Latte; I’m probably not going to think of one ‘properly’; it has no informational content at all. Nobody needs to know what my Latte looks like. It has very low information news quality to it – but once you add a internet connection to the camera, it turns the Latte into a symbol; it turns it into a linguistic element, where now it’s not just that particular latte, it’s what does the Latte symbolise for myself and the person that I’m sending that image to. I could send that picture to a friend who would know that what that’s means is that I’m tired, or that I’m at a café, it meant that I was working or it meant ‘maybe you should come by the café’ or it could mean if I’m having a relaxing morning. But essentially the Latte is now no longer a just a Latte – it’s a symbol.
You know, here in Los Angeles, we have lots of palm trees and I mention the palm tree in the book. It’s always the first example I think of, I will take a picture of that palm tree, but if I’m taking that picture a lot, I’ll use a palm tree emoji intead. It’s a symbol, what does that palm tree stand for, a ‘palm tree-ness’? I don’t want you to think what a great photo I took of that palm tree, I don’t want you to look at the exact detail of that palm tree, I want you to think what does that palm tree mean. It means ‘the weather is nice / I’m on vacation’ – they are symbolic messages and I believe that’s what is the very democratic everyday aspect of social photography. Namely, looking at the world through its symbolic potential and how I can ‘speak’ with things in their visual form, almost like the social camera turns the whole world into emojis, and you can speak with them symbolically and so I think that’s the big difference.
TP: It almost sounds like you’re making a semiotic analysis at this point?
NJ: Yeah, I was very careful not to say that word. If you take a linguistics class, the linguistics people have very strict rules about what counts as a language, and there are very important distinctions between all of these things. But it’s absolutely right, it’s a semiotic, discursive analysis and so isn’t it weird that a lot of the photography books in the book store don’t tackle that in a social sense, they want to talk about ‘art’ or journalism and things like that and so it’s important to make these sorts of analyses about the vast majority of pictures taken today.
TP: You make a beautiful analogy in your (2019) talk at ThePhotographer’s Gallery – saying that if aliens came down from outer space that they might think that we had an extra eye that lived in our pocket (our mobile phones) – that we chose to bring out from time to time – and that we can look at the world through this eye. I wondered if you could expand on that a little bit?
NJ: I think that is one of my guiding ideas when I think about social photography. Let’s think – you’re at a concert and everyone’s got their phones up getting a picture or whatever. I was thinking about an alien anthropologist who lands on Earth from another world, what it would seem like is that we have a removable eye that lives in our pockets or in our hands and that we can speak with that eye. It’s an eye that talks, what it sees can be communicated to other people’s eyes. It really follows the embodied way I think of photography and really, all technology, as something that’s really these sort of fleshy appendages we have – they’re not these cold mechanical things that you can put away and you know you’re suddenly away from. Technology’s always a part of the way that we see the world and this changes with the technology we have. It’s always something that’s in us.
I never like to make too strict of a distinction between the human and the technological, it’s very much merged. That’s why I see smart cameras as these eyes that can talk, they’re part of how we see the world. I think an alien would assume that; they would assume that these things are just a sensory organ that we have – the important thing is that they act as if they were a sensory organ and they do change the way we see the world now that you can take a picture – and send that picture to somebody else. It changes the way you see the world, even when you have the camera put away, you still see the world through this idea of a potential photograph, you can see who you would probably send it to or if you’re thinking about Instagram you’re thinking ‘I know that this one would get a lot of likes’ and you have all of that intuition, it’s all part of how you see the world and that’s true of pre- digital technologies as well so it’s not like something that just came around.
TP: What’s your feeling on how people react to social media and if you think about Instagram as an example or Facebook for that matter, where people take great interest in the quantifiable number of likes the number of comments they get. In the UK, there have been quite a few articles in the media about how it affects people’s mental health, particularly amongst young people.
NJ: That’s one of the things about social media I’ve always disliked the most, and I think it’s something we could have easily gotten away from. Imagine you’re hanging out at the pub; you’re talking with your friend and everyone else there got to put a number on every single sentence you said with your friend and then everything was being scored. You would probably start to change the way you talk, I would. I bet you’re going to have a really crappy conversation with your friend, which is exactly why every conversation on Twitter also is really bad, right? because you gamified it. Anything with a score on it is a game right?
I think the thing about metrics when companies first put a metric on a thing, a score; the metric is not measuring how good the content is – so you have content and then the number comes around later and says the content is good or bad. What happens is people change the content they post to make the number big, so the number is actually preceding the content. The number isn’t a measure, it creates it and I think that very true within photography and social photography. We all know the style of Instagram, that is created by the metrics and by the numbers and scores and so I think that really just sort of flips the means and the ends; the metrics at best are just the means to get to something that you want to see but what ends up happening is the metrics become a end.
When I was first writing about social media I was drawing on Georg Simmel, another social media theorist from a hundred years ago who wrote a similar same thing in the book The Philosophy of Money. He discussed how money went from being a means, ‘I want money so I can buy stuff’ to being its own end, where people want to accumulate money just for the sake of having money. It seemed to me this idea was a metaphor for what was happening on social media. So, 10 years ago when I was writing pieces arguing that we should get rid of metrics on social media, it’s only been within the last couple of years where I feel like finally, the companies are starting to see how much people don’t’ like using social media precisely because of the numbers and the metrics.
There’s an artist named Ben Grosser who has a Twitter demetricator and a Facebook demetricator (like an extension you can add on so you can’t see the metrics). I think all these platforms would be greatly improved by not having the metrics. It’s the same bad incentive – the reason Cable News in the United States is really bad, right? Because they’re chasing ratings – when you link quantified attention with the content you produce to get whatever ends you want, more followers, more money from advertisers, it creates really bad incentives. I think things would be much better if you could de-link those incentives and not have those metrics.
TP: I’m really interested in your thoughts about the FBI using photographs that people had taken of the storming of the Capitol building, what’s your take on that?
NY: I was very interested in the news stories that came out of the January 6th 2021 Capitol riot incident and I thought they were telling with how we talk about selfies in general. Obviously a lot of the people that went in there, were there with costumes, they’re inside the Capitol – of course they’re going to take selfies, that’s a part of pretty much anything people do today. But it was interesting how many news stories came out that I think made two big mistakes when they pointed out that people were taking selfies.
First, the word selfie, has this trivial connotative meaning – that they are they’re just there for the pictures and this is the mistake I think people make a lot when somebody takes a picture. The assumption is that they’re only there for the picture and that somehow their experience in reality is ‘less than’ ie that it’s completely performative, it’s completely staged. People take pictures of their food instead of eating it and it’s in such bad faith, I’ve taken pictures of my food all the time, it’s never once changed the flavour of the food ever.
So here’s the two mistakes that I saw with people talking about the selfies at the Capitol. One, is to trivialise it, to say that those people weren’t political, they didn’t have political aims – they were just there for the content and I think that was very untrue. They were real, with very bad regressive political aims and they were real, just because they took pictures doesn’t mean we can then dismiss them as not a political or non political actors. I think you still need to discuss their politics and critique them, in my opinion.
The second mistake was to say to downplay the violence that happened there. The same people who took selfies were also there, seemingly ready and willing to hurt other people and the idea of it wasn’t a big deal, they were just there to take pictures. I think is very wrong. You can both dress up in a funny costume, take selfies, and have strong regressive political politics and be willing to be violent and you know, people did get hurt and there was violence, there was intentions for even more violence than even happened.
So let’s remember that just because someone takes a selfie doesn’t doesn’t mean they are political actors but then, just draw that back to just why is it the case that the word ‘selfie’ removes all the importance from an event or a person. Why do we use the word selfie to see somebody as a purely performative actor; as somebody who is not really experiencing the moment. Why do we use cameras and photography and selfies to really mean less than real, to mean less than important. That’s what a lot of the 2nd half of my book discusses. Why do we think that photography and technology is inherently less real or moves people from the real moment and things like that? I find those questions and those assumptions really fascinating,
TP: You talk in the book about social photos aren’t taken as a document that you’re going to put in the family album and go back to, it’s not a historical record, it’s about showing your life and having a conversation about your life now and something that’s looking forward. What are your thoughts on whether that perception of the social photo as not being a document that has any historical value, Is it just an ephemeral thing? Is that perception so ingrained that the people that were involved in the Capitol riots didn’t really consider those images that they were taking, didn’t consider them as documents or records that would be kept and then used to prove that they were committing crimes or whatever, They didn’t see them as artefacts that people might go back to – it was just a very ‘in the moment’ thing is that an example of or evidence that this kind of perception of what social photo is – that it’s just language that’s being used in the moment.
NJ: That’s a great question. I think there was probably lots of different motivations. There was lots of different kinds of photos taken that day by different people with different motivations, and there’s probably a nice spectrum there that I think you’re sort
of laying out. You could probably, the guy that is in the horns and he’s standing on the at the lectern, and he’s asking people, ‘hey, can you take a picture’? Can you take a picture? Find somebody with a really good camera, ok and you get my picture. He knows that this is this his moment, he wants this picture forever, this is one that’s probably going into an album.
As well, there were other people who were somewhat surprised that they were making their way into the Capitol and they have their phone up going like ‘look where I’m at, this is wacky’. You can almost take them, lay them out, and probably do an analysis on that. This reflects your point also on the FBI data collection, there’s a lot of data collected with each one of those images and you could basically trace all these people. You know these people have phones in their pockets that are connect with SIM cards, every one of their movements was easily traceable – so I kind of make a point in the book that when I talk about social photography being more about the expression than the information. I think what you bring up is a really good corrective reminder from the perspective of the users, you switch the perspective to that of the law agency and the whole thesis ends up flipping, which is another book that could easily be written and it’s something that you know is a shortcoming of my book is that’s really not my focus and somebody else could completely focus on that would be a very good book.
TP: It seems to me that it’s social media, as you’ve pointed out, that’s the catalyst as to what’s changed. If you look at it purely from a photographic perspective, it doesn’t occur to me that there’s anything really that distinctly different about photographs before social media and after social media in general terms. People took family photos on their vacations, not meant for serious or ‘artistic’ purposes, they were just memento’s. Do you see that sort of evolution from this explosion of image world and lots of different perspectives through social media and where is it going?
NJ: That’s a good question and I like the historical analysis of thinking about like image saturated culture. What is interesting is you go through history is that at every single stage in history, people made the point that this is an image saturated culture. The world is speeding up, there’s too much information and images are taking over and so people were arguing that in the 1890’s, in the 1920’s, in the 1950’s, and the 1970’s. It almost comes in waves. As we get older, we see the pace of the world as too fast but when you look at the world from before we were born – it was too slow. It’s hard for me to really think about images saturating the world more, or the world speeding up more because the acceleration is so even and steady that it’s when everything is accelerating all the time. I was thinking about one of the critiques of social photography is that, photography has lost its relationship to the truth. We don’t see pictures as true anymore and people talk about deep fakes and all these things. What are these new technologies and image making and deep fakes gets a lot of time and this is true. It’s very easy to fake photos today. One of the big differences is augmented reality; when I take a picture of my face I could do lots of things with that, I could have puppy ears. We augment photos a lot more and I think that’s going to be a very important change in the way that photography looks; a sort of everyday manipulation of the images but I don’t necessarily see that as photography losing its relationship to the truth.
If I take a self portrait (which I see as different from a selfie), I really want to focus on what my face looks like in all of its nooks and crannies. It’s an informational object, an artistic object. Selfies are usually more, ‘this is how I’m feeling / what I’m doing’ and I think sometimes adding the augmented reality to your photo as you perform yourself, can actually can be more true. Like, this is how I’m feeling, this is how I express myself, this is how I want to perform’ – as you see a lot on TikTok, a lot of times those performances reveal who I really am, a lot more than like a really good portrait that says this is exactly what my skin looks like. I’m not just my skin. I’m also the performance of myself. I think a lot of what we do with editing photos with augmented reality lies in the performance,
I think that is a lot to do with conveying different kinds of truths of who you are more than just perfect visual depiction and to make one more point on that, just in general, is get away from the selfie to news photographs. You know, we had a really bad shooting in the United States, we have a lot of them, one of the worst ones, what happened in Las Vegas a few years ago, where there was a man who was at the top of a hotel and there’s a concert below and he just started shooting into the crowd. There was many images taken as people were running, people were taking photos and videos and uploading those and so basically what you had was an event that you saw from hundreds of different perspectives, all at once. No one doubted that event happened, but right now there’s a conspiracy for everything. People have conspiracies of who that guy was and what his motives were. Nobody doubts that event happened because it would be almost impossible to get every single one of those people to fake their photograph in the same way, right?
That would be just having the very technology that makes it very easy to manipulate one image or one video, also makes it almost impossible to fake an event like that, because that same digital technology meant that everybody had a camera in their pocket and many people were taking videos and photos and so we actually had images and video that was more believable than, let’s say, the Zapruder film when John F Kennedy was shot, or people make lots of people debate about the moon landing, people debate about lots of photos and videos from the past and events can happen today where people actually debate the existence of it less. Now sometimes they debate even more, so I’m not saying , photography is now all true but I certainly don’t think photography has lost its bearing on truth. Which is I know is a far tangent from your original question, it’s just kind of the thing that it made me want to talk about, but just to sum up, I think augmented reality and photo image manipulation is just looking an act differently today than we did before.
