This blog was originally created as my MA Critical Research Journal in conjunction with an accredited educational programme – MA Photography with Falmouth University. It is being continued as resource for discussing photography and projects in which I am interested and engaged.
Following the portfolio critiques of last week and recognising there was interest and possibility in the work I had shown from the glades at Coul Links, I now need to go back and continue that work to capture them in different light and as they change with the coming of Spring. There are one or two other glades that I will also explore to see if they have sufficient visual interest. Among the approaches I want to pursue is low light/ night work augmented by flash and/or hand-held lights to see what kind of effects are possible. I hope to be able to shoot in the rain if it can be done safely.
I also need to reconnoitre the local area for additional Abandonment and Reclamation prospects. I know of a few already, so I will need to get out and photograph them as soon as possible. One of the things Cemre picked up on was the way that the lower edge of the buildings in two of my existing photos lined up perfectly across two separate locations. This is something I need to be mindful of in capture so I leave myself some latitude in post processing to adjust the frame to get similar placement.
Can imagery provoke change – can it be the catalyst between thought and action?
Desensitisation has resulted as much through censorship and editorial acquiescence to perceived ‘sensibilities’ as it has to saturation of images. It is the rare photograph of the burning Jordanian pilot or the burned Iraqi soldier that makes publication. The outrage after 9/11 of the photo of the severed hand is an everyday occurrence in a conflict zone. Landmines, IEDs, and cluster bombs are just some of the horror inducing factors that prey not only upon the combatants, but the innocent. How often have you seen a disembowelment or a dismemberment other than in a Hollywood movie where we all know it is nothing but special effects and no one was harmed in the filming? Well look around and see how many soldiers have come home missing limbs. We are shown the aftermath and we all feel sorry for the poor soldier, but we don’t really know and therefore do not really care about the actual event that tore limbs from that person’s body. How many children have been destroyed by landmines left behind? We don’t know because no one takes or will show those photos and so we don’t care because it is not in our back garden and we don’t have to worry about where we walk or dig to plant our flowers or tatties.
An article in the Washington Post from 14 Mar 2019 is a perfect example of the censorship that goes into keeping people from seeing what really goes on in conflict.
“The Marines don’t want you to see what happens when propaganda stops and combat begins”
“The true horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken.” (Sontag: 2004)
Perhaps the true horror is that photographs that should be taken or published are not seeing the light of day. Perhaps we, particularly in Western society, have become too comfortable and complacent. It is only when terror touches our lives directly that anyone sits up and takes notice, for a minute. There are horrible things happening in every corner of the planet every day, example after example of man’s inhumanity to man, people suffering from overpopulation, disease, famine, lack of opportunity, social and racial oppression, war while we sit home and complain when our internet signal is too slow. Yes, these are all big issues and they require political solutions on a massive scale such that no single one of us could buck that tide. But if everyone buries their head in the sand there is no hope for anything but the status quo, while on the other hand if everyone went from a momentary “too bad for those poor people” to getting into the dialogue, then perhaps finally ‘thoughts and prayers’ could really become actions and results. And I am as guilty as the next person.
I suspect the question of whether a photograph can provoke action is actually a somewhat specious linkage of cause and effect. Western societies have become increasingly egocentric in character, and while there are many even within these societies suffering, the inertia associated with comparatively comfortable lives is difficult to overcome. My experience tells me that any stimulus, photograph or otherwise, is most often dismissed as “other” until the event in question directly touches the viewer. Many of us live in cocoons of familiarity and believe there is more than enough to do to maintain the integrity of those cocoons, rather than reaching out to right wrongs we can see but can also easily ignore until they penetrate our cocoons. And in fairness, the amount of strife, suffering and injustice is overwhelming. Just thinking about it is enough to drag most people in the depths of despair and depression. No one person can solve it all. I don’t know how we motivate enough people to each do just a little bit to make a difference, but as much as I would like it to be so, I don’t think photographs, at least the ones allowed to go to print today, will do it.
The problem of malappropriation and the ability to reshape the meaning are equally significant problems inherent to the photograph. Written essays are more difficult to reshape to a different purpose.
“The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.” (Sontag, 1977: 3)
The well documented example of the UKIP Brexit refugee photo is a perfect example, but also it is not difficult to see how the ISIS “execution” photo in this week’s course material could be used by someone of a different political persuasion to illustrate their point of view. The fact that ISIS did not execute these people and their purpose was to make an argument they were not criminals (true or not) could certainly have been (and probably was) used to claim ISIS are savage by simply claiming the executions did take place. Since no editor in the Western press would likely ever print a photo of 10 heads simultaneously spewing blood and brain tissue toward the camera, we are forced into ambiguity that can be easily manipulated to different purposes.
