Categories
photography

The difficulty of talking about photography

What is photography?

One of my favourite books is Mishka Henner’s Photography Is. Not a single image and 3,000 disparate statements torn from writing that attempt to define the field.

Of course, definitions are difficult things. Nietzsche had it right when he said, “all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated defy definition; only something which has no history can be defined.” As photography has a complex and varied history, definition seems unattainable.

I’m coming to doubt the usefulness of both the question ‘what is photography’, and writing that presumes the unity of a field as it investigates its problems. Indeed, in recent times – especially after speaking at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, an academic conference in Toronto, and running the first World Press Photo multimedia seminar in Amsterdam – I’ve been personally struck by the difficulty of even talking about photography generally. To use the term as an all-encompassing concept seems pretty much impossible.

After all, what, if anything, connects stock photography, fashion photography, art photography, news photography, conceptual photography, documentary photography, amateur photography, forensic photography, vernacular photography, travel photography, or whatever sort of photography?

That’s not to suggest there isn’t a lot of good writing about this thing variously called photography. As I catch up with material filed away while travelling, I’ve benefited greatly from Michael Shaw’s three part analysis of the state of the news photo, and John Edwin Mason’s critique of claims about the “tsunami of vernacular photographs.”

What connects such analysis is that they don’t focus on the alleged essence of photography, what it is. They deal with its function and its effects.

To do that we will all have to make clear our own assumptions about the particular functions or effects we want to investigate. As Mason observes, “photography is one of the most complex phenomena of the modern world.” That may be the only simple, singular statement we can make about it.

So rather than ask what photography is, perhaps we should probe what it does, how it does it, and who does or does not want it to work in particular ways.

References: 

1. Friedrich Nietzsce, On the Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 53. Thanks to Ian Douglas and others for reminding me of the source.

2. Shaw’s analysis might be seen as an important extension and update of Stuart Hall’s important essay “The determinations of news photographs,” in The Manufacture of News, edited by Stanley Cohen and Jock Young (Sage Publications, revised edition, 1981).

Categories
photography politics

Who’s afraid of home? Photojournalism’s foreign fixation

The US presidential election began this week. Although polling day is still 18 months away, yesterdays Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire marks the start of the race.

As ever, the economy, jobs, healthcare and education will be key issues, with more people worried about these than war. In Britain, along with immigration and multiculturalism, the picture is pretty much the same, which is not surprising given we face an ideological government savaging public services.

Which got me wondering – what does photojournalism contribute to these debates? Beyond the daily campaign picture and stock political portrait, what stories are we seeing from photojournalists and documentary photographers that engage these issues? My sense is not much, and certainly not enough.

Photojournalism has long been fixated on the foreign. Check out the web sites of major agencies like Magnum, VII, Panos and Noor and you will see that in the featured stories domestic concerns are a minority interest (though LUCEO is perhaps an exception to this). I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the ‘Features and essays’ in Mikko Takkunen’s excellent Photojournalism Links, and over the last month foreign stories outnumber domestic ones by a ratio of 3:1. All this confirms Stephen Mayes 2009 statement that photojournalism is now more romantic – meaning “heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized” – than functional, and supports Asim Rafiqui’s claim that we face a “strange silence of the conscience” whereby the “hollowing out” of our societies is under-recorded.

Of course, all generalizations are dangerous (even this one). What counts as ‘home’ is linked in part to personal identity, so, given the preponderance of American and European photographers in the industry, I’m thinking of the minority world as ‘home’ and the majority world as ‘foreign’.

It is also the case that in a globalized and interdependent world, the distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ is far from clear-cut. Many stories cut across borders. Even war is not something that occurs only beyond the water’s edge. When Nina Berman, Edmund Clark and Ashley Gilbertson show the impact of conflict on the home front, it is not easy to locate their work on one side or other of the international boundary.

There are also a number photographers working in domestic space on social issues. Recent examples from the UK include Liz Hingley’s ‘Under Gods’, Liz Lock and Mishka Henner’s Borderland and Hinterland, George Georgiou’s Curry and Chips, my multimedia partner Peter Fryer’s work in South Shields, and of course Amber/Side’s long history of documenting the north east of England. On emphas.is (although still a minority) the recent US-based projects of Matt Eich, Aaron Huey and Justin Maxton would count as domestic. The ongoing projects of Anthony Suau and Matt Black (highlighted by Asim Rafiqui) are impressive, and no doubt readers can (and should) add others.

And yet so much more is needed. It’s best illustrated by one of my all-time favourite multimedia pieces, Evan Vucci’s 2009 story “Faces of the Uninsured.” It tells the story of working Americans who cannot afford health care and must travel long distances to access the services of Remote Area Medical, an NGO that once focused on aid to “the Third World” but now concentrates on the US (17 of their 21 missions in 2011 are in America). Vucci’s story is an under-stated but shocking presentation of a domestic issue.

Given that the Republicans scorn Obama’s modest health care reforms as ‘socialism’ there is ample reason for a humanist tradition of photography to engage this issue alone. Initiatives like Facing Change: Documenting America and American Poverty.org show promising signs of movement on other related concerns. I’m not suggesting people walk away from the important international stories. But surely there are more than enough visual storytellers for many lenses to be turned towards home.

Photo credit: A discarded kitchen appliances sits in one of many fields surrounding the Hattersley Estate. Copyright Liz Lock & Mishka Henner, 2006.