TP: I’ll just go back to your comments regarding counting followers and counting people who would like your post – isn’t that really what the social photograph is about, isn’t that what social media is about because without the followers, without the kudos if you like, then there’s no point in putting it on there really, that’s really what people are looking for. For instance on Twitter there’s a guy called Piers Morgan, I don’t know if you know him, I think he was over your way for a while. He browbeats followers who disagree with him by saying ‘hang on I’ve got 7,000,000 followers, you’ve got 357, my argument is better than yours’. When Donald Trump was banned from Twitter their share price dropped. You know it’s why these companies exist in the first place. Another thing I’d like to point out is I think young people perhaps they are leaving social media, or are finding new social media platforms. So it’s becoming an older persons place and young people are moving on to the likes of TikTok, Clubhouse, things like that. So I just wonder what your opinion on that was as well. Sorry I rambled a bit.
NJ: No, I think you’re 100% correct. We have to use these words precisely when we use the term ‘social media’. Think of messaging apps and Clubhouse, Discord, even something like the game Fortnite – is this social media to the degree that people are playing it together and hanging out with each other and talking to each other? I don’t want to let Facebook and Twitter own the word ‘social’, as a sociologist that would be very scary A lot of my criticism (and I agree with you) is towards the kind of ‘public posting’ mentality, aspect, especially early social media, where you post to public / in public to everybody and you try to rack up as many points as possible. That was very popular and it also was very destructive. It still is very destructive in a lot of ways and a lot of people don’t like it, people don’t enjoy using those sort of competition style apps. Often times they are gamifying, sociality gamifying talking to your friends, gamifying having opinions, all those things can be fun it could also be really destructive.
But by far the vast majority (when I’m talking about social photography) the vast majority is happening through messaging. Some of it gets posted, you know Facebook, Twitter, kind of style, but the vast majority is, you take it and you send it to one person or a small group. I think that small, kind of more private, sociality is more what I’m thinking of usually then sort of just I’m posting in public Instagram hoping for likes.
TP: What are your observations of the role of social media during the pandemic, and a rise of online connectivity?
NJ: I mean obviously, I have some of the very boring and normal thoughts of this. This conversation probably wouldn’t happen outside of video conferencing at the same time I
am tired of and dislike video conferencing as much as everybody else. I think it, you know, sort of feels like email. It’s kind of a necessary evil, and maybe you’re not supposed to like it. Through the pandemic I typically work from home and so I’ve been able to stay home and I’m very fortunate in that sense. This answer would be completely different if we were talking about workers who were still out and about working but I think a lot of how I talk about technology in the book is that it really enables face-to-face conversation. I don’t see those things that separate. If you’re a more social person, you have more friends and you hang out and you do more things; you probably also talk to them using your screen as well, right? I think at best social media does that. It allows us to spend more time with people away from social media and again when I talk about social media, I don’t mean just Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I also mean sort of all the messaging and smaller group activities that are more popular that people use their phones for.
During the pandemic that really shifted, that we are doing a lot more with our computers as a replacement for meeting in person and which is essential like it was, it’s a lifesaver. I’m imagining you know the 1918 pandemic and how lonely and isolated that would have felt without the Internet and so it’s great that it did that. I think that we’re used to social media, today it’s being used to replace offline hang out. I think social media is going to go back to being something that facilitates in person meetings rather than replaces it.
TP: What predictions you would have for things like the future of the social photo, how we behave as social photographers, how you see social media developing?
NJ: Unfortunately, sociologists are very hesitant to make predictions about the future, just in general we’re not the best futurists out there. I think you know technologists love to pontificate about the future and usually be wrong. I always think about Marshall McLuhan, he always said that the closest you’ll ever get to that is understanding the present. Even the best artist, the best futurist – all they’re really doing is understanding the present because everyone’s always living in the past and the best futurist is one who can actually understand what’s happening today, I tend to kind of follow that philosophy, so I think it’s really hard to make predictions about the future. But I think there’s a lot of things that people are doing today that are under scrutinised or under appreciated and I think that the main things that I think about are certainly augmented reality in the sense of anything in the world being something that you manipulate, that computation being applied to pretty much anything in the world, anything in the world becoming a symbol, anything in the world being something you can communicate with and I think that’s going to end up being very interesting in lots of ways that I can totally predict but that’s sort of where my mind is.
I really think the rise of game engines for things, especially at things that aren’t just gaming. I think it’s really important, I think I look at Fortnite or Roblox or something like that and and I really see those as social media, more than games. You know, sometimes the game is like the billiard table in the pub, you might go there to play but you’re mostly there to hang out with your friends. I think that is what we see a lot with gaming as well as how the sort of game engines are being applied to the everyday world, again that facilitate adding computation to everything. I know that’s really abstract and I don’t have a lot of really great examples of how that will play out but I think 3D modelling and game engines as they are applied to the world, as they become social spaces as the world, is sort of made computable as computation is played on to it.
TP: We’ve skimmed the capitalist elements of social media and social photography because obviously there are a lot of companies out there making lots of money from this as we well know. So surely, if we accept that social media influences individual behaviour as much as vice versa then presumably there must be a fair number of companies out there making predictions about how they would like to see people’s behaviour change over the next decade.
NJ: I think that’s absolutely right and you know, for people to behave in ways that are monetisable. Yes, that’s certainly a big part of it and it’s something my book doesn’t spend a lot of time on; the political economy of the image. If somebody writes that book, I’d almost recommend they read that book first and read mine later. I think is really important and that also brings up another another kind of futurism, maybe it’s utopianism, but would be through regulation of social media, enforcing better behaviours and practices. Europe is better at that than in the United States but can we envision social media products that don’t have a profit motive and something in the public domain that could be used by everybody that doesn’t have bad incentives. I don’t have a great answer for that, there’s certainly people who are working on that, trying to make platform cooperatives rather than companies, so to me, that would be a really fun answer to your question. Maybe it’s something where the value that’s being produced by all these images or is something that is distributed to everybody as opposed to being locked into very few silos.
TP: When I was reading your book, I guess on a personal note, I was thinking particularly things you were writing about relationships actually and how, the camera phone, the role of that place in contemporary relationships, basically and it made me think about presence quite a lot and I guess this pandemic has forced us to be present basically in that way. It isn’t ideal for a lot of people, whether it’s your relatives, your mother, or your partners and it made me think particularly about the role that the smartphone has unfortunately had to play within medical settings now, for example, hearing how people have been saying goodbye to their loved ones through that device. I just wonder how particularly Covid has changed your way of thinking really in relation to the social photo which is not a small question but if there’s any pearls of insights, I’d love to hear them.
NJ: That’s a great question. One of the dangers in writing a book about current technologies is it’s going to be out of date, just absolutely immediately, which I figured would be because more due to technological advancements than a global pandemic. However, I think the first thing that comes to mind is a point I already had made about the one of the big ways that we’re using social media differently during the pandemic – as a replacement for everyday offline experience rather than something that facilitates offline experience and so I think that is that’s a very different usage we were sort of thrown into.
For example, the tragic situations of having to say goodbye to a family member via phone. My thinking is what comes next more than it is how we’re using this stuff during a pandemic. What really excites me is how people use their phones together, while they’re traveling, so many of the things that are interesting to me just aren’t really applicable when everyone is home all the time. Though I think one thing I’ve definitely noticed is that I think people are really playing with augmented reality more right now than I had seen before. When you’re home, and you’ve already taken all the photographs, but when you add augmented reality when you can manipulate things – you could add things to the image.
You can take a million photos from your chair, right? You could take a different photo everyday from home. So I found that interesting. Certainly, I don’t know how much I’ll always tie the rise of TikTok with the pandemic, probably in my head, even though I think it probably, you know, was coming about obviously before the pandemic and I’m not sure how much it changed but certainly the domestic nature of a lot of TikToks, I think is trying to convey your personality or putting on different personalities is a big part of the content of TikTok that I hadn’t seen so much before. How much that is because your home or because you’re alone, I don’t know, I’ve been linking all these things together but it could be totally, doing that falsely, it just might have been coincidence but that personality as a medium, personality as an art is something that I’ve been seeing. That kind of answers the other question, what do you see coming up next in social media, I think that’s also a trend around personality that I think is really interesting but I don’t know if that answers your question totally.
TP: A few quick-fire questions, what’s your view on Instagram / Instagram influencers as a form of social marketing?
NJ: I’m not an expert in advertising and marketing, really anything to do with professional photography is not what I know. Certainly, I would imagine the marketers are more interested in having the everyday person take a picture of their product than they are of putting their product on a billboard anymore and getting the micro influencers or getting the everyday person to post about their product is probably central. Why would you want to pay for an expensive photographer when you get much more reach getting people to take a picture of the product on thier own. The professional photographer, what can they do, they can create a really interesting and compelling photograph but what really compels buyers is probably that their friend took a picture of it, just that a can of soda is in my friends hand is probably going to make me want to get that soda more than the best billboard campaign. So again, I’m speaking completely outside of my expertise, so maybe somebody in marketing or sales could totally tell me I’m wrong there. That’s just my assumption.
TP: In terms of social media and social photography, do you not think that it has advanced in the area of tourism and that it has actually played a big part in tourism because people always have their mobile phones so it’s helped economically?
NJ: I love reading tourism studies, books on tourism. There was a really great book that
came out last year by Monica Cure called Picturing the Postcard and it’s a history of the postcard and it’s told through the lens of a media crisis. Postcards have always been looked down upon and in tourism studies there’s always talk about travel versus tourism. Travel is when you really go to a place and you experience the real culture and tourism is just for when you want to go see the the main attractions; the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben and of course that distinction is completely class based. It’s basically wealthy people do one and poor people to the other and it’s a distinction I think is very problematic and so the the postcard and the selfie get have been talked about very similarly throughout history. In that, ‘oh, look at these people, they’re just here to take a selfie’. You know, they traveled to this place, they went to the greatest view, got the selfie, got out, they were probably on their phone the whole time, they didn’t actually experience it. So I love the conversations around, travel, and image taking and there’s some sections in the book about how taking pictures makes you feel like you spent your time wisely traveling to a place and or even sometimes today that you take so many pictures, that you may choose not to take photos on this vacation. I think those things are really, really interesting but I definitely caution against the idea that taking pictures inherently removes you from your vacation or takes you out of the moment but it kind of depends on how you do it. I think you can take pictures. You can let the camera get away, get in front of your vacation, or get in the way of your vacation big time. That can happen and I definitely see that a lot. That definitely does happen a lot but I think that’s a really, really good topic and if you’re interested in that the book Picturing the Postcard is one I’d really recommend.
TP: What do you think the responsibilities social media companies have towards the mental health of thier users, things like facial dysmorphia now is on the rise because of augmentations with filters and things like that and just the mental health implications?
NJ: That’s a great question. I remember five or ten years ago it was very difficult to get people to even think about this stuff or talk about this stuff and now I think it’s really part of everyday conversation which is really good that this is even being brought up and being brought up routinely. I think it’s forced the companies to respond and to think about these sorts of things, so for instance, like dysmorphia and the filters. I think filters are really fun and exciting when they allow you to play, when they allow you to express yourself in different ways, but then when those filters instead push people towards conventional or normalise standards of beauty, of facial shape, of skin lightening all these various things…. This gets back to the metrics – that people like people will use filters that make them seem skinnier or make thier eyes bigger. Things that convey youthfulness, and whiteness and all these vary, normalised ethnocentric versions of beauty or standardness acceptableness. All these various things are very popular and but at the same time make people feel really bad, right? They make people feel bad when you are constantly confronted with having to alter the way you look in order to fit a kind of standard. It’s also difficult around older people in general taking selfies and using camera based apps because culture has told them that their face isn’t photogenic, which is terrible. I think that is it’s a difficult thing to ask tech companies to solve, obviously, these things go well beyond just technology, social media and cameras, but at the same time it should be very easy to ask technology companies not to exacerbate these problems and to be aware of them and do you want to penalise users when you know that your filters are pushing people towards normalisation rather than through like expression….? Then, I think that’s something that should be regulated absolutely.
TP: Post pandemic – do you think we’re going to see a retreat almost as a detox from some of these social media outlets?
NJ: I have a hard time answering that outside of my own opinion. Personally, I cannot wait to spend way less time on Zoom and way more time going to shows but in general, it’s obviously changed the way that workplaces are thinking about how thier offices look and operate. Here in the United States, in the big cities offices are very expensive and then people would much rather be dispersed and save some money. Workplaces are going to be organised differently, schools are going to be organised differently. Some of this stuff is going to linger and it’ll be interesting to see what does and what doesn’t. But as far as I think, people are will be very ready to not use social media as a replacement for in person experience. I know there’s some people that think that once we get a taste of all this stuff, that will probably never want to leave our house again. I run a conference called, Theorising the Web and we usually pack rooms full of people. When am I going to be able to do that again? Will I even be able to do that next year? What’s the appetite for people to go and get really crowded into a conference room, into a club, into a pub. That’s a really good question. I don’t have a great answer for that, it’s going to be really interesting and we’re all going to probably navigate that differently.
