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Thursday, 17 January 2013

Are you Responsible for What you Photograph?

picture by Dr Hans Killian

Following on from Jeannette Winterson's fabulous book, Why be Happy when you can be Normal?, I wondered at how one's sympathies can change so much based on the way people talk about their work. In Winterson's case, when she writes about herself, the open and very direct honesty transformed what I had previously thought of her. And not only me. I found myself exactly the same thing happening with other people who had read the book. A slightly annoying woman was turned, through a mix of honesty, openness and humour, into a complex character who we suddenly liked and admired.

Winterson mixed up wit and modesty into her biography to transform it from what might have been a run-of-the-mill misery memoir. She mixed up ways of writing to come up with something that was neither self-pitying, nor distant.

There was a writer (Bill Nicholson perhaps?) who wrote about the different discourses that different genres of film have and how that influences the way you write and the way the work is regarded.

So if you write about musicals, then you write with a discourse of entertainment - you can be entertained, you are allowed to bring pleasure and vibrancy into your discourse.

Write about documentary, and the discourse is one of sobriety. Forget about the entertainment side of things, drop the vibrancy and the passion, now you have to be serious and sober. It's the same with photography, but there are added complications - the photographer bears responsibility for what is being photographed, so the discourse of Concern is added, as is the Burden of Responsibility.

You can read all about that kind of perspective here, in Brad Feurhelm's denunciation of  Mishka Henner's No Man's Land Deutsche Borse nominated project: 

"Not only is it derivative," says Feurhelm, "but the project completes a vicious circle of unpleasant attitudes of human currency and a new attempt to denigrate women to that of commerce even further."

The posting got a lot of comments on Facebook (most from Feurhelm), but it seems that by grabbing something from unsavoury punters' sites (something that's already online in a far, far more unsavoury setting that is directyly related to prostitution, voyeurism and a historical tradition of advertising and reviews of services offered by prostitutes), reinterpreting in a gallery setting with film and birdsong (and that is what he got the Deutsche Borse nomination for), Henner becomes responsible for what he is showing. But he's not. Just as a picture doesn't capture a soul, so taking a picture doesn't make you responsible for what you show. Henner is not a sex trafficker or pimp because of his pictures. I don't think he's the right target. There is a bit of a category mistake going on which elevates photographers into visionaries who make what they photograph be. If only it were so, but alas it's not.

Make a film or write a book and you don't get half the grief a photographer gets (I'm making a blind assumption there - let me know if I'm mistaken). Take a few prying pictures of virtually anything and, if you operate in that particularly Concerned world that overlaps with documentary, grief will beckon. Operate in the art of fashion world and every anorexic 16-year-old girl is your oyster and you rationalise any concerns away by saying that's the way things operate in the fashion world - it's about sex and beauty, so everything's fair game. Jimmy Saville eat your heart out.

This emphasis on ethics and being beetle-browed concerned at all times is important, but it is also incredibly tiresome and a huge barrier that prevents people from making new work. Why make new work when you have to spend half your life justifying it to people with cats' assholes where their mouths should be. Disapproval is a terrible thing. Such a terrible thing that not only does it limit the way you can work, it also limits the audience for that work. Who wants to get interested in a form of photography where furrowed brows and Witchfinder-like denunciations are a major form of discourse.


Stan B. said...

Don't know about the film analogy, I think a lot of famous film makers get a lot of grief when they make a bomb- and it's often fast and furious from public, critics and business alike. On the other hand, quite a few famous photographers get pretty much a free ride after they hit the big time, almost as if critics are afraid to criticize them for fear that they themselves will be ostracized for not being able to appreciate their ever metamorphosing genius.

I think it's important to call some of these guys out at times- especially when those on top, fail to do so. Artists should be able to explain and defend their work, critics should be able to explain and defend their criticism (and not just talk shit). I don't think it'll stop anyone from doing what they want to do- but it may make both sides more responsible for what they're doing.

colin pantall said...

You're right. They get critical grief for making a bomb - and they deserve it. They get grief in a way photographers don't, but the process is so different. I know what you mean about free ride though - I can think of a whole load of those, but that generally is in non-documentary areas. There is still that discourse of sobriety I mentioned in documentary/photojournalism that hold photographers responsible not just for the way that they show something, but also what they show.