“In these last decades ‘concerned photography’ has done at least as much to deaden our conscience as to arouse it.” (Sontag, 1977: 21)
I would argue that photographic and editorial censorship and violence as entertainment have done far more to deaden our collective conscience than ‘concerned photography’. How frequently have we heard the statement, war is okay until the public start seeing the body bags coming home? How much effort has been put into shielding the public from the realities because the leaders are afraid of the political fallout? Most of the US Congress have never served in the military and many of their children will not either, so there is little personal risk to them in sending someone else’s children into battle.
SONTAG, Susan. 2004. ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’. The New York Times Magazine (23 May 2004), [online]. Available at: ttps://goo.gl/PwSVZ.
SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.
I am continuing to try to understand more about why I photograph. That seems perhaps an odd question for someone who has been taking photographs of one sort or another for probably 55 years. For most of that time (read, until this course) I have not really thought about it. I just have always enjoyed the process of using a camera to capture visually interesting light, form and subjects that were of interest to me. I don’t think that has changed, and while it is necessary to the explanation of why I photograph it seems it is not sufficient for the purpose of this course.
I have long and often been drawn to photograph places and the things that inhabit those places; places with which I have an affinity or relationship and places which alter visibly over time. Nature with its complexity, diversity, intrinsic beauty (not necessarily in terms of the picturesque, but in the intricacies of form and structural detail), and in its ever-changing states has long held fascination for me. It is to nature and the outdoors I retreat when in need of inspiration and re-creation and not to people and crowded urban or suburban spaces.
I also find myself in a position to potentially challenge the basic approach that I have taken to photography my entire life. I have always thought of myself as essentially a documentary photographer who works almost exclusively out of doors using natural light and in which people did not generally figure as primary subjects. I eschewed the idea of the camera as a mirror and I rather focused on being the best window I could manage to represent, within the limitations of my equipment, what I saw as faithfully as possible. I photographed only what was in front of my lens as it occurred naturally without intervention or construction on my part. I have never thought of myself as an artist nor did I aspire to been seen as one. I am also beginning to grasp that despite my best efforts to obscure myself behind the lens of indexicality, that I choose to not photograph people and mostly natural places perhaps speaks more loudly about me than I realised.
Some recent work, while fundamentally indexical, nevertheless appeared at first glance to be abstract. It consequently gave the feeling of more of a fine art photo. Other recent work has been far more metaphorical and intentionally ambiguous about its location, with the hope that it will evoke in the viewer a feeling, memory Now I am considering working outside with artificial light sources to create effects which can only be considered constructed and artistic in intention. I am not daunted by the prospect and in fact am looking forward to what it might yield, but at the same time it is quite a departure and I find myself asking how did this come about?
While that was fundamentally a rhetorical question, it is safe to say this course has been a factor pushing me in different directions both in terms of my practice, but also in the way that I think about and react to photographic work. I see differently as a result and that is affecting the way I see my practice.
Is it good? Perhaps too early to tell, but I can attest that the quality of my work has improved. The thoughtfulness behind each frame shot is far greater than ever before. It is probably more evolution than revolution and, that is a normal part of growth. I would not have undertaken this course if I had not been interested in growing and evolving so I would be disappointed if that were not occurring.
Where will it all lead? I haven’t a crystal ball, but stay tuned as it will no doubt be documented in these pages.
I had the pleasure of attending this year’s face to face on the Falmouth University’s Penryn campus. I participated in several workshops, reconnected with cohort mates and staff and met new MA students. This year’s experience proved far more useful than last, primarily due to the difference between being little more than 2 weeks into the first module and being more than a year into the course. It is not an exaggeration to say that I was a deer in the headlights last year, a bit overwhelmed and far less prepared to take full advantage of what was on offer. That is certainly not to say it was not valuable, because it did create and cement bonds with others in my cohort that proven invaluable throughout the course, and I did get somethings out of the workshops I attended. This year’s workshops were better, and I was also much more ready to derive benefit from them.
The studio workshop with Matt Jessop was excellent and the review of lighting techniques and their practical application taught a great deal, not only about studio work which I don’t do, but about examining photographs in a way that revealed the lighting techniques used and in better understanding how lighting, natural and artificial, might be used in my outdoor work. The follow-on day working with Speedlights and how they could be used to control or affect ambient light conditions was especially instructive and useful, and I plan to experiment with those techniques in the field during some planned night work.
I also thought the prep for print workshop was much better this time than last and combined with an additional year of working with primarily Lightroom, but also with Photoshop I was in a better position to reap the benefit of that class as well. There are several small details in the final stages of preparing for the printing itself that I picked up and am looking forward to testing.
