Changing the conversation about photography


My concern has always been for photography that connects with the world to say something about the world so we can do things in the world.

That leads to me to focus mostly on the practices we know as documentary and photojournalism, but my concern has often been frustrated and limited by the terms of the conversation about photographic imagery, especially when it gets bogged down in the exhausted philosophical straight jacket of objectivity/subjectivity.

Maybe things are changing. This one minute statement from Marvin Heiferman – who edited Photography Changes Everything – is very important:


He says there is no simple story about photography, no tidy narrative, that we have to rethink what photographs are and do, and our conversation needs to be more sophisticated.

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Marcus Bleasdale follows what I think is a similar line of thought – in a short video that could not be embedded but is available here. He states, “It’s not the individual photograph, it’s what you do with it, and who you engage with it, that makes it powerful.”

Together these short statements tentatively point towards a new framing of the conversation – away from a concern with the products of photography to its process. This will be a conversation that deals first and foremost with the purpose and effect of images. And it will make transparent the processes through which the photographic image (still or moving) can be an opening or organising node in a network of intersubjective actions and possibilities.

9 Responses to “Changing the conversation about photography”

  1. Stephen mayes

    Susan Sontag makes the point in her 2003 book “Regarding The Pain Of Others” that photographs in themselves change nothing. They only become effective in promoting change when co-opted by political and social movements. In other words, the common belief that photographers are responsible for the changes they advocate is only partially true. Photographers are responsible for the positions they adopt but it is we, the viewers, who are responsible for acting on the information that they bring us.

  2. David Campbell

    Yes, I agree Stephen – images do not work in and of themselves, they only work in relation to cultural moments or social and political movements ec

    The best recent statement of this was from OSI – see They wrote:

    “Tackling systemic issues—such as corruption and discrimination—is complex work that involves multiple actors and years of organizing, advocacy, or litigation. We believe that photographers can be more effective when connecting to those who are already working towards change in an ongoing way.”

  3. john macpherson

    Good points well made by both of you. I think this ‘investment’ in the latent power of images (by the audience/users) is crucially important, and too often not given sufficient consideration.

    I hinted at this a few months ago on duckr:

    “We are now living in a digital age where the dissemination of information is far easier, quicker and more global than ever before. And there was no notion of things going ‘viral’ in the early 1990′s when RATM used the burning monk image, ‘viral’ then would more likely be a medical phenomenon than a social one. Times have changed. Now ‘icons’ are created not necessarily by ‘the industry’ appropriating ‘known’ images and deliberately using them, so much as specific images being ‘adopted’ by the audience. And then becoming iconic.

    Crucially, no longer are we simple consumers of whatever is fed us, we can exercise choice through social media, through ‘likes’ and ‘RT’s’ and so on. And that I would argue is what creates an icon……..

    ………The power of an image comes not from what we as ‘creators of images’ might hope for, strive for, even pray for, but from what the audience perceive in it, and invest in it. That’s what makes these exciting times for photography, but also makes the appropriation of particular images (such as Aranda’s) potentially problematic.

    And I think that’s why Madeleine’s post is important, and why it should make us sit up and reconsider the ways images in this digital sharing age are used, abused, disseminated and consumed. And created.”

  4. Jim Johnson

    I actually think Heifermans’s advice here – think about what photographs are and what they do – is not a change in the conversation at all. In fact it recapitulates the basic problem – present, by the way, in Sontag and many others. We need to think less about the product – “photographs” – that about photography as a technology, as a means of amplifying our capacity to see and imagine. That change in focus allows us to change the subject to what we do with photography, what we use it for. Starting with Objects sets up the objective-subjective dichotomy along with several others. In fact, in The Engine of VIsualization (Cornell UP 2000) Patrick Maynard proposed this shift in conversation some time ago. His may be the best book on photography I’ve read. Short answer: more pragmatics, less semantics, less ontology.

    • David Campbell

      Thanks for the comment Jim, and sorry for the delay in replying. I generally agree with you, and you will have detected the trace of Maynard’s important book in the post. I do think, though, that what Heiferman says is an important way station on the way to a broader rethinking. If we deal more thoroughly with what photographs do, we have to address the issues around process rather than focus solely on the products.

  5. Bianca-Olivia Nita

    @Jim Johnson to think more of photography as technology and as a means to amplify our capacity to see and imagine we need first to understand how we see and imagine. And that brings us precisely to the question of what photographs do, because how we see and imagine is directly related to that.
    One thing I agree with is that there isn’t any change in the conversation. I read the title and I was excited for something new.
    My opinion is that these discussions go in circles and ideas get reformulated but we end up in the same place, with people discussing the same things, eventually going back to Susan Sontag.
    The effects of photography are under researched and so are the effects of framing.
    Framing brings me to this quote from the article: “It’s not the individual photograph, it’s what you do with it, and who you engage with it, that makes it powerful.” Who is the ‘you’ here? you the photographer, you the ones who talk about these things or you the larger public, the one that we actually don’t know for sure how it engages with the photo? I’m sorry but a Like on facebook is not my idea of engagement.
    I think that people tend to have categories for the images they see. That makes it easier to process and select. Now associating images with certain causes/organizations/etc can be double sided. I read this quote: “Tackling systemic issues—such as corruption and discrimination—is complex work that involves multiple actors and years of organizing, advocacy, or litigation. We believe that photographers can be more effective when connecting to those who are already working towards change in an ongoing way.” I think that this can be true if people are already actively engaged with an issue. But what if they’re not? associating images, already relatively easy to put in a mind category, with an explicit cause can bring the opposite of engagement. It can automatically ring the bell of ”donations, asking for money’ if it’s an NGO, and the ‘I’ve seen this before, let me go back to my life’ bell. There’s research into how people can become more skeptical if they ‘suspect’ that what they see is actually intentionally framed in a certain way. And I do believe in the compassion fatigue Susan Sontag was talking about.
    I think we do need something new. I cannot figure out what yet.

  6. David Campbell

    @Bianca-Olivia Nita Lots to disagree with in your comment. The early indications of a new conversation charted here – beginning with an emphasis on effect and function, and shifting to a concern with process rather than product – are moving far from Sontag’s many claims.

    Sontag by the way, changed her view on “compassion fatigue,” something I think is demonstrably a myth as commonly presented, a I’ve argued here: Sontag rescinded her earlier pro-fatigue belief in her 2003 book, and I think that demonstrates Sontag is a good essayist but not a good theorist of the image.

    The quote you draw attention to from the OSI documentary photography statement refers to the way in which photographers who wish to work on social issues can collaborate to bring about change. It’s a counter to the view that making images alone can start change. And that is what Marcus Bleasdale is talking about when asks what do we (in his case, image makers) do with an image in alliance with others working for change. So I’m not all clear why you reduce Marcus’s thoughtful reflection to a Like on Facebook.

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