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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Photographic Caste System

In the previous post, Barbara de Genevieve cut through the rhetoric of ethics and identity politics to make a non-puritanical claim for the scope of photographic representation. I think her main goal was really to strip away the power of a particular way of thinking - a way of thinking that idealises marginal or minority groups through language and then marginalises them some more through arbitrary rules that place the rule makers at the top of a hierarchy and the subjects of those rules some way below.

That's a good thing to break into little pieces. It's the idea that the photographer (and the world of which he or much less often she - 86% of World Press submitting Photographers were men, 14% were women - is part) is somehow all-seeing, all-knowing, the only one aware of the power of photography and the way in which it can objectify and humiliate. The photographer is investing too much of the old magic stuff in the power of the image. We pretend we are rational but really believe that the photograph captures souls in some way.

There are questions of how they various groups should be represented, how they can be represented but all too often these get lost in a miasma of auto-response phraseology. This phraseology and way of thinking is more about continuing some strange representational Caste System in which the poor and afflicted are - guess what - the poor and afflicted. They're bottom of the caste system. They are the visually untouchable.

And tied in to that untouchability are all kinds of neuroses, especially those that involve a hatred for the body and its functions in all its organic forms. So de Genevieve is really questioning some of those neuroses  and wondering whether the theoretical body-hating part of photography isn't really more to do with simple body-hating. It's disgust dressed up as ideas. But I might be projecting there.

So let's say de Genevieve is shaking all that way of thinking up.

Possibly in the same way, that's the idea behind The Archive of Modern Conflict. Certainly if you watch this video of Timothy Prus (he runs the archive), you will hear him talk about how the archive is about redefining what photography is or can be. In other words, it's changing the history of photography.

So maybe the Archive of Modern Conflict is moving what photography is about away from the gatekeepers in academia, in the media, in the advertising industry? So perhaps the taste for all things archival is a kind of reshaping of photographic identity, a reordering of our visual priorities.

Or perhaps not. There's a point in the film where (if I remember rightly and there's a good chance that I don't) Prus tells us that his uncle was the Minister of Windmills in Poland and that he has 17 books of his uncle opening Polish windmills. Which I'm sure is true, and I hope it is true, but there's a small part inside of me that says no that isn't true in any sense whatsoever.

I'm not sure that it matters in any case. Photography of all kinds is about stories and the idea that there is such a thing as a Minister of Windmills is quite delightful and makes a welcome change from the more conventional and sinister Ministers of Information, Security and Education.

So this idea is a loosening up, it's the idea that there's more than one perspective and that more than one type of image has value. It's also connected to the slightly impractical idea of photography as something aloof from economic necessity. So it's not about serious news photographers pimping themself out to the press, or art photographers pimping themselves out to the art world or fashion photographers pimping themselves out to misogynist frock designers or social photographers trying to make a living making beautiful images of couples on their wedding day.

It's about more than that. It's about how we make, use and see photography on a daily basis. And that is something that is still ignored and by ignoring it we have devalued sophisticated photography. Photography is given away for free, it's used to idealise and mythologise, to elevate and uphold entire industries. Music and fashion and news are powered by images, they couldn't really exist without photography yet what really do they give back? How do they pay for it? The little bits that we here so much about, but most of it they get for free.

I think by examining how the visual mythologies of the world are created and upheld, a more rounded view of photographic history will help explore exactly how photography works. And that will create a larger demand for more sophisticated and powerful photography. And there are people who are very obviously and clearly doing this already. What the comeuppance of a more sophisticated photography is is another question. And the answer to that question might not be good.

But then again, it might be very good. Here's a video Letizia Battaglia and her work on the mafia among other things. Thanks Simone for the link.

And here is her show at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, on until 4th May.

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