I also subjected myself to three portfolio reviews knowing full well I was risking getting too many opinions and coming away nothing but confused. Fortunately, that was mitigated to a degree my confidence in the work and the knowledge that I had offered excerpts from three related but separate series that were used to experiment with approaches to potential FMP subjects. It was interesting though how one set of reviewers could not seem to separate the three series and chose to grab bits from each that could be edited to create a typological series. It is not something I had necessarily considered, so it was good to have that raised as an option. Overall the work was viewed as having good promise and in some cases even more positive than that, so I was pleased with the progress I have made.
The weekend symposium on titled “The Living Image” was in the main quite good as well. I particularly enjoyed the keynote presentations by Dr. Gary McLeod, and Mark Klett/ Byron Wolfe as much of my work has involved rephotography. I was quite familiar with the work of the latter having read quite a lot on their projects, and it was nice to hear them talk about it. Additionally, I found useful the talks by the FMP students, in particular the insights into the processes they undertook despite the diversity of their individual projects.
I have been enjoying the journey of this MA course and how it has helped me to discover a new language for thinking about and talking about the world around me. I have spent many hours reading the luminaries of photographic critical theory and trying to find relevance to my world and my work. I have found myself far better able to examine others’ images and articulate something more than whether I liked it or not.
I have enjoyed the deconstruction of my own practice as I search for what things are essential to me and my work, though I have found this aspect perhaps the most difficult part of the course. And I think it is more difficult in part because it is a moving target and hopefully always will be to a degree. Humans are transient beings in an ever-changing world. I am an unfinished project that I hope is only completed when I take my last breath. I seek to know myself and my place in the world well enough to recognise, appreciate and enjoy the subtle evolution and variations in myself and the world around me and greet them with joy.
I have been struck how these new tools in my kit bag have found their way in and out of other aspects of my life. For example, I have written before and speak frequently about my aversion to labels. The following scene from Season 2 Episode 2 of the Netflix production Sense8 seemed a perfect example. I have edited it slightly for clarity.
“I just want to understand.”
“No, you’re not trying to understand anything because labels are the opposite of understanding.
What does courage have to do with the colour of a man’s skin”
“Who are you?“
“Who am I? – Do you mean – where I’m from? What I one day might become? What I do? What I’ve done? What I dream? Do you mean what you see? What I’ve seen? What I fear What I one day might become? Do you mean who I love? What I’ve lost? – Do you mean what I’ve lost? “
“Who am I? I guess who I am is, exactly the same as who you are; not better than, not less than. Because there is no one who has been or will ever be exactly the same as either you or me.”
“Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. (ed. Or as someone else has labelled it) All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.” (Sontag, 1977: 23)
When we choose to, or allow someone else to label a person, a photograph or a photographer using a broad brush we abdicate our responsibility to consider the worth of the person as an individual or the work on the specific merits of each piece. There are not hard and fast lines and we cannot come to any real understanding if we continue to draw them or accept someone else’s drawing of them.
In another Sense8 scene from Season 2 Episode 1 illustrates the point that the reading of an image is not only largely in the hands (mind) of the viewer but serves as a window into the psyche of the viewer as his or her reading is greatly influenced by the filters, biases and cultural setting that viewer brings to the reading.
“Art is material.
It is wed intractably to the real world, – bound by matter and matters.
– [phones beeping] – Art is political.
– [phone vibrates] Never more so than when insisting it is not.
Art is dialectic.
It is enriched when shared and impoverished by ownership and commodification.
It is a language of seeing and being seen.[low chuckles, murmurs]
Uh, would someone care to fill me in on the joke here?
Yes.Totally.[laughter] Is this art, Mr. Fuentes? [low chuckles]
Is it art, Mr. Valles? What do you think? Why don’t you tell us what you see?
Looks like shit-packer porn.[low murmurs, chuckles]
“Shit-packer porn.” That is; That is very interesting. Yeah, because this is where the relationship between subject and object reverses. The proverbial shoe shifting to the other foot. And what was seen now reveals the seer. Because the eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want, but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, prejudice. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see, suggesting that what you, Mr. Valles, want to see is in fact shit-packer porn. [class chuckling] Whereas someone else, someone with a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions, beyond their defining biases, such a beholder might see an image of two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure, but also vulnerable. Neither aware of the camera. Both of them connected to the moment, to each other. To love. And as I have suggested before in this class art is love made public.”
While I have been unable to find the one definitive reference that I feel reasonably sure I have seen or heard somewhere, it is safe to say that before this course this scene would have passed me by with not a second thought. There are elements of Foucault, Berger, Brazin, Lacan, Silverman’s Screen Theory and others that are alluded to in the prior scene.
