Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877) I've started writing a series of posts on photography on World...
Sunday, 10 February 2019
Marc Garanger and the Power of the Gaze
image by Marc Garanger
There was a social media conversation last week about writing about photography and the right to check what somebody has written about you. The photographer was putting his case for the right to check what is written, but also that the writer conforms to the 'right' interpretation.
I can understand that in a way, especially when there are technical aspects to the work (as with this work by Liz Orton - I am not really an expert on clinical imaging) or it's of a sensitive nature.
All this makes for extra work for the writer of course, and very often that is essential to getting accuracy out. At times however, there are occasions when the writing or platform (as with this blog) is more incidental, when time and money pressures kick in and there simply isn't time to check everything.
I have worked in circumstances where photographers have checked what is written and it is nearly always beneficial. On occasions though, it is a case where they want something rephrased, or they say something interesting and challenging - and decide that actually they didn't say that and they would rather be less interesting and challenging. They blandify the writing or their thoughts (I had one photographer take out the phrase 'human rights violations' once because they thought it 'too dramatic').
And then there are times when photographers are simply are unwilling to acknowledge that the work is going out into the world and will be examined and spoken about in ways beyond their control in the same way as when a person has their picture taken, they never (even when they think they have) have control over where it will end up, be reproduced or be understood.
It's a lost opportunity. Writing about your own work opens it up to different forms of understanding. Having other people write about your work, interpret your work, make connections can be terrifying and wonderful opens it up to even more levels of understanding. It makes new links that go beyond photography, creates new relationships. In the best of worlds, it means you start to see new things in your own photographs. You don't get that if you want someone to regurgitate your particular version of events.
It also recognises that images are not pinned down, that they do not operate in closed circles, closed ways of seeing, That's why research matters in photography, why if you just say something is great without research or questioning then you are operating at a trivial level.
Letting others read meaning into your photographs also shows a certain humbleness. It moves photography away from the smoke and mirrors of contemporary practice in bookmaking, curating, exhibiting and places them into a wider context. It acknowledges there is more than one way of seeing and that time is a great leveller, that can open images up to ideas that go beyond the original function in which images are made.
There are gaps in photography, the meaning of an image is never fixed. Even photography made under the most difficult circumstances isn't fixed - it can be renewed, recontextualised, re-evaluated.
This gap is what Ariella Azoulay writes about in the Civil Contract of Photography, the idea that a photograph has its place in a world that exists beyond the moment in which the image is made, beyond the functions that endowed the image with a particular meaning. Sometimes the purpose of looking at photography is to undermine and question those particular meanings, to find new meanings and expand the world beyond what the photography was supposed to be.
You can see this in particular in Marc Garanger's images from Algeria. As Teju Cole so rightly points out, you hope that pictures aren't made in these circumstances again. You hope that those circumstances don't happen again, but of course they do happen, they are happening, they will happen.
Unfortunately pictures did get made in these circumstance serving particular functions for empire and war. But despite this, the life they attained when they went beyond the power structures of French colonial archives is an example of...
''...the multiplicity of memories and responses they generate, even outside of the specific moment of their production. As such, they can aid in mobilising what Michael Rothberg termed a ‘multidirectional memory’ — a type of memory that engages with parallel memory strands.'
The photographer did not have total control in other words, the considerable framing powers of the identity archive and those who press-ganged him into becoming a photographer in Algeria were not enough to bound how the images were seen (and indeed Garanger's sympathies may be evident in how the images are ultimately being seen).
What gives these images power is the women themselves. The gazes these women give are not just directed at Garanger and the failures of photography (both of which are relatively inconsequential in the scheme of things), they are directed at something much larger, the injustices of colonial rule, the brutal oppression of the French.
They are such powerful images and there is an agency there that is monumental. It was agency that was initially closed off. The making of the images was one where these women were non--people, flawed citizens made a statement with their eyes, with their expression. There is anger, confrontation, indignation, but also sadness, sorrow, and feat. Collectively, it provides a manifesto in some form, an emotional manifesto that is directed not just at Garanger-as-photographer (he returned to the village to interview and rephotograph the women) and the French military authorities responsible for making the work.
Tied in to that idea is the notion that the spectator is implicated in the work, they are not passive recipients of the image. Photography is not a controlled thing in other works, images are not controlled, they have gaps and can attain a life of their own. And the life that lies beyond the image is not in the hands of the photographer, or the archive, it goes beyond it. In that sense, photography is a redundant thing, it's the passive element in all this, the marginal recorder of things. It's not the thing, it's a symptom of the thing, if even that; maybe it's only a symptom of a symptom, who knows.