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Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Fear, Photography and ICVL

In Politicians want us to be fearful, John Bargh talks about how fear is used as a tool of control. It helps creates social, economic, racial and sexual injustice, both at a conscious and an unconscious level.

Bargh talks about how effective this unconscious communication is, that it infests our lives through images and ideas in popular culture and beyond. He talks about racism in US TV shows and how it is unconsciously manifested in even supposedly liberal broadcasts, and he talks about how gender bias is slammed on us from every corner. He talks about how the dominant culture message can overcome the personal message using an example of Asian-American girls who are convinced they can't do maths because they are girls.

“These Asian-American girls are not hearing at home that girls can’t do maths,” Bargh points out. “These are Harvard preschool kids; the parents are, like, tiger mums and dads. A lot of them brought the children into the study thinking that being in this Harvard study at age five would help their girl get into Harvard at age 18: that’s how motivated they are. They’re not the ones who are telling the girls they can’t do maths. It’s in the culture we soak up, without even knowing it.”

A lot of this negative bias comes from visual culture. You can see it everywhere from your toyshop to the children's department store, to the avatars selected for online games. It is absolutely all around us. I think we need to be aware of exactly how culture works, how images operate, and how they affect us at that subliminal level. We need to be our own adbusters in other words.

People in photography sometimes have the conceit that we are not affected by images, that we are immune to their persuasion. I think this is one of the most visually illiterate and most dangerous conceits that we can have.

I remember seeing Joachim Schmidt talk once and he had this great tagline that he's not going to make any more images until all the old ones are used up. I think there's something to be said for that in visual literacy. Until we start understanding the fundamentals of how images really work, on a basic everyday, functional level (which is not the same as the synthetic gallery/book/critical level), maybe we should ease up on creating a new languages. The danger being that you end up like Robert Capa, speaking lots of languages, all of them badly.

The other thing the article mentioned is that

'Conservatives have larger fear centres of the brain. They’re more concerned with physical safety than liberals. Once we feel afraid, our own fear can further distort our perception of actual danger. For example, research has found that when people become new parents of a tiny, vulnerable baby, they begin to believe their local crime rate is going up, even if it is falling. “That happened to me,” Bargh admits. “After my daughter was born, suddenly we felt that the neighbourhood was getting so dangerous that we had to leave.”'

I can empathise with that idea. There's a section in my book All Quiet on the Home Front dealing with that. I saw death all around. First of all the domestic space became a source of danger, so much so that I dreamt about death. And then as your child's environment widens, the rest of the world becomes a source of danger; the supermarket, the park, the streets. And people become a danger.

So part of being a parent is managing that danger, both for yourself and for your child. It's a kind of slow exposure to danger - physical danger in the form of the natural world, but also the threats posed by the kind of negative bias that Bargh mentions above. Being a parent, to a girl in particular, is about making your child visually literate, making the institutionalised misogyny of the visual world apparent to them.

Linked to that is the issue of managing fear and understanding fear. The point Bargh makes about fear relates to a low level background hum of fear, an anxiety almost. Here in the UK, we live in an age of anxiety. That's what this millenium is, the Age of Anxiety. And it's numbing and soul destroying.

I have often wondered on this blog if photography doesn't live in a perpetual age of anxiety. There is a sense of fear in photography, and even when people like myself say we shouldn't live in fear, there seems to be an underlying tone that is judgemental and limiting.

The challenge is how to recognise that fear and make work without fear. There are all kinds of fear; fear of ridicule, fear of not being cool, fear of being called unethical, fear of being too emotional, fear of being scolded. The last one is a big one. Photography can be very scoldy.

Because of all these fears you have a state where people are afraid to make work, are limited in what they can  make. You can feel it all the time, you can see it all the time in people shifting away from their vision, their idea of what really matters to put themselves in line with the world-view of their photographer mentors and peers.

 My blog is 10 years old this week and I'll be doing a random best-of list later in the week, but there is one thing I will mention here instead because it connects and it fits better here.

                            Image from The Great Bazaar by Alejandro Acin

It's meeting Alejandro Acin,  publishing my book All Quiet on the Home Front and hanging out with the super-talented people connected to IC Visual Labs at their HQ and othe venues in Bristol. All Quiet on the Home Front is quite an emotional book (at Gazebook Sicily in September I had a group of Italian friends expressing disbelief that an Englishman with a German mother could make such a book) and in a strange way did require an overcoming of fear.

And that is what IC Visual Labs is all about. Every time I go there, I see people who are all being fearless in some way, and making fantastic work because of it. When they make their work, they simply don't care about what other people say and that is what makes their work so good. It's not easy. There is a huge amount of pressure on them to do things in a certain way, to limit the political or the personal or the emotional or the creative elements. But in that environment at IC Visual Labs, there is a certain freedom of creative thought and freedom of creative expression, and a pleasure in that freedom, that you do not get easily elsewhere. And that is why Mr Acin and everybody involved in IC Visual Labs, you're top of my 10 years of the blog best-of list, the rest of which is to come on Thursday.

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