I do subscribe to the concept of the triangle of between the Subject – Photographer – Viewer, but I also believe the balance of power dynamic between them shifts during the life cycle of a photograph and is greatly influenced by contextual clues found in accompanying text, or in where the work is seen. I also believe the power shifts predominantly to the viewer once the photograph leaves the direct control of the photographer and that regardless of the context most viewers will see only what their cultural and personal conditioning will allow them to see.
SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.
While when I started, I thought I had a pretty clear intent on my project work, but it has continued to evolve as I have progressed through the course. And as I find the original idea about the Coul Links work being somewhat stymied by timing it has forced some rethinking and perhaps adaptation. It remains an on-going project that I would like to see through to completion if the development is approved. However, as a result, I have been exploring ways to look at places in different and more intimate ways.
I came into the MA programme on the basis of my wildlife work and portfolio. It was not though on what I ultimately wanted to focus. I still enjoy it, but it is a difficult genre in which to find something unique to say and there is such a large degree of uncertainty about any given day or week of shooting wildlife that I decided that I wanted to move my practice in a different direction.
I am interested in places and particularly places over time. I have always viewed my practice as principally documentary in character. I generally provided visual context as to where by including distinguishable geographical or cultural elements. My work was generally quite indexical whether it was wildlife, action sports, or landscapes. I wanted my photographs to look as realistic and as true to what I saw as was possible. I sought to create a representation of my experience of the reality of the world in front of me and my lens.
Landscape photography, like any other photographic discipline is not just one specific thing and there are different registers within and underneath the overall umbrella of the genre. Its roots among the Pictorialists and Modernists can be traced to the representations of the pastoral by 18th and 19th century painters. Wells, in Land Matters discusses the idea that space becomes place when it is named or photographed.
“Naming turns a space into place. Once named we can no longer view somewhere as unknowable, although as yet relatively little may be known. Likewise, of course, familiar places are those that have come to seem ‘known’.” (Wells 2011: 3)
Industrialisation and urbanisation have separated mankind from the land. Many humans go through an entire life without seeing in person a natural landscape. For many they do not know what they do not know and for others, photographs have become the window to a world they cannot themselves experience. And yet there has arisen a curious dichotomy in the evolution of landscape photography which is true in many cases for urban landscapes as well as the more ‘traditional’ natural landscapes. Even someone like Edward Burtynsky, whose work shows the aftermaths of human actions on the landscape, only very rarely depicts the human perpetrators.
“The images of idealized nature created by our aspiration have one common characteristic. Within this perfect world of greenery and water and air, where all living things exist in a continuous circle of life, there is always one species missing: people. While any trace of humankind is discernible in a landscape, we are hesitant to call it “nature.” We feel a desire to remove anything that has to do with people from the landscape-just as nature-conservation programs are deemed successful to the extent that they are able to keep people away from the areas being protected.
Having been thoroughly removed, then, is humankind truly no longer part of nature?” (Naoya Hatakeyama – Lime Works (1996) in Setting Sun, 2006)
Liz Wells in Land Matters offers a different point of view:
“Landscape is a social product; particular landscapes tell us something about cultural histories and attitudes. Landscape results from human intervention to shape or transform natural phenomena, of which we are simultaneously a part. A basic useful definition of landscape thus would be ‘vistas encompassing both nature and the changes that humans have effected on the natural world’. But, in considering human agency in relation to land and landscape we also need to bear in mind that, biologically, we are an integral element within the ecosystem.” (Wells, 2011: 1)
“Suffice it to note that our relation the environment in which we find ourselves, and of which we form a part, is multiply constituted: the real, perceptions of the real, the imaginary, the symbolic, memory and experience, form a complex tapestry at the heart of our response to our environment, and , by extension, to landscape imagery.” (Wells, 2011: 2)
“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: 6)
“Photography is thus powerful in contributing to specifying spaces as particular sorts of places. It constructs a point of view, a way of seeing which is underpinned by the authority of the literal.” (Wells, 2011: 7)
“…namely, curiosity about ways in which we, as transient individuals, relate to our environment which, although changing seasonally and adjusting over time, is ultimately longer-standing than us. Such reflections, however, are not disassociated from the socio-political. We impact on our environment, constraining natural phenomena, managing social and environmental change, causing physical, botanical, chemical and meteorological shifts of varying import. From small acts such as re-routing local village paths …to larger decisions such as developing industrial parks with, as we now acknowledge, troublesome legacies in terms of fuel consumption, emissions and global warming, we impact on the holistic integrity of localities.” (Wells, 2011: 8)
The dichotomy is perhaps summed up best in the following quote.