TP: I’m just wondering if Susan Sontag were alive today would you consider her a disconnectionist? How do you think she would be talking about social media? Would she take the same view as Sherry Turkle perhaps?
NJ: That’s a great question. Certainly one I would only be guessing at, I’ve thought about that before, if social media was around what her sort of usage of it might be. I mean, just in her own time she engaged in current events very little. She engaged in part of the television formats that were emerging in her lifetime, very little. She wasn’t a big fan of what was happening today. It just wasn’t what she was into. She liked writing books and reading, she like reading and writing. So if I had to guess, I think Susan Sontag would never use social media but not be completely against it. I think that’s where she would land. I think she would be pretty uninterested in the whole endeavour, though.
TP: What’s the first social media app that you go to every day and why?
NJ: It’s usually Snapchat, that’s where my family is at and so I haven’t gone to see my family a whole lot in the last year. I don’t want to look at social media, really at all, my habit usually is wake up and I like to read. If I look at Twitter first thing in the morning, I feel like my brain is broken, I’m not going to get anything interesting done that day, I’m just gonna start looking at news and I’ll open up a bunch of tabs of a bunch of people typing out their opinions.
TP: Nathan, that’s a really optimistic finish!
NJ: Thank you for having me and for reading the book and also wonderful conversation.
“Without photography (or a video), it has been difficult to get people to respond; the urgency and relevance of an event, its importance, and sometimes even the fact of its occurrence might be called into question.” (Ritchin 2013: 8)
This paper explores the subject of superficial journalism and how the media use it as an excuse to shield citizens’ eyes from the visual horrors of war and conflict. It focuses on the arguments between the use of shock tactics and beautification in images, our decline in feeling compassion towards images of this nature and a case study on the way in which the Western media failed to report authentically on the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
Drawing on the writing of Jean Baudrillard, Susan Sontag, Fred Ritchin and Susan Moeller; I shall also discuss a variety of conflicts such as Abu Ghraib, The Gulf War and the Algerian Massacre of 1997 and aim to conclude why the media censored such important images. Through the use of supportive material including critics such as Sean O’Hagan and Andy Worthington; artistic examples from photographers such as Alfredo Jaar and John Moore, I compare which of these were successful and those that were not successful in illustrating the terror of conflict in photographs.
By using a range of references, my paper argues the strategies we should be using to overcome the ever-expanding use of superficial journalism in the worldwide media. Additionally, how photojournalists such as Kenneth Jarecke and Gilles Peress are challenging the traditional media in the way in which current stories of conflict are presented.
Key Words: Shock Tactics, Compassion Fatigue, War, Photojournalism, Citizen Journalism
List of Figures
Chapter 1: Shock Tactics, Beauty & Symbolism?
Chapter 2: Tackling Compassion Fatigue
Chapter 3: The Rwandan Genocide: Did the Western Media Fail?
List of Figures
Cover Page: JAAR, Alfredo. 1994. A Victim of Tribal Violence, Nyarubuye, Rwanda
Figure 1: ASSOCIATED PRESS. 2003. An unidentified Abu Ghraib detainee
Figure 2: NILUFER DEMIR / GETTY IMAGES. 2015. A Turkish police officer discovered the body of Alan Kurdi on Sept. 2, 2015, after a boat carrying refugees sank en route to the Greek island of Kos
Figure 3: GOOGLE IMAGES. 2019. Google image search “sunset with a camel and a tank gulf war”
Figure 4: MCCURRY, Steve. 1991. Camels, Gulf War, Kuwait
Figure 5: JARECKE, Kenneth. 1992. An Incinerated Soldier
Figure 6: MOSSE, Richard. 2013. from The Enclave
Figure 7: MOSSE, Richard. 2013. from The Enclave
Figure 8: MOSSE, Richard. 2013. from The Enclave
Figure 9: WILLIAMSON, Michael S. 1994. Untitled from Rwanda
Figure 10: ZAOURAR, Hocine. 1997. The Madonna of Bentalha
Figure 11: ARANDA, Samuel. 2011. Yemen, Fighting for Change
Figure 12: BUONARROTI, Michelangelo. 1498-1499. The Pieta (The Pity)
Figure 13: RHONEY, Ann. 1991. United Colours of Benetton, Pieta
Figure 14: FRARE, Therese. 1990. David Kirby’s Final Moments
“The increasingly malleable photograph – whether manipulated before or after the shutter’s release – is employed to fashion the world according to the intentions of the person making it, or of the institution for which it is being made.” (Ritchin 2013: 7) In my opinion, the problem with photojournalism today is that too many photographers are opting for the easy option of representing global conflicts; known as ‘superficial journalism’. Photographers are masquerading the real narrative behind their images and denying the public of the truth. Personally, I feel that if photographers are not going to reveal the blatant visuals to a wider audience when covering conflict, the use of images may as well be obsolete.
By using photographs or video when it comes to this nature of work, it can bear a beneficial effect upon society and in turn attempt to help stop the situation that is occurring. Speaking of the Abu Gharib photographs from 2004 (Figure 1) and the impact they had on society, Sontag comments: “It was the photographs that made all this ‘real’ to Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had been only words, which are easier to cover up in our age of infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination, and so much easier to forget.” (Sontag 2004)
Furthermore, the silence of action from authoritative figures is still relevant today in recent global events. For example, during the European refugee crisis of 2015, officials were aware of what was happening but simply did nothing until an image of a young boy from Syria who was deceased surfaced in the media. (Figure 2) Without this image, a wider audience would have been completely oblivious to the refugee crisis.
Figure 1: Associated Press (2003) An unidentified Abu Ghraib detainee
Figure 2: Nilufer Demir / Getty Images (2015) A Turkish police officer discovered the body of Alan Kurdi on Sept. 2, 2015, after a boat carrying refugees sank en route to the Greek island of Kos
“Connotation drawn from knowledge is always a reassuring force – man likes signs and likes them clear.” (Barthes 1977: 29) If the incorrect settings are publicised that censor the true dialogue of the event, then the inevitable happens – citizens become ignorant to their surroundings and immune to feeling compassion towards the images. As Ritchin has said here, “Without photography (or a video), it has been difficult to get people to respond; the urgency and relevance of an event, its importance, and sometimes even the fact of its occurrence might be called into question.” (Ritchin 2013: 8)
For example, the media failed in my opinion, in truly representing the conflicts of Eastern Congo, The Gulf War, Yemen (2011), Algerian Massacre of 1997 to name a few. The question of whether the use of shock tactics frightens the mass media and that is the reason for its lack thereof in photojournalism, has caused much debate in photography over the years; I discuss this further in Chapter 1 and argue that it should be more present today, especially when photographing the degradation of human actions. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic has stated on this subject that “sanitised images of warfare make it easier to accept bloodless language.” (Friedersdorf 2014)
These are not narratives that should be reimagined lightly, one must feel that they were present in that terror to understand its impact; I argue that the strategy that achieves this is citizen journalism. In Chapter 2, I propose that members of society have become more immune to feeling any emotion towards photographs of conflict, due to their poor representation in the media and have fallen into a category known as compassion fatigue. Additionally, the way to combat this problem is to allow citizen journalism to have a prominent stand in media today. In Chapter Three I shall specifically discuss the Rwandan Genocide of 1994; how I feel that the Western media failed to represent the Genocide through their use of imagery. (Cover Image) Also, how American security officials instructed photojournalists to only release culturally appropriate images to the public, censoring any other images taken – thus resulting in superficial journalism.
Chapter 1: Shock Tactics, Beauty & Symbolism?
“Do the media neutralise meaning and produce unformed or informed masses, or is it the masses who victoriously resist the media by directing or absorbing all the messages that the media produce without responding to them?” (Baudrillard 1994: 84) I completely agree with Baudrillard here, it is unclear when it comes to the mass media whether it is them who is at fault for delivering images that are useless to the focus of its subject; or if it is us as an audience who are looking at all the correct photographs and information needed to put a foot forward, but yet we choose to ignore what is not on our own terrain.
During the Gulf War in Kuwait of 1991, the true visuals of the conflict were lost due to poor media coverage. Many photojournalists attended the scenes to capture the unfolding events of horror that were occurring – but only one photographer in my opinion, managed to successfully produce authentic images and that was Kenneth Jarecke. “It was one picture after another of a sunset with camels and a tank.” (Jarecke 2014) As Jarecke has said above, the Gulf War was inconsistently covered by the media (Figure 3) and photojournalists were producing photographs that simply looked more like a theatrical film than a horrific conflict. This was due to the strict rules being enforced by the American government, that any shocking photographs captured must be censored from a wider audience; the government wanted the public to “rely on the ‘mind pictures’ suggested in correspondents reports.” (Burns 1991)
Photographer Steve McCurry also illustrated the Gulf War, but I feel that McCurry’s images were illustrated in a way that describes exactly what Jarecke meant from his comment about the array of sunset, camels and tank images that surfaced from the conflict. And unfortunately, these deceptive images were surfacing much quicker for members of the public to see; images that in my opinion offered no such visual importance of the aftereffects of war and were altogether superficial. As you can see in Figure 4, the image is exactly what the caption says it is – a roaring explosion of fire behind the silhouettes of camels. It is obvious that shock tactics were not considered when McCurry took this photograph, McCurry is only beautifying war and not showing the atrocities that coincide with devastating conflicts.
In comparison to McCurry, Jarecke’s photographs were completely representative of the Gulf War and showed the inside eye of what the public were being denied of visually. (Figure 5). Jarecke’s images sparked controversy as being distasteful and dishonourable because he was specifically photographing the dead. However, Jarecke commented when being criticised that “if I don’t take pictures like these, people like my mum will think war is what they see in movies.” (Jarecke 2014) I completely agree with Jarecke here, if photojournalists do not adhere to photographing exactly what is in front of them, then their images will result in looking like McCurry’s cinematic images from the war – aesthetically newsworthy but with the wrong intentions.
The subject of war and conflict amongst photography has often been a difficult topic to approach for photographers. They can either take two paths I feel, either they decide to represent conflict with raw visualities; however this can then lead to their audience becoming desensitised to the images, especially when there is a constant outpour of these types of images. In my opinion, this would be the obvious choice though if I were to document terrorisation of a community, it bears no dishonesty. On the other hand, some photographers such as Richard Mosse, choose to opt for stunning aesthetics and this is where I feel artists who try to mirror photojournalism in their own work are failing.
Mosses’ project The Enclave displayed several images from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in what I can only describe as appearing like a fashion shoot. (Figures 6, 7 & 8) Mosse documented how 5.4 million people have died there since 1998 due to ongoing conflict; the conflicts are still happening presently as rebel groups operate to this day in Eastern Congo. He used discontinued infrared colour film that was originally used by the United States military during World War Two to highlight camouflage. Mosse’s reasoning for this was that he wanted to represent “the crisis of representation artists, photojournalists and filmmakers are confronted with when trying to depict brutality, suffering and destruction.” (Smaidment 2015)
Figure 6: Richard Mosse (2013) from The Enclave
Figure 7: Richard Mosse (2013) from The Enclave
Figure 8: Richard Mosse (2013) from The Enclave
Personally, it does not represent in my view the experience of victims who have died amongst the midst of the landscape shown. Using film that changes the colour of its surroundings in the image to bright pinks and reds, is not a valid depiction of the horror that citizens endured. The colour red may connotate the blood of the dead, but I feel the photographs do not emit anything other than visual beauty. “The first and greatest humanitarian trap is this need to simplify, if not actually lie about, the way things are in the crisis zones, in order to make the story more morally and psychologically palatable.” (Rieff 2013: 137) I agree with Rieff here, photographers such as Mosse and McCurry, continually produce work that allows the true narrative to hide behind a blanket of beauty in order for it to be deemed more acceptable for viewing.
Along with beautified images, I feel the media often uses biblical symbolism in their imagery or will refer to religion when broadcasting the news. (Figure 9) However, along with doing this, they have at times fabricated captions with images to make the story appear more dramatic – resulting in the truth of the news being pushed aside. An example of this can be found in Hocine Zaourar’s image, The Madonna of Bentalha. (Figure 10) Zaourar’s image depicted a woman crying out in despair just outside one of the hospitals within the town of Bentalha, Algeria. The Algerian Massacre of 1997 accumulated hundreds of deaths across the country, started by the Islamist guerrilla groups; they were opposing against the government and the cancellation of the elections that were due to start. The massacres had no organisation associated with them, the independent groups went from house to house, killing every man, woman, and child. Although the image had critical acclaim and benefited in the world knowing about the violence occurring in Algeria, the journalists changed the text accompanying the image and stated that the woman was a mother mourning the death of her eight children. The real story behind the photograph is that the woman was mourning over three of her relatives; changing the narrative behind the image inevitably gave it more power visually as McGonagle has said here: “positioning her as a mother mourning the loss of her eight children allowed commentators to draw parallels with notions of motherhood worldwide.” (McGonagle 2014: 80) Of course, any family member dying is devastating for a person, but society tend to feel more empathy towards a supposed mother and her incomparable grief over her own children in the centre of war.
