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Thursday, 6 March 2014

Photographs as Decoration for our Conscience

I read this article in the Guardian by Jonathan Jones and got rather confused. This is the headline.

A shocking image of Syria's brutal war – a war that will continue regardless

Even the most horrific photos are not able to prevent wars happening, they remain decoration for our conscience... 
Well, there are a number of assumptions being made here; that photographs do make us act, that if they don't make us act they are somehow culpable, and that by not making us act they become flippant additions to our conscience. 
I think Jones is rather mistaken on all these things. He's placing the weight of the world on photography and photographers. Photography is about more than just making us act. Images such as the one featured above involve news, reaction, evidence, emotion, history, empathy and a sense of humanity. It ties into a historical  geology of images in which similar scenes are remembered/imagined or relived. 
Does it make us act? Not really? But why would you weigh photography down with that responsibility. Why not put that weight on the written word? Has the Guardian made us act on Syria? Has Jonathan Jones made us act on Syria? Has anything made us act on Syria and if it did what would that action be? Is anything so black and white that it can be solved by a two dimensional print of 1/125th of a second, however finely composed or filled with evocative faces?
It seems odd that Jones, who is a writer, should be placing that weight on photography when it is clearly the responsibility of writers and newspapers to make us act. They have a great heritage in the UK of doing so. Think of Harold Evans and the thalidomide campaign. Think of the Daily Mail and all it has done to engender hostility to minorities in the UK - acting isn't necessarily a good thing. 
Jones gets even more confusing when he says
This is a great photograph – and it wants the world to act
It's a photograph! It's inanimate even in its digitised form. It may be weaving
its way across the internet but it doesn't have a mind, a soul or a will of its
own. it doesn't act, it doesn't perform, it doesn't do anything.

So who does the doing. Photographers do the doing. They snap the pictures
and do the doing. As Jones says,

Where there are wars there are heroes with cameras

Heroes with cameras? Photographers are not heroes! There are some who
think they are, but they are sadly mistaken. They make for good stories
and I, for one, am interested in the photographer narrative, the stories
they tell, the way they connect history into images and enrich it in the process,
but heroes? No.

The sad thing is I do feel some sympathy for Jones. I get the feeling that he
wishes pictures did make people act, did evoke feelings that went beyond
sympathy, pity or indifference. Maybe pictures do that sometimes? Maybe?
I really don't know. I'm a bit like Jones really. I wish they did, but sadly
they don't.


Stan B. said...

Sounds like he's starting to come to grips with what many of us have long realized.

Yeah, I wish otherwise too...

PS- How much does he get paid?

MM Jones said...

Did photographs have a different power, were they able to create a stronger reaction, in the pre-digital age before images were so common, before photography was so ubiquitous?

colin pantall said...

Good question MMJ - I think photographs have still have a strong power now. I think we either imagine that we remember a different era when we were all swayed into action by photographs - but it's a false memory. Photographs have power, they don't really make us act. No, that's absolute rubbish. Of course photographs make us act, on a daily basis, just not in the way that most people think. Photography has been ubiquitous for a long time, that's also worth remembering...

That's it Stan - been there done that I think. I don't know how much he gets paid but he writes these kind of reactionary articles - don't we all - so that's his thing I guess.

Stan B. said...

Photographs did have considerably more power at one time... There is no doubt whatsoever that Eddie Adams' execution photo, Nick Ut's "napalm girl" photo, and the photos of the My Lai slaughter had a tremendous effect on the American psyche- very much helping turn the tide of opinion on that insanity of a war. The photo documentation of the American Civil Rights movement, from the photo of Emmit Till on down also helped convince the entire world of the violence and injustice perpetrated on Americans of color. These are the "easy," often cited examples, and curiously enough, they all have to do with violence. I think a major reason why these photos no longer shock, or even sway, is because of the explicitly graphic violence which became so popular in movies (particularly "slasher" flicks) in the latter seventies, not to mention all the subsequent war/conflict journalism since. Still, it was very much on the minds of the American military with their embed policy. The Abu Ghraib prison photos were the noticeable exception- they were raw, dramatic and the rarest, most unique images to come out of that war; and again they shocked our sense of who we were and what we were allowing to happen.

Apart from depictions of violence however, it would be interesting to note how other types and genres of photography have become less potent through the ages (advertising?). There is no denying however that the sheer volume and ubiquity of the photographic image has dulled our appreciation, our ability to empathize and be transformed by the power of an image despite all the recent technological advances that try to enhance and compensate.

Regardless, photography will no doubt soldier on, as has painting, the written word, etc, etc...