“As humans we simultaneously form a part of and perceive ourselves as standing outside of the natural.” (Wells 2011: 13)
As I have continued in my quest to expand my understanding and practice of photography through this MA, I have seen a distinct evolution in both. I am doing things I was never before aware of and never imagined I might be considering. I thought perhaps it would be useful to find a way to reinsert myself into the landscapes I would photograph, physically and metaphorically. Taking inspiration from photographers such as Axel Hutte, I have begun to explore more intimate views of the landscape with the intention of eliminating the geographic clues in a way that allowed the photo to be more universally representative; to carry a feeling or mood, to convey a sense of déjà vu, or a desire to sink into a place that is both unknown and somehow familiar at the same time. I believe these things can be achieved with beauty or with mystery and perhaps even sometimes with a degree of abstraction that causes the viewer to pause to examine the riddle before her. In each of these approaches to more intimate views there is an intentional ambiguity compared to the landscapes of grand vistas which if not iconic are perhaps at least recognisable. It is fair to say that ambiguity is indeed an intention in its own right.
Guy Moreton’s essay in Liz Wells Relic ended with a quote from his work Waterlogged: Journeys Around an Exhibition and it seems a good place to end this reflection. It is directed at the reader of photographs but provides an insight for creators of photographs.
“…as readers we collectively inhabit the character of the traveller mapping a place somewhere between the unconscious mind and the architectural relic, or between wilderness and culture. In this case the relic might stand for the nature of time itself, about ‘our capacity to drift from one place, one history or one subject to another and still have no notion how we navigated the darkness in between.” (Moreton in Wells 2009: 56)
WELLS, Liz. 2011. Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris.
WELLS, Liz and Simon STANDING (eds.). 2009. Relic. First. Plymouth, UK: University of Plymouth Press.
VARTANIAN, Ivan, Akihiro HATANAKA and Yutaka KAMBAYASHI. 2006. Setting Sun: Writing by Japanese Photographers. New York: Aperture.
I quite understand the use of advertising images to illustrate the points in this week’s material. However, despite the fact that we are surrounded by these images daily, I found this rather difficult because for many years I have ignored them completely. They have become noise to me. I rarely watch them on the TV as I don’t watch much broadcast programming and it is only when I am in the market for something particular will I look for info on the product, and even then, I bypass the advert to look at the product itself in more detail. I cannot say I am never swayed to look at something when I happen to see a clever ad, but it is quite rare.
Ads rarely capture my attention, but photos in an editorial context often do. An example from the 21 February 2019 edition of the Wall Street Journal is below. Self-admitted gearhead and former racing driver that I am and despite not generally being all that fond of Ferrari, this one stopped me in my tracks.
GIMME A BRAKE The flashy Pista can go from 0-62 mph in 2.85 seconds and return to a dead stop in 93.5 feet. Photo: Ferrari
And I find it an interesting photograph to try to analyse as part of this week’s exercise. The denoted (signified) image is quite simple to discern. The bright red image of a $450,000 super car with extraordinarily beautiful lines is rather impossible to miss on the tarmac. Judging by the tire marks on the tarmac the car was repositioned at least a couple of times to get the angle of the light reflecting off the bodywork just right; the car was carefully posed. There is nothing to distract from this signifier and its placement along the diagonal further clarifies its dominance.
The connoted image is surprising more complex for such a visually simple and uncluttered image. In concert with the caption it is clear this is very high-performance automobile borrowing aerodynamics and other design elements from F1 and GTP racing platforms. There is surface beauty to be sure, but it is more than skin deep as this car is loaded with performance technology. I suspect that the principal, though not exclusive, demographic Ferrari appeal to are men 30-55 with plenty of discretionary spending power. This is a wealthy person’s toy, perhaps a symbol of status, and something that screams ‘look at me’ for the owner that wants to be noticed everywhere they go.
An oppositional view might be something along the lines of who needs a $450,000 car that can do 211 mph that hasn’t room in the boot for hardly an overnight bag. It might be the red colour or the racing stripe that seem pretentious, or that Ferrari are notoriously difficult and expensive to maintain. Or it might be that a car such as this must use a tremendous amount of fuel and is therefore environmentally irresponsible. It is absolutely not the car for someone who does not wish to advertise their wealth or someone in need of practical transportation.
I am a bit fuzzier on the negotiated view. Perhaps it is along the lines of; it is a well-executed photograph of a beautiful, but altogether impractical and for most unattainable car. In other words, wow that is nice, but…
Since the beginning of the MA course, the Cromarty Cohort has had a very active and useful WhatsApp group that has been a great source of support and discussion. I have learned perhaps as much from the interactions with my cohort as I have from the formal coursework. It has been a place of inspiration, mutual support, friendship and quite often sanity preserving humour. I truly treasure these relationships.