Figure 9: Michael S Willaimson (1994) from Rwanda
Figure 10: Hocine Zaourar (1997) The Madonna of Bentalha
Religious iconography is another factor that the media include in images of conflict, this is something that I feel can be a positive attribute. Such as with Samuel Aranda’s image (Figure 11), the photograph depicts a mother cradling her adult son after she found him to be alive during the devastating chain of events; the picture has been linked to Michelangelo’s Pieta. (Figure 12) In comparison to Michelangelo’s Pieta, advertising company Benetton released a controversial campaign in 1991 of the same name, exposing the reality of AIDS. (Figure 13) The photo depicted AIDS activist David Kirby as he laid on his deathbed in hospital, surrounded by his family. The original photograph was taken by Therese Frare (Figure 14) and Benetton’s art director Oliviero Toscani enlisted artist Ann Rhoney to colourise the image with oil paint to give it more shock value.
Figure 13: Ann Rhoney (1991) for United Colours of Benetton
Figure 14: Therese Frare (1990) David Kirby’s Final Moments
Figure 12: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1498-1499) The Pieta (The Pity)
Figure 11: Samuel Aranda (2011) Yemen, Fighting for Change
Although the campaign was received both negatively and positively for its Christian comparisons to Pieta, I feel that it is an authentic representation of human suffering, much like Aranda’s Yemen work because we know it has happened and is still happening globally today. Benetton’s advert and Aranda’s image, I feel, are successful examples of when Christian iconography is used properly. In relation to my view, Toscani has commented that “The Michelangelo’s Pieta during the Renaissance might be fake, Jesus Christ may never have existed. But we know this death happened. This is the real thing.” (Toscani 1991) Relating images of conflict and suffering to a biblical narrative such as Mary and Jesus, is an exceptional way of attracting the viewer’s attention. Audience’s usually feel more empathy towards imagery of a family circle in my opinion, their compassion becomes heightened due to them thinking about their own families and how they would feel personally in the same situation. As Coomes says here of Aranda’s image and I believe that it can also be connected to Benetton’s advert, “the Renaissance style of lighting elevates it from an illustrative news picture to something that has a heritage.” (Coomes 2012)
Balog argues, “I’ve tended to look for an engaging way, not always a beautiful way, to pull people into the subject and make them care about it. And then, at the same time…(to) deliver a message behind that beautiful picture that says, ‘Things aren’t what you wish they were; things aren’t what they could be.” (Balog 2013: 132) This comment I feel, can be connected to how people reacted when the Abu Ghraib images were released; they again present religious tendencies, but in their case at a much darker level. In particular, the image that circulated at a faster rate than any other from Abu Ghraib was that of The Hooded Man. (Figure 1) The way in which the man’s arms are outstretched like Jesus’s were during his crucifixion (Figure 15), his hands being attached to electrical wires, much like Jesus’s hands were pinned in with nails to the cross – the image mimics the brutality that Jesus endured before his death.
Figure 15: Diego Velazquez (1632) Christ Crucified
Figure 16: The Economist (2004) Front Page
Figure 17: Various Newspapers (2004) Front Covers
The Hooded Man was also chosen for many international and global newspapers/magazines covers (Figure 16), most likely because I feel journalists knew it would attract immediate attention due to its raw and intense visuals; additionally that religious symmetry favours the eyes of most.“These forms of savagery are neither mere images nor mere actions, but are designed to be both: they are propaganda of the spectacle and of the deed.” (Linfield 2010: 152) As Linfield says here, these types of images are not there to beautify conflict but to create a reaction among people and educate them on how humans can become the overall enemy of humanity itself. The Abu Ghraib images were not released to be easy to view or to understand the actions of the American military. They were shown to expose the brutal truth of conflict behind closed doors; not everything we read about is proof of its subject and the issue certainly attracted the media’s attention (Figure 17). As Cartier-Bresson says here: “Life isn’t made of stories that you cut into slices like an apple pie. There’s no standard way of approaching a story. We have to evoke a situation, a truth.” (Cartier Bresson 2013: 36)
In addition, images such as the ones that came from Abu Ghraib should be the types of images we all collectively see when it concerns the topic of conflict; we need to see the chaos of a situation to understand its origin so that eventually, conflicts are reduced gradually. Without these types of photographs, the narrative cannot and in my opinion should not be released into the world. “As a journalist, I’m obliged to concede that the broadcasting of the images was a succinct demonstration of the visceral power of photos over the written word.” (Worthington 2009) Overall, I feel that shock tactics used in a conflict image are always the worthier choice; the subject of conflict should not be approached with caution, especially when vital visual information is at stake of being disregarded. Although talking about Abu Ghraib, I feel that this comment can be applied to photographs of a similar nature and represents how I feel about shocking images of conflict: “These photographs expose the essential blindness that constitutes the act of seeing as such.” (Phelan 2012: 55)
Chapter 2: Tackling Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue and pleasing aesthetics create a vicious circle and, in some way, marry up to one another surprisingly. Without beautiful aesthetics, society becomes immune to the empathy they should be feeling when divulging conflict of war images; and when contradictive beauty takes its place within a photograph, people tend to only focus on that factor and not the narrative behind the colours. Whether or not this complication will ever be fixed is a question I cannot answer, but what I am certain of is that photographers should be focusing on what Ritchin says here – we must “incite discussion and attract attention.” (Ritchin 2013: 39)
Figure 18: John Moore (2007), The Moment the Bomb Exploded
Figure 19: John Moore (2007), A Survivor Grieves at the Attack Scene
Figure 20: Alexander Chadwick (2007), Mobile Phone Image of People Caught in the 7/7 Bombings
A strategy that I believe combats compassion fatigue is that of citizen journalism; this type of imagery is raw and attracts the attention of people that abstract journalism cannot.For example, the assassination of Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto that was captured by photojournalist John Moore at the very moment it occurred. The images (Figures 18 & 19) are visually catastrophic in keeping with the tone of the event; although they are not necessarily clear to understand, the physical facial expressions of surrounding people and the blurriness of the scene are enough to comprehend how disastrous it would have been to be there. Moore is not a citizen journalist per say, but his illustration of the attack was unplanned and is not the initial reason that he was there in the first place. He was at that time, a citizen voluntarily photographing the event – images that would later be a representation of the brutality endured by the involved people. The reason that I feel Moore’s pictures can be related to that of citizen journalism, is that they are closely similar to the images taken at the scene of the 7/7 bombings in London. (Figure 20)
These types of images may not be perfectly constructed to fit the editorial choices of magazines and newspapers, but they are an honest outline of how events of conflict can happen without warning – we must continue to deliver these photographs to inform people within the area. We can relate more efficiently to citizen journalists and I support my argument with this statement from Ritchin: “Many viewers may empathize with the motivations of these ordinary citizens, which are possibly similar to their own.” (Ritchin 2013: 11)
In comparison, artists Broomberg and Chanarin have said in an interview discussing photojournalism and conceptual photography, that Moore’s image from Pakistan was the catalyst for them to create their project The Day Nobody Died. Their intention for this project was to “create in the mind of the viewer, a question. Which was; what do you expect to see, what do you want to see and how much would be enough evidence for you.” (Chanarin 2012) Broomberg and Chanarin wanted to question whether images of conflict should be as brash and visually raw as the images that come mostly from citizen journalism. They took a roll of film out to Afghanistan and each time a conflicting event would happen; they would expose the film for 20 seconds into the light. (Figure 21)
This piece of work in my opinion, is not a valid alternative to citizen journalism and does not contain any valuable information at all regarding a scene of conflict. I agree with O’Hagan with his opinion on the project that, “they are in a warzone and their decking about with some conceptual joke, I think it’s patronising and arrogant.” (O’Hagan 2012) However, I do agree with Broomberg when he argues that, “why in 2012, are we seeing images that are less analytical and critical than they were in 1960. Something’s gone wrong, we are being controlled, there’s a clear act of censorship going on.” (Broomberg 2012) Consistently, we are bombarded with images of conflict that are not representative of the narrative that has occurred and this I feel, is the reason for society’s demise in feeling any form of compassion towards the subject of visual warzones.
Chapter 3: The Rwandan Genocide: Did Western Media Fail?
The overstuffed nations watched CNN and shook their heads in silence.” (Gannett News Service 1999: 283) In my view, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 should have been an event that was publicised worldwide from start to finish; however, the Western media in their typical ‘late to the party’ fashion decided against releasing the images – that was until the death toll had soared to an unsustainable amount of 900,000 and help seemed to disappear into the abyss.“Only when the genocide turned into a refugee crisis, did either the public or government take any aggressive action.” (Moeller 1999: 284) As Moeller argues here, up until this point, nobody across the globe had an insight into what was happening in Rwanda. Yet the first images they were introduced to were of refugees fleeing the country (Figure 22) and not the cause of this action. It would not be for another four months that an international audience would be made privy to the true reason for the civilian escape. (Figure 23)
Figure 22: Gilles Peress (1994) from The Silence
Figure 23: Gilles Peress (1994) from The Silence
Only a select few of photographers such as Alfredo Jaar and Gilles Peress (Figure 24), succeeded in producing the right work that was representative of the horror during the Rwandan Genocide. Other photographers such as Sebastiao Salgado(Figure 25), simply masqueraded any importance from the genocide by providing the public with superficial journalism. Yet, these were the types of images that were chosen to be published first because the feelings of society were considered before the feelings of the victims. As Davies has argued here, “these are journalists who are no longer out gathering news but who are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.” (Davies 2010: 46) It took a considerable amount of imagery to be released before any hierarchal figure decided to take action and offer their services of aid, as Polman explains here, “Africans especially have to kick up a considerable fuss to be heard and seen by donors, since modern history sets a high threshold for attention to ‘yet another African war drama.’” (Polman 2010: 161)
Figure 24: Giles Peress (1994) from The Silence
Figure 25: Sebastiao Salgado (1994) Rwandan refugees heading towards North Kivu and South Kivu. Zaire
In my opinion, the media had failed, as Moeller states here quoting from the 1996 report The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwandan Experience, “The Western media’s failure to report adequately on the genocide in Rwanda possibly contributed to international indifference and inaction, and hence the crime itself.” (Moeller 1999: 298) Ritchin argues that “one of the most contested and restricted purviews of professional photographers has been the coverage of war.” (Ritchin 2013: 16) During thier time in Rwanda, photographers Giles Peress and Alfredo Jaar (Figure 26) managed to achieve what I believe to be almost impossible amongst photojournalism nowadays. I argue that they successfully produced images that represented what Western society should have been exposed to from the beginning; where beauty was not the favoured inclusion in the photographs and people could finally see the horrors that had occurred among Rwanda through their use of shock tactics. Although, it was not an easy task to follow through on because “imagery of a larger societal significance has a much harder time surfacing, let alone demanding attention.” (Ritchin 2013: 9) I agree with Ritchin here, as we know that with Jarecke’s Incinerated Soldier (Figure 6), that all American magazines/newspapers refused to publish the image due to its shocking graphics.
Jaar approached the genocide of Rwanda through the eyes of the survivors and it has been noted that “TheRwanda Project can be regarded as a form of epos, an epic poem dedicated to the Rwandan Genocide.” (Gervat 2014) TheRwanda Project is extremely intense in my view and includes repetition of certain images of his, but I feel that this appearance is vital in truly representing the tone of the subject; how powerful figures worldwide were repeatedly shown images from the genocide and simply did nothing. It is displayed in various forms and follows an aesthetic style to explain how the world failed to respond to the genocide.
For example, a section entitled Eyes of Gutete Emerita (Figure 27) shows the eyes of a surviving mother; the text accompanying this image explains how Gutete was attending Sunday mass at her local church when the slaughters of 400 Tutsi men, women and children began right before her eyes; among those were also her husband and two sons. At times, the entirety of an image is not needed to fuel emotive narrative, and this is an example of how it can be achieved. Gutete’s eyes are harrowing to stare at, to imagine what she must have seen – the same images that Western society would have been shown during the massacre, yet they failed and still fail today to feel compassion towards distressing conflict images in the media. “What had happened during the coverage of the genocide was in hindsight less compassion fatigue, and more compassion avoidance.” (Moeller 1999: 306)
Personally, I cannot understand why aesthetically beautiful images are more successful in the public eye, especially if it is concerning terror among cultures. The people of Rwanda experienced an event that is incomprehensible to the human mind; it was a menacing attack of massacre – massacre is not picturesque, so why should the photographer’s images appear this way? Indeed, Jaar also exhibited the Rwanda Project in a way that exudes power upon any person that viewed it; Figure 28 shows a secondary way that the Eyes of Gutete Emerita were exhibited
Jaar exhibited Gutete’s eyes on a huge light box, consisting of one million slides along with magnifiers for visitors to use to investigate the images closer. In my opinion, this allowed the audience to inspect closely the haunting stare and focus of Gutete’s eyes onto theirs, reiterating that her eyes, are eyes of sorrow from a deadly massacre. The proportional amount of slides connects with the final count of corpses from the Rwandan Genocide; the way in which the slides pile above people walking around the table extenuates I feel, both the presentation of how the bodies were piled on top one another without care throughout the killings, and the amount of onlookers during the carnage. Western onlookers who watched and waited for it to end so that their services would not be needed, regardless of the amount of graphic imagery they were shown through the media. Gervat has argued about the various ways in which Jaar exhibited his work, that “they are all poetic exercises in representation that are at once a dirge and exaltation, an effigy and an elegy, a promulgation and a denunciation of the Rwandan Genocide and the world’s failure to respond to it.” (Gervat 2014) I agree with Gervat here, Jaar is demonstrating to the public through presentation, the amount of fatalities and the experiences of survivors whose voices were ignored among the rubble of superficial journalism, courtesy of the Western media.
