photography politics

Being social: photography and engagement today

What does it mean for photographers to be socially engaged?

That was the question posed at the North East Photography Network’s symposium on “Socially Engaged Practices” last Friday. In this region we are fortunate to have an active photographic community interested in these issues, and this symposium attracted about forty people for a day of great discussion.

Social engagement raises all sorts of issues about what counts as the social and what constitutes engagement. One of the problems with the question is that it can sometimes frame the problem in a way that seems unmanageable. If we think about having to engage ‘the public’ we find ourselves at a macro level where influence seems difficult to achieve.

The question can also give the impression that ‘social engagement’ is something to come, something in the future, yet to be achieved. But what was striking about the work presented by many of the symposium speakers is that social engagement is something already achieved daily by a number of talented photographers.

We heard, for example, from Michelle Sank about her work with teenage mothers and transgender patients. Anthony Luvera showed his practice of “assisted self portraits” in which he guides people in making their own images, and Craig Ames presented his work with veterans as part of an overall project offering an alternative representation of conflict.

In all these cases visual practice was welcomed and adopted by subjects who were collaborators in the image making process. Their participation was an essential moment of social engagement, but it also demonstrated how important visual enactment and representation is to communities.

This is more than just people using photography to be socially engaged. It is about the way the visual is a precondition of being social. If we reposition our understanding along those lines then social engagement is no longer something to come. It is something always already with us, and something embraced by photographers and subjects alike.

The symposium concluded with Bas Vroege of Paradox talking about the great work they do using multiple channels and platforms to get important stories out. Paradox was the publisher of Kadir van Lohuizen’s Via Pan Am app, which, requiring a budget of some €350,000, is beyond the realm of most. However, he made one very interesting observation about the economics of an app like Via Pan Am – it gave the project a credibility and presence that attracted attention from media companies and lead to sales in other ways.

Bas Vroege’s presentation was notable for its positive embrace of the new opportunities in publishing, both digital and analogue. He emphasised the way practitioners can now take control of their own message, and reminded us that social engagement is not possible without deploying as many channels of information as possible. With the work presented throughout the day, this was a symposium that moved beyond a lament for a lost past to an appreciation of what is actually happening now in photography that is unavoidably socially engaged.

Photo: Chris McCabe, preparing assisted self portrait, Glenmona, Andersontown. Copyright Anthony Luvera. From his book ‘Residency’, published by Belfast Exposed, 2011.