Quite often, we have had extraordinary debates on wide ranging topics and just as often we lean on each other for advice, critique and the knowledge that comes with experience. I have not been particularly good yet at critiquing my own work and I attribute that in part to not yet being entirely certain of what I want to do. But the course, my independent reading, and the interactions with my peers has given me a new base of knowledge, a new vocabulary, and a basis for applying the critical thinking skills honed over 40 + years of working to begin better contextualising photographic work.
What follows is a discussion with Mick Yates about his work currently underway in Cambodia. We had talked a length before the trip about his goals and concerns. After his second day of shooting he posted a couple of photos from the day’s work on our WhatsApp forum. With Mick’s permission I am posting the main bits of our ‘conversation’ which proved useful for us both I think. I find it easier to have this discussion about someone else’s work than my own, but I know when it is time to talk about mine, I know my cohort will be there for me. In the meantime, it was enlightening to talk about Mick’s challenges all the while realising I needed to be thinking, not the same things, but in the same way.
At the very outset there were a few comments by others in the cohort, and there were a few asides that were not directly relevant to the thread that have been edited to enhance clarity. What follows though is the main conversation between Mick and me in its entirety. The photographs are all Mick’s work taken with an infrared camera today in Cambodia.
[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: May they rest peacefully
[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Cheoung Ek, the Killing Fields
[06:42, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Too pretty?
[08:42, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It depends on whether your story is about the genocide or really about the people who survived it and what Cambodia is today. Are the Killing Fields sources of hope that horror can be overcome, or are they an ever present pall of death that no one in Cambodia can ever escape? These may not be the right questions, and they are certainly not the only questions, but I believe they may be the kind of questions you need to be asking before you exhaust yourself physically and emotionally taking photos that you that either do not meet your needs or actually work against them.
[08:43, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Very fair
[08:44, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think it does depend on the audience. In Cambodia, it must be about hope. But in the West, whilst it is hope, it’s also fundamental education, with all the horror that entails
[08:54, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It is hard to see horror in any of the landscapes you have taken. Nature has taken it back, covered it up and erased it from the possibility of discovery by anyone who hasn’t been through what happened there. There is horror inn the museums. You would perhaps have to go Jo Hedwig Teeuwisseor or Sergey Larenkov to convey what happened there to Western audiences
[08:54, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I don’t know them – will look. Thanks
[08:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I really don’t like the Museum stuff
[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Boring ..
[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Nature never gave it up so reclaiming is easy. Humans are just a temporary thing
[08:57, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Agree and it has all been seen before. Larenkov and Teeuwisseor both did Ghosts of WWII series superimposing old images on modern scenes to show what happened there
[08:57, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Though interesting how IR takes out shades and details
[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think there may be more horror in the negatives
[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The problem of aftermath
[09:07, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Even Sophie Ristelhueber, who I love and who ‘invented’ aftermath is almost forensic. No emotion
[09:11, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Yes, and that begs the question, where is Cambodia now, and where does what happened factor into today. Every day people who were there are dying. More and more of the population knows of it only second hand. Is the point to get past it or is the point to hang on to it or is the point that there are forces that want to shackle the younger generations to their inescapable past? Is there something in the Cambodian psyche that suggests this could happen again at any moment or is this something that people think can never happen again? Is there a shift in mindset between Sarath’s generation and his grandchildren’s? Is this an aftermath story that is far enough removed from the event that the horror can be treated lightly, almost in passing as you focus on Cambodia today, or are there dark forces still at work to whom the past is closely tied that are getting in the way of the current generations progress and escape from the past? So many questions, but all key to framing the story and guiding your shooting.
[09:11, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: All good Qs, Ash. Very good
[09:14, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I guess a similar logic might apply to the Holocaust. Maybe we should all just forget it?
[09:27, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: I did not mean to suggest the past should be forgotten, but in fact many have. It begs the question of where is the balance between remembering the past and how it affected where we are today and dwelling in it? Does that balance shift over time? I am not naïve enough to think genocide can’t happen again, but I would like also to think that it couldn’t go on for the length of time the Nazis did without the world knowing and reacting.
[09:28, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Ironically, as I have discovered in reading, the world actually did know, but the UK and US governments chose not to believe the Soviet/Polish propaganda. Another story
[09:29, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Your point stands, though
[09:30, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: One of the Cambodian challenges is that there was no ‘other’ so it was like the Chinese Cultural Revolution
[09:31, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Self-Genocide in fact
[09:35, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And I can’t imagine that isn’t a bit frightening at least to the older folk who experienced it. The thought that your neighbour was involved in slaughtering thousands for no good reason. Zealots and ideologues are scary people. And that undercurrent is resurfacing in many places in the world. Does this suggest a cautionary tale? Does the current flavour of KR harbour any allusions of the past?