However, Jaar was sceptical about how he had produced work from the Rwanda Project commenting, “I feel that it wouldn’t make any difference to show these images because I feel people here have lost the capacity to see, they have lost their capacity to be affected.” (Jaar 2004: 62) But I disagree with Jaar here, he is proving how powerful cropped images can be, not always having to be explicitly graphic, but nevertheless pinning the audience in the same way. I do agree with Jaar however, that people – meaning the Western world – have lost their compassion to feel something when looking at an image of conflict or post conflict.
Williamson (1994) however, took a different direction when it came to publishing photographs from the genocide. In my opinion, the style in which Williamson chose was that of how photojournalism should be executed for news information purposes. Williamson arrived six days after the Rwandan president was assassinated, instantly hearing the cries of victims who were being hacked to death when he stood upon the bridge at night. Williamson’s image (Figure 29) of bodies floating in the Kigali river is shocking due to its graphic nature and shows no attempt to hide the true subject matter of murder. Yet, even with images such as this one where you can see bloodied, decomposing bodies floating in the remnants of other corpses, both the public and officials across the Western front did not intervene to offer help. “Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy.” (Sontag 2004: 7) I argue that Sontag’s comment relates to how Western society is continually falling into the deep depths of compassion fatigue; fuelled by the ignorance that it is simply not their business to interfere in another ‘helpless conflict’, regardless of the floods of horrific images that come from it. In addition, I feel that this fatigue is not helped when we as a community are informed first with images (Figures 22 & 25) that can only be labelled as superficial.
In comparison, I would argue that the majority of Williamson’s images were lacking the accessories that are vital in an image to evoke a sense of ‘stand up and act’ in people. Such as, this image here of a child in Rwanda suffering from a cold. (Figure 30) This photograph has clearly been constructed for beauty purposes only; when a genocide is raging within the walls around this image, these are not the visuals we should be seeing instead. On the poor construction of images, Baudrillard argues that “rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning.” (Baudrillard 1994: 80) Although the media is aware that an audience responds well to the face of another African child in the midst of conflict, this image is not representative of the true context behind it. This photograph in particular, should not have been printed to be a representation of the Rwandan Genocide; caption or no caption, it still does not show the massacre that was happening, resulting in deaths that were accumulating “at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust.” (Gourevitch 1999: 280)
On the other hand, Jaar’s work from the Rwanda Project is more illustrative of the Rwandan Genocide and the controversies behind it especially. I feel that Jaar was extremely clever in showing just how neglected the genocide was when it came to being included in the worldwide press. He exhibited this piece (Figure 31) entitled Newsweek, in which he exposed how it took a renowned American magazine like Newsweek, sixteen weeks before their front page was covered with the horrors of Rwanda. Yet, that the journalists of Newsweek were most definitely aware of the genocide; yet they simply ignored the conflict because they were ordered to do so by American security officials. Instead, they were told to fill their front covers with more ‘culturally appropriate’ stories for the people of America. When Rwanda’s time finally came to be in the spotlight, it was August 1st 1994, four months after the genocide had begun and an estimated 900,000 Rwandans had been slaughtered alone, as well as another 2 million people who had fled, eventually dying from cholera.
In my opinion, what Jaar has shown here, is that anything that is covering our newspapers or magazine front pages, could be completely irrelevant compared to more important events happening that we are unaware of; the mass media “are the vehicles for the simulation internal to the system and the simulation that destroys the system: (Baudrillard 1994: 84) Additionally to this point, “as a result of the risks and costs, ‘a lot of the coverage has been superficial.’” (Jennings 1999: 293) Or in this case, non-existent for sixteen weeks while women, men and children were killed on their own territory for simply not having the right identification card.
Conclusively, I argue that without the use of shock tactics within conflict photographs, we can never truly understand the storyline of the event. These types of events are not meant to be reconstructed for our viewing pleasure, they are available to us in order to show the realism of everyday conflicts and the inhuman actions that take place. As Taylor has commented here: “What would it mean for knowledge if the images ceased to circulate, or were never seen in the first place? What would it mean for civility if representations of war crimes were always polite? If prurience is ugly, what then is discretion in the face of barbarism?” (Taylor 2014: 85)
If photojournalists can use their valuable access to warzones for the benefit of illustrating the authentic story to citizens around the world, this could result in us seeing illustrations that we do not see often, due to the control of censorship from hierarchal officials. Journalists must push against these ridiculous expectations from powerful figures; figures who are not in the centre of the conflict and in turn have no authority to dictate what should or should not be shown in the media.
Superficial journalism is unfortunately becoming more apparent presently in the media; this downward spiral of dishonesty must be dealt with before we no longer have an urge to witness any form of media, due to continually questioning what is and is not a true representation of conflict.
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Glenn Porter first studied photography at the Sydney Institute of Technology and has a mix of art, science and photography qualifications. He also holds several postgraduate qualifications including a Graduate Diploma in Science from Sydney University, Masters of Applied Science (Photography) from RMIT University and a PhD in Communication Arts from Western Sydney University. Glenn has also been recognised by the Royal Photographic Society with an imaging science distinction as an Accredited Senior Imaging Scientist (ASIS) and a Fellow (FRPS) of the society. He is currently studying on the MA Photography at Falmouth University. Glenn has exhibited his work in several group exhibitions and has his first solo show in China in 2022. Glenn’s work has been recognised in several prestigious awards as finalist including the Head On Portrait Prize, the Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture and the Mullins Conceptual Photography Prize.
The Holga Experiment began as a method of approaching photography from a more instinctive position and being free from technical equipment and fixed ideas about content. It was initially an experiment in opening up my awareness to the environment around me and to shift my photographic vision from being a farmer to a hunter of images – moving out of the studio and into the world with just a single lens and camera. The simplification of the approach to my photography was liberating and the work began to get stronger as I became comfortable about shooting by feeling rather than planning. Henri Cartier-Bresson suggested “Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see. Your own personal technique has to be created and adapted solely in order to make your vision effective on film” (Cartier-Bresson 1999). Cartier-Bresson also applied a simplistic approach to his photography using the same camera format and focal length lens with the majority of his work. Keeping the method simple, allowed me to explore the purpose of the work from an internal perspective and to develop my work more intuitively.
The work is about my personal connection with photography and my experience with creative practice. It connects me spiritually and symbolically with two ancient Japanese philosophies; ikigai and wabi sabi. The simplification of the photographic process with a hyper-awareness of the environment around me is what this body of work attempts to capture. The work displays an ephemeral moment of my life’s journey with images that celebrate the beauty of the everyday with the imperfection of life.
Mitsuhashi (2018) suggests the word ikigai (pronounced iki – guy) is a combination of two Japanese characters iki 生き meaning life and gai 甲斐 meaning value or worth. However, Japanese philosophy is often difficult to translate into western values and language. Mogi (2017) also provides a translated meaning close to Mitsuhashi’s and indicates iki literally means to live and gai reason, while Garcia and Miralles (2017) claims gai translates to worthwhile. The concept of ikigai is for people to find their ikigai by living life while practicing something that gives them a sense of purpose that also derives from personal pleasure. Ones ikigai does not have to be materialistic, success-driven or financial. It is often simplistic values like cooking, growing vegetables, art, fishing and even cleaning.
Wabi sabi 侘寂 is another type of Japanese philosophy that examines how we perceive and live life. It is also a combination of two complementary phrases; wabi which is the personal process of finding beauty and sabi which is the joy of things that are imperfect or the decay of things due to the passing of time (Fujimoto 2019). Fujimoto explains how these elements combine to form wabi sabi; “together, these notions form a sensibility that accepts the ephemeral fate of living: celebrating transience and honouring those cracks, cervices and other marks that are left behind by time and tender use” (Fujimoto 2019 p.33). Kempton (2018) describes the wonderment of wabi sabi as feeling the moment “of real appreciation – a perfect moment in an imperfect world” (Kempton 2018 p.5). Wabi sabi can be experienced anywhere and has a lot to do with the awareness of the feeling and environment. Fujimoto (2019) claims “describing an aesthetic consciousness bound up with feelings of both serenity and loss, wabi sabi might be found encapsulated in a simple Japanese garden” Fujimoto 2019, p.33).
This project uses an inexpensive plastic Holga lens attached to a DSLR camera body. The Holga lens attached to a digital camera is a variation of the original medium format film-based Holga cameras, nevertheless, the lens is the same as the plastic film cameras and produces similar artefacts. The project also set down some rules; i) the image must be taken with a Holga lens, ii) the lighting must be available light and iii) the image must be cropped square. The Holga lens is a fixed focal length of 60mm with a fixed aperture. Exposure adjustments can only be made using the shutter speed and/or ISO setting.
Holga cameras were developed in the early 1980’s in Hong Kong as an inexpensive plastic medium format camera for the Chinese market (Malcolm 2017). Holga’s are often referred to as plastic toy cameras with a low-priced plastic meniscus lens. Images display overt artefacts such as film fog or light leaks, low-fidelity images with strong vignetting. The image imperfections, caused by the inexpensive manufacturing and lens design, has produced what is referred to as the ‘Holga aesthetic’ and has become highly celebrated. Bates (2011) notes that other plastic cameras like the Diana also produces a similar aesthetic to Holga cameras.
This body of work is a result of my own ikigai, my passion for creating images that resonate with my personal creative vision. The application of the Holga aesthetic works perfectly for experiencing a sense of wabi sabi with the imperfections clearly witnessed within the images. The loss of fidelity due to the inexpensive plastic lens demands an approach that focuses on form and tone as a compensation for sharpness. The square format is in keeping with the original Holga tradition. The body of work is an eclectic set of urban and natural landscapes that connotes my personal concepts or notions of ikigai and wabi sabi which becomes a highly personalised visual statement. The work intends to provoke a sense of stillness, reduction, tone, form and self-reflection, and to also harmonise with the Japanese aesthetic and its traditions.
The notion of ikigai is an important one within this work, not only as an internalised purpose for life, but more so for the joy this purpose brings to me personally. My ikigai, is largely about the production of a body of creative photography work which brings me great joy. Cartier-Bresson describes this concept of joy when practicing photography in his The Mind’s Eye autobiography. He exclaims “To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.” (Cartier-Bresson 1999, p.16). Cartier-Bresson also describes the notion of feeling the image during the hunt for images rather than seeing or taking a more analytical viewpoint when shooting. This is a significant point of difference when considering ikigai as a philosophical notion, which impacts how I feel spiritually rather than how I think. Cartier-Bresson further suggests; “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis” (Cartier-Bresson 1999 p.16).
Cartier-Bresson is explaining what it is like to work intuitively and reducing or simplifying the equipment helps promote the notion of working from feeling and gaining the intellectual and personal joy that comes with this approach. I have experienced what Cartier-Bresson is describing throughout this project. It is my connection with photography through my spirit and ikigai. Cartier-Bresson further indicates; “It’s a way of life” (Cartier-Bresson 1999 p.16) and this can be interpreted from a Japanese philosophy perspective as ones ikigai. Nathan Jurgensen (2019) also mentions Cartier-Bresson’s thinking regarding the personal joy photography offers practitioners. He also refers to Jean Baudrillard’s suggestion that there is a certain joy in the transformation of the real into a document within the concept producing a condition of hyperreality (Jurgenson 2019, Baudrillard 1983).
Several theorists like Sontag, Barthes, Jurgenson, Bates have described the condition of photography through how the audience may perceive the work as an extension of reality or reality through the lens of modernity. The intent of this body of work, while it may be interpreted through this lens, is a more egocentric focus on my connection with photography as my ikigai. It does not try to raise issues about the world or society, it is simply a way of expressing how I feel about photography by using photography. The work does however, raise questions about what is photography and what is art? Cotton (2014) examines these questions primarily from an aesthetic theory position but also explains how phenomenology plays a role in how the interaction between the viewer and the photographs operate within different viewing contexts including gallery, newspaper, billposter, family album, screen etc.
RD: I ran a collective for young photographers (Macula) for seven years. I photographed them for my project Vale and they became a part of that work, so there’s a direct correlation between my practice and that setting, it was kind of blended in. Maybe one area is keeping up to date, aware of current trends and what’s happening in photography. You have an overview of lots of different aspects, maybe not the single area that you’re particularly interested in and I think that opens you up a bit more.
I’m teaching students in a very difficult situation, in lockdown, and they’ve got to make work and be experimental. How can I teach them and say try this and do this and then myself, not? I should embrace that myself. I’ve been taking pictures through Zoom and I was initially reticent – it’s through a computer screen and that doesn’t interest me. But I like a challenge and I’m competitive. So – can I get something that looks great and people don’t realise it’s through Zoom?
AT: How do you think photographic practice changes once placed in an academic setting?
