Monday, 23 March 2009

How Not to Photograph: Never Mind That

picture: Colin Pantall - Enjoying the Views at the Harold Shipman Memorial Gardens


Never Mind That is where the photographer has examined their subject in great depth, but has completely ignored the massive elephant in the room that comes to mind whenever we think of the subject. Embedded photojournalism, propaganda, public relations, the BBC News at Six and travel photography are all examples of this, and so is documentary photography which, as often as not, is a variation on one of the above, though don't say that in mixed company because obvious though it is (you travel, you photograph = travel photography) it's not polite.

Obvious examples of Never-Minding-That include politically motivated depictions of a country where the photographer becomes a mini-Riefenstahl or Rodchenko, capturing the dignity and honesty and smiles of a place in a myriad different ways, but missing out on the oppression and coercion and corruption that is going on just out of shot. It's a bit like writing about Josef Fritzl and his love of scrabble and the Paso Doble, then missing out all the horror bits because that's been done to death already and it's time we heard about his good side and he's just a regular bloke, except that he's not. Or writing about North Korea and talking about the happy Koreans singing while they voted, but not mentioning some of the other bits (which can get you into all sorts of trouble and deservedly so).

One excuse is the photographer is showing how normal life continues amidst the control/fear/terror. Sometimes that might be enlightening with the 'normality' (as with Henryk Ross's Lodz Ghetto) reinforcing the horror, but most of the time it is not. Here the absence of the nasty stuff or the real story is not remotely accidental, and the cumulative effect of constant incidental depictions of normal life at the expense of what's happening underneath the rocks amounts to a Public Relations triumph for the wherever's Ministry of Information.

All kinds of photography are guilty of this, it's part of the disposability of the image and the assumption that it doesn't really matter too much if we don't take responsibility for the pictures we make and where they lie in the greater visual discourse.

We're all guilty of this, but at the same time, lighten up. I mean, come on, how great is China with its skyscrapers and streaming rivers of nightlit highways, how exotic is India with its sadhus and its spices, how amazing is Afghanistan with its deserts and often uncanny lack of people, and how traditional and great is England with its seaside colour and cricket and warm beer and George Orwell. Except it's not. But never mind that!

4 comments:

Mark Page said...

Another top post, and oh so true. My favourite so far from this series.......

Stan B. said...

Ya don't have to travel far for this one...

colin pantall said...

Hi Mark and Stan - right in your face most every day, no matter where you are.

Problem is the opposite of Never Mind That is Do Mind That which is even worse. Or is it, I'm twisting myself into curly wurlies on this one.

Stan B. said...

Potentially detrimental to one's own health...

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