[09:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Agree. The vast majority just want to move on. But as I have discovered time and again, a simple conversation leads to all kinds of memories and questions. Every day I am here
[09:38, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Maybe I am the one that needs to let this go
[09:43, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is there an element of outsider gaze tied to your history that affects your current perceptions and has the fact that you had a wee break from the heavy involvement meant that you missed a subtle shift in where Cambodia is today compared to say 15 years ago? Not meant to be in any way disrespectful, just a question.
[09:48, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: It’s a great question. I think that when we started this, 20 years ago, there was def an outsider gaze. I mean, we paid for schools that the country couldn’t afford. Imperial, what? But we never saw it that way ofc. We did try to learn and be part of the whole, though it was hard.
Now, I find myself deeper. When the people I am working with no longer know all the answers – and in fact find new things because of this activity, it’s become even more personal.
Is there a shift here? Sadly, no. This is all buried and has been for a long time. The closest parallel is China I think
[09:52, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is that parallel to China in some way an angle from which to approach the story? And if so, why does that similarity exist? Is it political, deeper cultural similarities, etc? Sorry if I am droning on too long. I am sure you must be exhausted, and my day is only beginning. Lots to do before I get on a plane Monday morning.
[09:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The parallel is the Cultural Revolution – The KR executed it on steroids. The disconnect is that Deng Xiaoping saw that prosperity for all was key – and consigned the Gang of Four to the trash can of history. Neither have really happened here, so no release
[09:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: No closure and a very uncertain future in other words
[09:59, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And that perhaps is the heart of the story and how today is affected by the past. That comparison to China may be useful as a foil to show how Cambodia has become mired.
[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Well, yes, though this is an MA not a PhD
[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Not making light of your comment – it’s totally right
[10:37, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And it is a practical degree not a dissertation project.
[10:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Also true
Thank you to Mick for the conversation, and for permission to post it and his work to my CRJ. This is merely one example in a year’s worth of great conversations, debates, and discussion between us that has made my experience on the MA all the richer.
Are photographs in general and constructed photographs in particular “lies.” Perhaps it is instructive to begin with the dictionary definition of ‘lie’: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive: an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
As I wrote in a prior article, no photograph can present truth, but that does not make every photograph a lie. A lie is predicated with intent and it does not follow that every photograph by every photographer was made with the intent to deceive. In fact, I believe, for most the intent is exactly the opposite; that is, most desire to represent a reality as they see it. Heavily constructed photographs quite often make it obvious that it is not intended to represent reality and therefore, in keeping with the notion of intent, it is not a lie any more than a painter creating a scene is lying. There are inherent limitations in the medium that make it impossible to recreate exactly what was in front of the lens, but technology keeps pushing and 360-degree cameras and holography will begin to challenge traditional 2-dimensionality. Where it gets problematic, is where the intention in capture or publication of the photograph is to deceive.
I think of heavily constructed photographs much in the same way I think of paintings. They are intended to be artistic in many cases and they are creations from the imaginations of the photographers. It seems that often, even though there may be a degree of indexicality, something in the photo clues the viewer to the fantasy, joke, mood, or paradox it posits, and we then treat it as an artistic expression rather than a documentary photograph. There seems in these cases to be no intent of deception. The following two photos, the first by Sherman and the second by Rosler are not photos that would fool anyone into thinking they were meant to be realistic and purely documentary.
Martha Rosler – House Beautiful
Publications (traditionally respected and tabloid), social media and individuals and organisations have discovered it is possible to ‘weaponize’ photography to fit their desired narratives to influence their faithful and persecute their perceived enemies. Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity are both caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons. In the example below, an editor made a conscious choice to use the top photograph which carries a very different and quite inaccurate depiction of ‘reality’ and it seems clear there was a deliberate intent to deceive. The photographs were taken as Prince William was leaving the hospital with the Duchess of Cambridge following the birth of their third child. He is quite obviously, as shown from the perspective of the second frame, indicating the number 3, while the perspective chosen in the first frame would connote and entirely different message. Was the first frame real? Yes, from that photographer’s vantage point it was what was seen, but was its out of context use disingenuous, and deliberately deceptive? I think that it was.
The problem here is not one inherent to the photographic medium, but rather the ethics of those who practice photography and users of photographs. Photographs are just an inanimate thing. They hold no special powers on their own. They are only useful, destructive, pleasing, horrifying when they are in the hands of humans and when they are presented in some context. If the ethics of photographer, publisher or social media user are questionable then the photograph can be misused like any other tool. And like any other enterprise where power, money, or fame are in play photography is subject to abuse by those who would use it, or allow it to be used unethically.