RD: A lot of undergraduates find it difficult – they have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. There’s this overwhelming sense of deadlines. You’ve got to be quite succinct in terms of what you’re doing, so if you’ve got quite a free-flowing art practice, then you’ve got to find a way to fit that in, which I think is quite useful in terms of working commercially or editorially, with very short time frames to make work. For me, it was OK because I’d done the BA at Newport which is a very tough course and so that was my grounding.
The justification of an idea makes practice completely different. If you’re an amateur, you’re just taking pictures of what you like. So many students want to work like William Eggleston for example – I’ll just walk around where I like and that just catches my eye, take a picture of that. But what is it that you’re doing beyond that? Academia makes you think about questions like the context of the work, the theoretical underpinning. On the one hand, that can be like a weight that’s tying you down, but it can also be helpful. Anything that I make, I ask where does this sit? What is this saying? How are people going to view this? And I also work on a series, rather than just a single picture – a body of work, rather than this slightly more free-flowing way of working.
AT: You reference your childhood a lot in interviews, and my own childhood experience of commons in Kent and Sussex is central to my current project at Woodbury Common. Why is childhood so influential to the way you make work?
RD: Childhood is about formative experiences. When you’re a child, you’re experiencing things for the first time. It has a huge psychological impact on you and who you are. I grew up on the edge of Tamworth and when I was three my Mum would just let me roam in the cornfields, and there was a big house at the end of our road, an old Georgian manor house and they had an annual fireworks party. Going feeding the horses, that feeling of freedom and exploration – that carries forward. These things I did as a child and a young adult, they carry weight and influence the work I make far more than anything contemporary, or any influence of a photographer, because these influences came along in my early twenties. When I make work now that’s more contemporary, like The Island, the melancholy from that is the melancholy from being a teenager. The emotions are from earlier even though the subject is more contemporary.
We’d holiday in Devon and one of my first conscious memories was hunting dogs on Dartmoor, and it was just so unnatural to a three-year-old. These are also memories of remembering, even at ten or eleven I was very quiet and introspective so many of my memories are of memories of those memories if that makes any sense. It’s that internalisation that I visualise in my work.
AT: There is often a melancholy in your images, sometimes a subtle use of light, sometimes an unmistakable subject as with The Island. Is this a conscious decision?
Yes. Definitely. I sometimes joke that I could describe my work as beautifully sad. I’m not a particularly sad person, but I think you tap into that melancholy you’ve experienced from life and with The IslandI was referencing that sense of being a teenager and your first girlfriend breaking up with you and sitting in your room and listening to sad music, wallowing a bit. That sadness is not depression though. You’re slightly nostalgic about that intensity of feeling – being in the Midlands and it’s winter and it’s wet and it’s bleak and it’s raining and you’re just bummed out and there’s something about that. It’s not a great emotion but it’s a powerful emotion and it’s something you tap into. Because I had all those years of illness, I can easily tap into that notion of being in a room and listening to melancholic music. Music can capture melancholy so well, it really is the best medium for that. I don’t think photography can ever do that in the same way.
I’ve never been clinically depressed so for me, it’s that bookend of emotion – without the sadness you don’t know the joy. You’re melancholy and sad about what is past and what is gone – there’s a weight there. Because Vale is about being ill and losing my twenties, there’s that juxtaposition between bucolic, sublime summer landscapes and these young, beautiful people, and there’s an obvious juxtaposition with looking sad in that landscape. The work is layered. It’s carrying emotions. It’s a direct reflection of that sadness.
AT: Your work often blends the fictional and the documentary, and you’ve mentioned that you’re a frustrated filmmaker. Would you consider working with video? What can photography achieve which film cannot – and vice versa?
RD: Before I went back to do my Masters, I was working a lot with video. With Arnolfini and Spacex, I did all their video work, and a couple of music videos for local bands. I always made skateboard videos, little short videos on holidays. But photography was always my first love, and I decided to study it. I’m definitely someone who likes to work by myself as I’m confident enough to know what I’m doing – this is my work, this is my vision – and photography allows me to do that, it’s all me, there’s that selfishness. The best films happen where you’ve got one or two people who’ve got a clear vision and they’ve been left alone to make it, rather than diluted with different voices.
The advantage of film is mis-en-scene – you have sound and you have music to create atmosphere, particularly in horror, to create that tension. The Moorwas in a way an attempt to create something that had that aesthetic, but you were missing the sound and the music. A way to explain the series would be to imagine it was stills from a film that doesn’t exist. I wanted to make these very striking photographs, creating images that would be like the film poster. I hadn’t seen anything similar, like an artist or a photographer working in this way and this always makes me question the validity of what I am doing. I think this is quite common.
The power of the still image is the time that you have with that image. I felt like there could’ve been video with Durlescombe, like with the threshing machine and the moving image of that working was amazing, and that could’ve easily made an interesting documentary subject, but I think it was a question of practicality. If I wanted to work in film, I wouldn’t be interested in just using the moving image like conceptual, fine art. I would want to make this big narrative, with actors, have all this staging, etc.
AT: This blend of the fictional and the documentary brings to mind Gideon Koppel’s film Sleep Furiously, set in a partly-fictionalized Welsh sheep farming community. What can an imaginative engagement with place achieve that an, ostensibly, more objective documentary approach cannot?
RD: I think the notion of documentary is outdated – this sense of what you are seeing as the viewer as the truth. A factual account is not the case. It never was documentary, it always was subjective, dependent on the creator, their motivations aesthetically, their political background, what they were trying to tell an audience. In the case of Durlescombe, that allowed me a much broader reach in terms of places and locations. The name is a place holder, a tool to collate this work in what that sounds like a real place. The work is 95% documentary. It might appear quite similar in terms of the staging to the The Moor, but nothing is staged, it’s all happening there, so I’m taking the pictures of these scenes in front of me, like the image of John in the barn just leaning down. You’re seeing things happening and then you’re capturing them. And in terms of the portraiture you’re just telling people to stop what they’re doing sometimes. I remember that excitement, particularly with the threshers, because I was there and I didn’t have that control anymore. It was often about stepping back and seeing the whole scene.
I’m photographing the Ten Tors and that’s much more documentary but I’m imbuing it with this melancholy, this heavy black and white, so there’s still a subjective narrative there. It’s truthful in a lot of ways to the Ten Tors, but a lot of days they’re walking and it’s sunny and it’s easy but I’m focussing on this young-people-versus-nature, so it’s my subjective version of the Ten Tors.
I always make work that’s layered. If it’s very straight, it’s not telling me something new or something different. There’s not enough there to engage me. Work that interests me makes me look at it and question what I’m looking at. Was this staged? Is this documentary? You’re questioning the veracity of what you’re seeing. That’s what I find interesting.
AT: What photographers have influenced you along the way? Whose work excites you currently?
RD: The work I’m drawn to is predominantly like the work I make. It’s people who are working in a similar way but differently. Like they’re picking up on similar influences, for example, myths and folklore. There’s so much photography out there. I’m drawn to work that impacts me, that draws out an emotional response, that I have this instant reaction to in terms of how it’s photographed, or in terms of how it’s presented.
Jem Southam is a critical influence. I was introduced to his work during my BA at Newport and out of the British work I was shown, in terms of landscape, it was the work I was drawn to. He was working in colour, large format. The Red River is one of my favourite photography books. It was integral in informing how I could look at the landscape as it was the first book that I had seen with a real lyrical, poetic quality; it was much more than just a series of pictures of the Red River. The work resonated with me and I knew then at twenty-one, that’s how I wanted to approach photography, with emotion, poetry and feeling. Then after moving to Exeter, I found I was living around the corner from him and was introduced to Jem.
My favourite contemporary photographer is Tereza Zelenkova. She’s a Czech photographer whose work predominately deals with myth and the landscape. Themes of the uncanny really underpins her work. Similarly, Robin Friend. He studied at Plymouth quite a few years ago with Jem and his book Bastard Countryside is really fascinating – that notion of a spoiled landscape is really interesting. Vasantha Yogananthan is a Peruvian Indian photographer. He deals a lot with his identity, photographing in India but around this idea of narrative in myth and religion. His work is sublime and complex.
Robert Darch (2020) from The Tree on the Hill
Robert Darch (2020) from The Tree on the Hill
Robert Darch (2020) from The Tree on the Hill
AT: What other artists, writers, filmmakers and so-on have influenced your practice?
Painters like John Northcote Nash, Eric Ravillious whose subject is the English landscape. Constable would come into that too. Also Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. It’s this beautiful sense of place and light – they’re integral to these painters.
Influences from literature are very much more from my childhood. Roald Dahl’s Danny The Champion of the World has a backdrop of poaching and pheasants in this autumnal landscape. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five is coastal, with a level of mystery and exploration. More recently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was an influence on The Moor, particularly the notion that you’re inhabiting this dystopian environment but there’s no explanation about the dystopia.
I talk about childhood films like Black Island and the British Film Foundation films. They wouldn’t get shown now but they made great one-hour films with real attention to light and detail. The acting was sometimes a bit ropey, but they had a huge impact on me as a young child. And also contemporary filmmakers like Wim Wenders that have crossed over into photography. His book Once was one of the early photography books I had and I’d go through it a lot looking at the pictures. His latter films weren’t so good, but his visuals and the colour in films like Million Dollar Hotel are sublime.
AT: You’ve mentioned you are a heart and not a head photographer. Can you say a bit more about that?
RD: It’s a very basic generalisation, but I want people to have a very emotional response to my work. I try to make images that provoke some kind of emotional response. I’m drawn to subjects through my own personal history and formative and emotional experiences. You have a lot of contemporary photography that’s very intellectualised. To me it doesn’t really have any aesthetic value. It can be really clinical, very much about the concept, which sounds sophisticated but it’s actually quite simplistic. A lot of that work is quite elitist and aimed at a very small audience. It’s not something that interests me. However, it can be successful when you combine a complex theoretical underpinning with sublime, aesthetically engaging images. For me, I’ve always got to be drawn into work by the image. I’ve got to have some emotional response to it. If I’m not drawn into the image, then why would I care what it’s about? That doesn’t mean the work I make isn’t layered or contextualised, but that theory is always secondary to the images for me. Often in over-intellectualised work, the images seem to be an afterthought.
AT: I find Dartmoor fascinating, particularly as it’s an entirely manmade landscape and deeply scarred. That resonated with me in The Moor. That’s not the Dartmoor most people seek and expect. What is your relationship to the Picturesque and the Sublime more typically depicting the moors?
RD: It comes down to a subjective response to it. You’ve got people like Gary Fabian Miller who’s going out and walking in a small part of the moor and then making sublime camera less pictures in his darkroom. My response is working in that Arthur Conan Doyle tradition of how the moor is viewed, this unforgiving, bleak, mysterious landscape. Also, the moors written about by Enid Blyton as this place of trepidation and mystery. It’s nice to walk on Dartmoor in the sunshine but I don’t have the same emotional response to that. I like being a bit scared, lost and excited because this is a bit mysterious. I have been following the Ten Tors recently and we’re out in the middle of the moor in thick cloud and it’s like being on another planet. It’s so unnatural, it’s unbelievable. The response I have to that captivates me. I’m fine with people taking pretty HDR pictures but to me they’re just superficial pictures of pretty landscapes, they don’t have any emotional depth. It’s always that distinction: what’s the work saying above and beyond it just being a pretty picture of a landscape. That’s what Dartmoor is for a lot of people.
When I started my Masters, I always knew I wanted to make a work about Dartmoor. I had a very intense emotional response to it from a very formative experience when I visited as a young child. I was drawn to this landscape. I questioned who had made work on Dartmoor? Was there anyone who had envisaged it how I see Dartmoor? There was Gary Fabian Miller, working with camera less photography. Chris Chapman who was making more traditional documentary work. Susan Derges who was working with camera less photography as well. And more recently Nick White has made a series on the militarisation of Dartmoor. I think it’s important to be aware of who has worked in a similar area as you.
In the end, I titled the series as The Moor because I wanted some ambiguity about the location. It’s interesting to note that recently the Black Mirror episode Metalhead was shot in some of the same places I used for The Moor, that someone with a similar dystopian idea was drawn to a similar landscape.
AT: Outside of your personal connections and photographic practice, what informs your relationships with places?
RD: When I was on the BA at Newport I was so influenced by everything from America. I’d walk around the edges of my small Midlands town and try and take pictures that looked like a Robert Adams picture, with big open landscapes and a horizon. Even though I’ve never been to America I’m so influenced by their culture, pictures, filmmaking, television and photography, it feels like I have been to America. I can imagine if I do visit, it will have such a strange familiarity.
This culture and the visual references hugely influence what I do. For example, Vale draws on these influences; some of the images are imbued with a sense of Southern Gothic, spirituality and religion.
I don’t have an academic relationship with landscape. It’s very much instinctive, that I feel like there’s some familiarity with the place. I will find a place and I’ll have an emotional response to it that’s derived from personal experience. I’m not so interested in a political landscape. Although The Island is the most political work I’ve made, it’s not really political in terms of dealing with that sense of struggle and ownership. It could just as equally have been about Covid, that melancholy and people being by themselves. Leaving Europe was the genesis, but it can work outside of that. It’s almost a precursor to the bleakness and melancholy of Covid.
