In this, the first week, four key questions have been posed:
- Do you think the power and influence of the photograph is overstated?
- Does this devalue the true extent of the role of the photograph in bringing about change?
- What do you make of the mirror/window analogy? Do you identify more closely with one or the other?
- Do you see parallels between the historic spread of photography and the transmission of digital imagery today?
Do you think the power and influence of the photograph is overstated?
There are three problematic words in this seemingly simple question: “power”, “influence” and of course, “photograph”. What kind of power? The power of control? The power to free? The power to change? The power to convince? The power to convince that the exerted power itself is benign or non-extistent? The power to move us emotionally? Similar questions are raised by the term “influence”? Do we mean influence us one way or another, influence us away from tackling or considering complexities, or to influence us in our use of time or our economic resources? And finally, we have the tricky issue of the “photograph”. There as many types of ‘photograph’ as there are facets of our existence (possibly even more so if, as Marvin Heiferman proffers in Photography Changes Eveything, 1.3bn new images are made daily). Are we thinking of an advertising photograph sexualising a new car, a glossy holiday brochure image promising an Edenic family holiday in some far off land, a Don McCullin image of a traumatised GI or a CCTV image of our own car number plate should we be caught staying a little too long in a shopping centre car park? And by considering the “power and influence of the photograph” are we considering it in isolation, as a singular, one-off entity? Might not the power of many photographs, in whatever way, not be compounded (or reduced) by its relationship to other photographs? That a sequence of photographs, for example Alec Soth’s Niagara, has the power to transform a photograph from a self-contained object of scrutiny into atoms of a larger visual poem?
And then comes the issue not just of a photograph’s power or ability to influence on its own, or within a broader photographic context of its relationship to other images, but within the wider visual world – our own visual experience and memory, television, art or public demonstration for example. Occasionally, the photograph emerges as the dominant visual form – Stuart Franklin’s Tank Man, for example, in the mass media’s coverage of the Tianamen Square protests of 1989, or Nick Ut’s photograph of “Napalm Girl” Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt, as she fled, naked, the horror of a napalm attack on her village. Television footage exists of both incidents, but it is the photographs which grabbed the public imagination. Why? A psychologist might be able to explain better than I. My instinct is that a frozen moment is occasionally more graspable than time in motion.
“Photographs seduce us and motivate us; they promote ideas, embed values, and shape public opinion,” writes Heiferman. “We look at certain photographs because they calm or excite us. Others solve problems or create them, empower or demean us. Photographs may foster empathy, but can be equally effective at distancing us from whatever they depict.”
The two images above amply exemplify Heiferman’s last point.
Does this devalue the true extent of the role of the photograph in bringing about change?
Again, the question itself poses problems. What do we mean by change? A reversal of government policy on, say, migration, or nurses’ pay or support for the homeless, or a decision to buy one brand of acne cream rather than another based on the freshness of face of the acne-less model used to sell the product? What do we mean by “true extent”? The actual bringing about of some real-life change or the ability of a photograph to provoke thought, reflection or a repositioning on what we thought was so? The extent to which a photograph might bring about change might also be completely different to a photographer’s intention in making an image.
As discussed above, the role of photographs in bringing about change can be enormous – the imagery that came out of the Vietnam War, for example, whether of child victims, scorched crops, massacres such as My Lai, of wounded or dead GIs, played an important role in swaying the US public against the campaign. So powerful, in fact, that the US government actively sought to limit such photography, and reporting, in subsequent military conflicts. In its operations in Grenada, for example, the press was banned. The growth of the system of embedding photographers/journalists with its units was part of its efforts to control the visual diaspora of its operations.
Another key issue here is whether it is the “role of the photograph to bring about change”?
It can be. Soviet war photography Mikhail Trakhman, for example, was among the first to document the horrors of the Holocaust as the Red Army approached from the East. He was among a number of Soviet photographers – Dmitiri Baltermants and Arkady Shaikhet included – who set out to show unfurnished the true horror of war as a way of calling for a future of peace (did they succeed? Wars still rage, mass killings still happen But at least history was put on record). So too with the war work of the likes of W Eugene Smith, who wrote:
“Sometimes photographs can lure our senses into greater awareness. Much depends on the viewer; but to some, photographs can demand enough of emotions to be a catalyst to thinking.”
As Stuart Franklin, in The Documentary Impulse, states: “Photography can make a difference where words fail.”
What do you make of the mirror/window analogy? Do you identify more closely with one or the other?
Are we as photographers looking out of our camera wndow or back at ourselves when the shutter is pressed? Both, ot lesser or greater degrees depending on who is pressing the shutter and for what purpose. Equally, the clarity or murkiness of both window and mirror varies.
The window – or framing – and its perspective is hugely significant. A low camera angle in a portrait can add dignity, for example, while distance between the window and the subject/s plays a large role in our relationship as viewers to what is being viewed.
Subject choice, place, distance, relationship with a subject are all, in my view, a mirror on ourselves. The camera itself, and the photograph that is produced, is a kind of window. But even deciding what goes in the window, or frame, is a mirror on our motivations and intention in making an image.
But for all this talk of windows and mirrors, what I really want from my work is to feel something and for the person viewing my images to feel something too.
Don McCullin puts it this way: “If you can’t feel what you’re looking at then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
Do you see parallels between the historic spread of photography and the transmission of digital imagery today?
The spread of photography was wild-fire fierce. David Bates, in Photography: The Key Concepts tells is:
“Aaron Scharf notes that three moments after the invention of the Daguerrotype (1839) Horace Vernet was already taking pictures in Alexandria. In West Africa, Daguerrotype portrait studios were established by 1845. When early European photographers traveled to the Middle East, China and Japan, it was not long before individuals from those countries became involved too.”
The patent-less Daguerrotype has strong parallels with the World Wide Web of Tim Berners-Lee. It paved ground for an entirely new form of business – the photographer – free, as long as the equipment could be bought, from the barriers to entry found in existing markets. It was democratizing socially, with African Americans such as James Pressley Ball of Cincinnati in 1845, being amongst the first pioneers of this new technology. You didn’t need an education, qualification or a social network to get going as a photographic portraitist. It was a visual gold-rush open to those with the gumption to get going, much like the early website builders of the 1990s.
Today, the cliche goes: “Everybody is a photographer.”
By 2022, some estimate there will be 45 billion cameras in the world (at least six for every man, woman and child currently alive). More than 1billion new images are taken each and every day. The rise of the mobile telephone camera has strong parallels with tht early spread of photographic tools some 180 years ago, though on a vastly larger scale.
Similar parallels exist in the consumption of imagery. Those early steps in photography allowed people to see themselves as photographs, record memories and see places they might never visit in person. Add the early use of photography for erotic imagery, and again, we see much has not changed. The consumption, or rather pervasion, of imagery has entered nearly all aspects of our lives – shopping, if done online, is now almost completlely dependent on product photography. Cameras have become police officers by catching speeding drivers, war pilots in the case of drones and tools of suppression in places such as the recent protests in Hong Kong. This too has parallels in the early days of photography, whether in Abdul Hamid II’s photograph albums of convicted criminals, early aircraft battlefield reconaissance or the photographic topographical surveys carried out in India.
Where the parallel breaks, I believe, is in the publishing of images.
While the early days of photography gave vast people access to the technology as a subject-recipient, the means of production, publication and distribution were held by relatively few. Modern social media, such as Instagram, Twitter and Flickr, however, have enabled anybody with a camera not just to make images but to share them globally, instantly.
No longer is “everybody a photographer”. Everybody is “a publisher” these days too.