I honestly do not know why I feel the need to argue this point. Perhaps it is because I do not view myself as an “Art Photographer” and that I work very hard to capture the world around me as accurately and faithfully as I can minimising behind the camera manipulations. Do I take the image (Sontag) or do I make the image? It is possible to do both with photography and I think there is a difference. A painter clearly makes their image and Cindy Sherman, Cecil Beaton elaborately create and stage the scene they are to photograph and so in that regard are much closer to a painter than a strict documentary photographer. Martha Rosler begins with indexical photographs and then behind the camera heavily manipulates the original image to “construct” the political statement she wishes to convey. She too is more like a painter. These photographers create tableaus.
Every photographer makes choices, selections of what, where, how and when to photograph, but those selections are first and foremost from real things that are in front of the photographer’s camera. One cannot photograph what is not there, or as Barthes put it “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph.” (Barthes, 1981: 76) Certainly this is equally true for all photographers whether they come to the scene accepting it as it is, or if they choose to rearrange “what was there” before taking the photograph. And this is where I feel the need to challenge the assertion that every photograph is a construction, or at least challenge the way the term is used.
Every photograph involves choice and selection, but I argue that is different than construction. Just because I cast my gaze and that of my camera in a particular direction, I did not “construct” what is in front of me. Only when I purposefully rearrange the scene by moving objects or posing people have I constructed the scene that will become my image.
To argue that the “camera” coverts the light from the four-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional representation of that scene and therefore the image is made, and while true, it is not something over which the photographer has direct control and is in my view a lazy argument. By painting all photographs with that unnecessarily broad brush it fails to recognise the spectrum or continuum of photographic practice and creates a false equivalency between a Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman and Edward Burtynsky or Lynsey Addario. While this spectrum has no distinct boundaries at any given point on the continuum, I think it useful to acknowledge that there are differences in practice without having to necessarily assign a label or pigeonhole any photographer.
I do believe it is valuable to consider the spectrum of photographies in more nuanced way. Obviously, the grey areas in between are what create the difficulty and there are no hard and fast rules of distinction with regard to how much constitutes a truly constructed image versus one that is intended to be indexical. It is usually the case that the most highly constructed images and studio portraits for example make no pretentions of being anything other than constructed and it is fairly obvious to even the most casual of observers. With the advent of digital imaging, it is less obvious on the documentary end of the spectrum and there are plenty of documented cases of photographers and publications surreptitiously altering or intentionally choosing an out of context moment or vantage point to support a particular political or editorial point of view.
With the majority of my work out of doors and either landscape, wildlife, or action shots, I can with absolute certainty tell you the scenes in front of my camera that comprise my images are not constructed. I acknowledge the argument that because the light that enters the cameras lens is transformed and ultimately results in something made there are those that would consider that a construction. As well, any post processing is fundamentally an action that in some way alters that which the film or sensor captured and could be argued as constructive in nature. But I continue to hold that, as long as I am trying to remain faithful to that which was in front of my camera and not alter it in any substantive or significant way I am not constructing. I am taking, with the tools at my disposal and all their inherent capabilities and limitations, a representation of what I saw, not making something that did not exist before I arrived or a representation of something that was not there. This to me is the essential distinction in what constitutes a truly “constructed” photograph.
The following image for instance involved me carrying 20kg kit several miles and sitting in the same place for about 5 hours observing the tens of thousands of nesting seabirds as well as predators like the ravens. I took over 500 photos with 600mm and 840mm focal lengths. I didn’t direct the pair of ravens to the Razorbill nest they raided, but my knowledge of bird behaviour and observational acuity allowed me to see the situation developing and record it in its entirety. This is only one shot in a sequence. Now I suppose one could argue the final product, since it was cropped slightly and minor adjustments to the tonal quality were made in Lightroom, was constructed, but again I don’t find that distinction nuanced enough, and it creates a false equivalency with staged or posed images.
Raven Burglar – Ashley Rose
Another example would be the following photograph of a 9-day old colt out for its first run around the arena with its mother. This photo required knowledge of how horses move and what positions are most telling about a horse’s innate ability and potential as a world class dressage horse. This is an extraordinary example of an “uphill canter” and shows how well this young colt gets his rear legs under him and how light he is in the front. Once again other than some minor cropping and tonal adjustment, nothing about this photo was constructed in my view. Like the previous photo, planning, patience and a bit of luck were involved.
Falcon Caledonia at 9 days old – Ashley Rose
I know this notion of constructed versus not constructed is one that will continue to spark debate, probably for as long as photography exists. It is complicated further by the ease in which digital photography can be manipulated and frankly weaponised. And perhaps in the end the discussion is moot because photography has gone from the paragon of “objectivity”, to the perhaps the most suspect and mistrusted of the visual media. Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons taints the broader world of Photography. It is an unfortunate reality of our time.