AT: Finally – the inevitable question – how have you responded to Covid-19 in your photography? Has it caused a change in the way you see place and your practice?
RD: My initial plan was not to make any new work during the lockdown. I was going to catch up on editing. I started cycling again and I was regularly cycling up to a tree on the southern edge of Exeter because it was just an easy focal point for a short cycle. As I was there, I just started taking pictures.
Then I got asked by a curator and a photographer to do some pictures using Zoom or a similar platform. I was initially reticent because I thought it was going to be terrible, it didn’t interest me or seem to fit into my practice. However, I’d been mulling over an idea for a year or two about referencing a sense of past Britain. Incorporating references like Agatha Christie, imagining characters that would inhabit these novels – and picturing the landscapes of the English Riviera. I had met with a young actor before lockdown to discuss taking some pictures, but this didn’t happen because of lockdown.
However, after a while I thought it would make sense to try and photograph her through a screen as she often emulates screen stars, so there’s a direct correlation. It’s a combination of new pictures through Zoom and archive images that I took pre-Masters when my subject matter was located more around the British coastline.
It’s really at an early stage but aesthetically, it’s sitting together nicely. The heavy use of grain is covering up the screen moiré from Zoom, but it’s also referencing something and adding an ambiguity. People are trying to work out what I’m doing – is this new, is this old?
It’s been good in terms of having a focus, still being able to photograph with somebody under lockdown. An easy way to describe the work is this love/hate relationship I have with this sense of Britishness. I like a lot of the British landscape and some of this nostalgia around the past, but I hate the small-mindedness and I hate the Brexit.
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
Robert Darch (2020) from The Chapel
I envisage places the same as before Covid. Cycling up to the tree, making work there, was very much to do with the sense of that place and the significance of that tree for a lot of people in Exeter. The newer work is very much about place and Britishness. Covid has stopped me continuing the work on Durlescombe. For example, I’m not photographing on the farms because I don’t feel it’s particularly right, but there’s no rush and no deadline and I can carry that on at the time I feel is appropriate. It’s good to be open to new ways of working. I think that’s important to students as well not have this fixed idea of this is what I’m doing.
Strangers (2018) is a social documentary looking at street skateboarding sub-culture. The presentation of this work as a low quality newsprint zine formed a tactile and sensory viewing experience which reflected the rawness of the subject matter. Utilising the poor quality of a 35mm point and shoot camera, resulting in grainy images which highlight the rough terrain and movements of those recorded. This combination of imagery and material presentation created a visceral and dynamic series of images that ‘interact with one another and form an eye-catching, compelling picture story’ (Kobré, 1996, P.132). Alongside documenting the act of street skateboarding in an environment un-suited to it, the zine interspersed the zine with portraits of those that were part of the sub-culture during this period. Inspired by Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1971) I worked on this project as an insider, presenting the perspective not of an observer but a participant. ‘I wanted the audience to be eavesdropping on a world they had no chance to enter’ (Clark, 2015). It was this insiders perspective that allowed me to honestly and accurately depict a group otherwise not understood for its creativity and innovation in regards to their environment.
‘everything takes form, even infinity’ (Bachelard, 1964, P.212).
Concept of Space (2019) is a photographic investigation of space, in a metaphysical sense, and the relationship between this intangibility of subject and the representational nature of photography. The medium of photography is limited in the sense that something must physically exist before the camera in order to create a readable and representational photographic trace; photography deals ‘with the actual’ (Szarkowski, 2007, p.8). Exploring the abstraction of the photographic image itself I present minute extracts of photographs which exhibited variations in colour, shadow and form, and thus suggestive of depth and dimension. This is an abstract interpretation of a ‘non-subject’ yet derivative of imagery that showed clear and descript spaces such as rooms and corridors. As singular images one section of this project was titled monoliths, and the other, layers. The latter section is comprised of multiple singular abstractions overlaying one another and was developed as an ode to cubism and the belief in merging perspectives to better represent the three dimensional when challenged by the confines of a two dimensional medium. This issue is a discussion which goes beyond this project and speaks for all photography presented in its typical flat surfaced, depictional form.
Both sections of Concept of Space are printed onto transparent acetate, a material comparable to that of photographic film. However it was the tactility of this material and its transparent attributes that drew me to work with it. The transparency of the acetate means that the viewer can simultaneously experience their surroundings as well as the image, eliminating the simple act of looking at a print that discusses an idea but doesn’t physically interact with it. The works can be experienced both as an image and as an object in themselves; they are ‘both images and physical objects that exist in time and space’ (Edwards and Hart, 2004, P.1).
‘You take a photo and the image is there on the back of the camera or phone and you immediately want to see how it looks. You know the moment; you were there, experiencing it. But the real thrill is seeing how the camera has turned the moment into an image that can last forever’ (Parr, in Pardo & Parr (ed.s), 2016, p.12)
The Barbican (2016) show Strange and Familiar was a vision of ‘Britishness’ envisaged by 23 international photographers from the 1930’s to present day, each seeking to explore social, political and cultural aspects of British ‘identity’. Its curator, Martin Parr, is known for his affectionate yet satirical images of British life. He asks the question, ‘What is it about all these photographers that we find fascinating?’ I think it’s really interesting to understand and see that we are really a strange nation.’ (Parr in Klingelfuss, 2016). This session aims for participants to critically consider such representations of ‘Britishness’ as viewed through foreign eyes.
‘We cannot claim to have really seen anything before having photographed it’ (Zola in Sontag, 1977, p.87)
To investigate the representation of ‘culture’ and national identity? Are we merely a visual stereotype? Is Strange and Familiar really different? How might it show us something ‘new’? (or not?) Do we remain in a heterogeneous view of the (Western) world?
To reflect on positive / negative / stereotypical representations of ‘Britishness’ and consider the impact of these. How do we feel when the lens is trained on ‘Us’ not ‘Other’?
To consider the percieved ‘truth’ of such representations of icultural dentity
Participant Outcome: Research and identify / produce 2 truthful representations and 2 sterotypical representations of ‘Britishness’
‘The exhibition will reveal a very different take on British life than that produced by British photographers. It is both familiar and strange at the same time’ (Parr in bBC, 2016)
Martin Parr’s curatorial intent for Strange & Familiar is a simple one; and one that is inherent to the photographic enterprise (from a Western perspective anyway). Can these 23 foreign eyes provide us with new ways of looking at, understanding even, our own ‘British’ culture? In the age of Brexit – do we even have a unifom British identity anyway? Or, does the work shown fall back (at best) on visual tropes we have all seen before – despite thier combined focus on different areas and aspects of a so called ‘United’ Kingdom. Or (at worst) does it succumb to the voyeurism that is implicit in all imagery of ‘foreign’ lands. As John Taylor (1994) reminds us ‘By chance, the words ‘site’ and ‘sight’ in English sound the same, and thier meanings can overlap (a land is both a ‘site’ (as in a place) and a ‘sight’ (as in a view) (Taylor, 1994, p.15).
‘Be it on holiday or assignment, many of us relish the opportunity to take photos abroad – to document the architecture, the people and the rituals of the foreign lands we visit. That alien feeling of being somewhere unfamiliar breeds an excitement to get behind the camera and shoot. (Life Framer, 2016)
Consider the work from London / Wales included by Robert Frank for example, if we merely change the ‘site/sight’ from the USA to the UK – are we presented with a similaly (if not stylistically) darkened view of cultural identity? Might we say that Frank’s work in the UK is slightly more tame? Or, the work of Tina Barney, with her focus on the social elite, was notably introduced to her British subjects from contacts at Sotheby’s. Yet, in The Europeans her painterly tableau of these British upper classes continue to remain on the cusp of fact and myth, the staged and unstaged, and yes, certainly the familiar but strange with it. Is it really ‘British’? Or is it a subjective ressponse which is more irrespective of nationhood?
What is clear, is that the work contained in the exhibition is fluid in appropach but it is also cumulative in it intent. Like any ‘self’, it changes and evolves, and these 23 different subjective visions provide a plethora of ‘portraits’ of a British selfhood. Are they too politically motivated? Is there too much concentration on a percieved British class system? An external view, yes, but we must wonder what Google Earth / and ‘photographers’ like Doug Rickard, Micheal Wolf and Jon Rafman might have to say?
presentation: Strange & Familiar (Barbican, 2016)
‘But not only is this exhibition a multifaceted history of Britain charted by very different sensibilities through the decades, it also charts the developing medium of photography itself, as various strands of social documentary give way to fine-art photography and colour floods in. In the show’s later rooms, places and people are increasingly given separate portrayals’ (Buck, 2016)
Suggested Session Outline:
‘So what do we learn about ourselves by studying the many different ways of looking at the United Kingdom? clichés have not become clichés without good reason…it makes us as a country more aware of our own diverse identity’ (Parr, in Pardo & Parr (ed.s), 2016, p.15)
Ask participants to conduct independent and in-depth research into the work of at least 2 of the practitoners included in the Strange and Familiar exhibition at The Barbican (2016).
Compare the works included in the Strange and Familiar exhibition with thier other projects / practices. Are they similar or is there anything ‘peculiarly’ British about thier approach?
Ask participants to read Lucy Buck (2016) ‘Martin Parr’s strange and familiar face of Britain at The Barbican (2016) in The Telegraph (1st April 2016) available here
Like any ‘portrait’, there is an interaction between photographer, sitter and audience Who’s view is it? Is it the photographers view? Is it an stereotypical identity? Is it a collaboration? How is it ‘read’ by its audience? What happens when we have a lens trained on us?
Brainstrom stereotypical representations of ‘Britishness’
Create 2 images of the same scene – one sterotypical, and one more subjective.
Critique and Review.
‘A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into a souvenir (Sontag, 1977, p.9)
‘Wars are now also living room sights and sounds’ (Sontag, 2004, p.16)
‘The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings’ (Sontag, 1977, p.20)
It is clear that certain representations of war and suffering have become all too commonplace, particlularly in the images we see (both now and then) of the difference between coverage of the the Vietnam war (1955- 1975) and Iraq war (2003 – 2011) and they way they have been appropriated for entertainment alone.
Does this make us less or more involved? Does the power of the cinema dilute this? or are we merely living in a simulacra? Where does the photograph fit in?
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2004) looks into the way we view war and suffering. She proposes two central ideas on how war photography / imagery can affect a population. The first is through the media, in which mass distribution of these images of suffering cause public outrage and demand for change. While the other idea looks at the gradual erosion of compassion after repeatedly viewing these images. Essentially, she argues that ‘Such images just make us a little less able to feel, to have our conscience pricked’ (Sontag, 2004, p.94).
‘I really don’t think that a picture of an atrocity should be a good picture, a beautiful picture, a well-composed picture… It should be casually composed, hastily framed, only competently printed’ (Sischy in Lewis, 2003)
In contrast, the Vietnam war was widely photographed, and the images captured are certainly graphic to our modern eyes. This is due to the display of real and uncensored depictions of suffering from both sides, in so many different contexts.
Consider the photographs included in the music video for Buffalo Springfield (1966) For What It’s Worth below.
Iraq was considerably different. As Kenneth Jareke (2014) points out ‘It was one picture after another of a sunset with camels and a tank…If I don’t take pictures like these, people like my mom will think war is what they see in movies’ (Jarecke in Deghett, 2014).
Consider the film trailer for David O. Russell (2003) Three Kings below.
representations from Vietnam are more likely to depict the violence inflicted on others, whilst images of Iraq are mostly of tanks, guns and US soldiers – a particularly Western / American view of the world perhaps?
‘Baudrillard pointed out that the [Iraq] war was conducted as a media spectacle. Rehearsed as a wargame or simulation, it was then enacted for the viewing public as a simulation: as a news event, with its paraphernalia of embedded journalists and missile’s-eye-view video cameras, it was a videogame. The real violence was thoroughly overwritten by electronic narrative: by simulation’ (Poole, 2007)
So today, in our image world, and the age of the (uncensored) internet – what is the role of Citizen Journalism? As Sontag (2004) notes, ‘The less polished pictures are… [more they are] welcomed as possessing a special kind of authenticity’ (2004, p,24). Here is New York (2004) was one of the largest collaborative projects undertaken to archive the events of 9/11 but also as a celebration of a vibrant city overcoming trauma.
‘What was captured by these photographs — captured with every conceivable kind of apparatus, from Leicas and digital Nikons to homemade pinhole cameras and little plastic gizmos that schoolchildren wear on their wrists — is truly astonishing: not only grief, and shock, and courage, but a beauty that is at once infernal and profoundly uplifting. The pictures speak both to the horror of what happened on 9.11 (and is still happening), and to the way it can and must be countered by us all. They speak not with one voice, but with one purpose, saying that to make sense of this terrifying new phase in our history we must break down the barriers that divide us’ (Shulan, 2004)
(T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1915)
‘A magazine can open peoples eyes at the same time it closes them’ (Mason in Goldberg, 2018, p.8)
In April 2018, National Geographic reflected on thier representations of race and indigenous / non-Western people. This session aims for participants to interrogate racial / objectifying / mythological stereotypes that the magazine / visual culture might project, and to take a more critically reflective approach to such representations. It is appropriate to be used as a more theoretical / case study presentation based session or could have an associated visual response regarding the nature of visual stereotyping as it ‘becomes’ fact.
‘The photographer is super tourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear’ (Sontag, 1977, p.42)
To investigate the ethics of the representation of racial difference in visual culture
To reflect on positive / negative / stereotypical representations and consider the impact of these
To consider the percieved ‘truth’ of such representations
Participant Outcome: Research and identify 2 positive / truthful representations and 2 negative / sterotypical representations of people of colour
1: Presentation Ideas: 19th century / 21st century?
‘Every empire tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate. These ideas are by no means shared by the people who inhabit that empire’ (Said, 2003)
The content of images may seem natural. But representational and interpretive processes are cultural in that they are anchored in aesthetic conventions. Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder’ (Wells, 2011, p.6)
Photographs are ubiquitous. We devour them daily and perhaps we do ignore the way they act as surrogates for our understanding and knowledge of the world. Since the first issue of National Geographic was published in 1888, it has provided a powerful yellow bordered window on a world beyond our reach. Yet, perhaps, it is more of a mirror, and at that, one which only reflects ourselves. The West. On the the 100th anniversary of the publication its editor positioned the magazine in an inherently (and uniquely) truthful context – ‘These covers mark a century of holding up to the world our uniquely objective publishing mirror’ (Garrett, 1988, p.270). is it really unique? is it really objective? indeed, can any photograph claim such veracity? Despite the popularity of National Geographic, and the respect it still seems to attract, Grundberg (1988) and Mason (2018) take less optimistic views, that it doesn’t show us anything new.
Does it merely recycle and reproduce a colonial gaze – merely reflecting already known stereotypes of The Other. Does our Western gaze still remain rooted in 19th Century tradiion?
‘Besides presenting our culture’s attitudes and preconceptions as if they were universal, or even nonexistent, the photography of the National Geographic produces a pictorial iconography that tends to reduce experience to a simple, common denominator (Grundberg, 1988)
Ask partticipants to read Andy Grundberg (1988) ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’ in The New York Times (18th September 1988) available here
Ask participants to read Susan Goldberg (2018) ‘For Decades Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It ’ in National Geographic (April 2018) available here
Ask partticipants to read Kianaz Amaria (2018) ‘National Georgaphic’s November Cover Falls Back On Racist Cliches’ in Vox (18th November 2018) available here
2: Presentation Ideas: The survival of the stereotype?
‘If photography is perceived as reality, then modes of representations will themselves enhance that reality, in other words the photograph is perceived as ‘real’ and ‘true’ because that is what the viewer expects to see: this is how it should be, becomes this is how it is / was’ (Edwards, 1992, p.8)
‘From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work’ (Said, 1978, p.283)
In 1915, National Geographic’s official policy statement was threefold; (in Lutz & Collins, 1993, p.26)
‘Beautiful, informative and artistic illustrations’
‘Nothing of a partisan or controversial character is printed’
There was no acknowledgement of a potential inconsistency between these aims – such as a tension between accuracy and aesthetics – an approach which is so easily recognised in contemporary photographic practice today – and often used very successfully to create contemplation / action in the viewer. Clearly not, in the case of National Geographic. In 2012, thier position had not changed: ‘Only what is of a kindly nature is printed about any country or people, everything unpleasant or unduly critical being avoided’ (Foster, 2012, p.2). In November 2018, only 6 months after thier public ‘apology’ in The Race Issue (April 2018) their cover / Instagram coverage maintained these colonial myths – in thier representation of The Cowboy / Native Americans – and this was even within thier own shores.
Is National Geographic still replicating a Western (or even white American) worldview? Think about Western ideas of Africa, North Korea, Columbia, Saudi Arabia. Does National Geographic merely reproduce what we already think we know?
‘The myth transforms history into nature’ (Barthes, 1972, p.154)
Ask partticipants to brainstorm some stereotypes of different countries and people
Find 2 visual examples which perpetuate these stereotypes (photographs, films, adverts, painting etc)
Find 2 examples which present a more truthful / positive view or less stereotypical viewpoint
3: Presentation Ideas: A (visually) superior simulation?
‘We are moving towards a culture of simulation in which people are increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real’ (Turkle, 1996, p.23)
‘Animals are anthropomorphized shamelessly…National Geographic seems less involved in conveying information about its subject, than in being perceived pictorially’ (Grundberg, 1988)
‘The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth, it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true’ (Baudrillard, 1994, p.1)
‘The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle. (Fanon, 1986, p.18)
It is clear that 19th Century images might reflect the stereotype that readers in the industrial world expected to see. It was separate from the personal experience of its viewers and could only be read within the context of other images of its time – in relation to images taken by soldiers, anthropologists, missionaries and diplomats – who all had an imperialist agenda of thier own. However, when non-Western lands and people are represented as developed by National Geographic, it is all to often, an iconic ‘semi-developed’ stereotype that is created, a clash between traditional and new, Western and non-Western that can be almost comic. Again, the visual clash is of exotic tradition, timelessness, lack of development and change, which reminds us of an idea of a lack of development without Western intervention. In essence, in the National Geograpic view of the world, non -Western lands are more frequently pictured as unchanging and timeless, whereas images of the West seem to celebrate scientific and industrial achievement.
Today, does this position non-Western lands (and thier people) as backward / in need of Western / American intervention? Are non Western people simple aggregated into a similar category of Other – without any visual acknowledgement of individual customs and practices? Does a timeless mythical identity of Other, create an equally fabricated identity of a (so called) perfect and developed West?
‘A way of viewing the world as something fundamentally separated from the observer. Knowability in advance and sustainability were proofs of the power of one’s system of viewing, but they also include a destructive power over what is observed’ (Pinney, 2011, p.28)
‘Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, it’s age old habit, in mere images of the truth’ (Sontag, 1977, p.3)
National Geographic (April 2002)
suggested Session Outline:
Ask participants to critically evaluate any racial stereotypes they percieve in the IKEA (2018) Wonderful Everyday advert below.
‘My practice is quite hard to pinpoint. However, recently I have been making work where I explore new technologies and image-making techniques’Lucas Gabellini-Fava
by Louis Stopforth (9th July 2019)
LS: Firstly, could you tell the readers a little bit about your own practice as well as how you came work alongside Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin? What projects have you worked on with them?
LG-F: My practice is quite hard to pinpoint. However, recently I have been making work where I explore new technologies and image-making techniques. I am currently really interested in photogrammetry and the amazing potential of 3D scanning and printing. My latest work Programmed by my Father involved a deep learning artificial intelligence that learned to create new conversations between my father and I from every conversation that we have had in person in the last year.
My friend was working for [Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin] at the time and had to go and shoot a project in South Korea for a while so he asked me to take over his duties in the studio for a while. He came back and we ended up both sticking around and working alongside each other. This worked really well because we were both also studying full-time. He has now left but I have stayed on, especially to help with Chopped Liver Press. I have worked on a few, but my biggest input was with their new book The Future of Images. It was a huge job and I think that we were all super happy and proud when it was over and printed.
LS: For the last three years, you have worked for Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (Oliver in particular) in their London Studio, whilst also running and managing Chopped Liver Press. I am interested to know how these two work environments operate and how they differ.
LG-F: Chopped Liver Press is an interesting one in terms of the way it works alongside Adam and Oliver’s practice. The Chopped Liver Press studio is housed in the same studio as Oliver’s in London and so we sort of share the space in half. I think that Oliver and I have got into a really good rhythm of working on these two things at once. It is also really important for Chopped Liver Press to live in that environment as the whole project lives and thrives off of what Oliver and Adam are working on at that time or what they are interested in. The prints almost become pages of a diary that mark a certain time in the studio.
LS: The work undertaken at Chopped Liver Press seems to me more therapeutic and instinctive in comparison to the work undertaken at the London space. Is this the case?
LG-F: Definitely. A lot of the time I am working on Chopped Liver Press independently (under the artistic direction of Oliver and Adam) to allow them to work on their collaborative practice, however from time to time we will brew some coffee in the morning and play around. We’ll make frames, discuss ideas and pin stuff up on the walls. Our best conversations always start over coffee and a Chopped Liver Press poster.
LS: In a recent video, Oliver remarks that creating the monthly posters from Chopped Liver Press is a ‘meditative’ process. I feel that all the projects that the duo have produced so far have this quality. The conceptualisation of their work is highly considered. How much of the physicality of the work comes from consideration and how much comes from creative instinct and experimentation?
LG-F: This is a difficult question because in terms of a duo I think that both Oliver and Adam have very different personalities and they bring very different things to the table. Ideas seem to stem from books, the news and encounters with people and then it will grow from there. There is no set formula for how the work is made honestly. The conceptualisation is most definitely always highly considered but it always stems from a lot of experimentation and honestly a huge amount of interest in a wide range of different fields. They are both constantly keeping up to date with new technologies, the news and what other artists are doing.
LS: The Joseph Beuys quote ‘Bandage The Knife And Not The Wound’ appears both within the context of posters produced by Chopped Liver Press as well as a project of the same name. How often do the two separate outlets inform the other?
LG-F: They almost always inform each other in one way or another. Chopped Liver Press is a direct response to everything that happens in the studio and the work that they are making or conceptualising in the month that the poster is released. In a way it is an amalgam of all the most important ideas and quotes that have inspired work that has been made in the Broomberg and Chanarin studios.
LS: Talking of Joseph Beuys, his work was both a spiritual experience as well as a reflection of humanity and modern history. Oliver and Adam’s work share these qualities and additionally operates as an artistic experience. Has this connection to art always been a part of their practice? Even back when work was made in a more typical photojournalistic way, or has this developed when producing work for a gallery context?
LG-F: Oliver and Adam were really at the forefront of what they do, even when they were working together at Colors Magazine. We have a poster up on the door of the studio that states “you don’t take a photography, you make it” – and this is what they have always done. Their work has never been just about the ‘photograph’. I think their work begins with the acceptance that photography is a flawed medium at its core and through this they have found beautiful ways to tame and utilise the photographic to comment on and scrutinise any issues surrounding it.
LS: Also coming from their photojournalistic background, was The Day Nobody Died work as much a deliberation on physical presence in areas of conflict as well as that of photography, censorship and the accuracy of depicting conflict?
LG-F: The Day Nobody Died is one of my absolute favourite works by them. They simply unrolled a six-meter section of photographic paper in response to events that were happening around them during their visit to Afghanistan in the midst of the war in 2008. These were all events a ‘war’ or ‘documentary’ photographer would have recorded photographically, but instead Adam and Oliver created something that was simply a record of the day-to-day during the war but in a completely non-figurative way that removed any visual insight into what was happening. This completely subverted and turned the idea of ‘conflict’ or ‘war’ photography on its head.
LS: Typically, how do Adam and Oliver start their investigations? For example, does work start from a point driven by their own inspirations or do they feel an obligation to disclose certain issues to the public?
LG-F: FaceTime calls early in the morning, followed by emails with some of us Ccd into and then lots of research. I think people always tend to valorise important artists by trying to understand the ‘formula’ to their work, but I think that any artist that works by the books will quickly fade out of the limelight. Every project starts differently and ends differently, it can be by leaving a certain book on the table before locking up one evening or by watching a YouTube video. The work starts with the relationship that Oliver and Adam share and the way in which they communicate and their beautifully inspiring interest in the world around and its complicated systems and structures.
LS: When it comes to publishing and exhibiting work that utilises found imagery, such as War Primer, are there ever any legal difficulties encountered during this process?
LG-F: Yes, but I know that they always try and be careful. They have run into many issues over the years, especially because a lot of their practice is based on ‘appropriation’ – however they always manage deal with anything that pops up quite valiantly. They try and talk to people and explain themselves and their work, whilst also standing their ground and defending the work that they are making.
LS: Their work consistently questions the photographic medium, its history and its place within society.Is it because of this debate that the work produced – whether this be using found imagery or their own photographic images – can be regarded equally?
LG-F: Yes absolutely, Adam and Oliver work within the ‘photographic’, but I personally wouldn’t necessarily regard them as ‘photographers’. They use the medium as a way of turning a mirror on itself and this functions whether they are the authors of the work or not.
LS: The nature of photography tells both truth and fiction simultaneously; disclosure to a subject is given a moment at a time, but the actions of both the photographer and the context of its presentation can greatly alter its meaning. Adam and Oliver are greatly aware of this and produce work that is both a personal take on a subject as well as an informative one, reflecting the paradoxical nature of photography. How important is the conclusion of truth in engaging the viewer?
LG-F: (I understand your question here but I’m not too sure how to answer it. We can chat about it a bit if you want, if you send me an example of what you mean. Adam and Olly try and tell the truth through the photographic — which has a long history of skewing the truth. I’m not too sure how truthfulness might further engage a viewer?)
LS: The variation in aesthetic between projects is at times quite extreme and yet each project carries such importance. Is the change in project presentation always what works best for the context or is there a desired evolution of the artists practice? What can we expect to see from projects in the future?
LG-F: You can expect some amazing stuff. We all seem to be fascinated by new technologies at the moment and we are always sending each other PDFs on artificial intelligence and we are talking a lot about space! Their practice evolves with the times and it always has. I think that is one of the reasons that their work has always and will always feel so fresh and interesting and with this the aesthetics of their work changes, but it will always keep the same foundations.