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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Gazebook Sicily: There is no room for ambiguity.

It was lovely to see All Quiet on the Home Front in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday. It was even nicer seeing it from the comfort of the beach at Punta Secca, Sicily.

I was there as part of the Gazebook Sicily festival to talk about All Quiet on the Home Front and lead a symposium on Photography, Politics and Change with super brilliant people Natasha Christia, Mathieu Asselin and Marco Paltrinieri.

The talk took place in the garden of the lighthouse. That's it below before the talk began. We were basically in a forest, with beetles crawling on the floor, with palm trees and fleckled light and dried leaves under our feet.

One of the most interesting things about the talk was the way in which we are all interested in the frameworks of photography, in how genre and media shape your understanding of an image, and how they affect the cultural and social capital of the image and the fabrications of which it is part.

Another interesting element was the spectrum of ambiguity, with most people embracing the ambiguity of the image. This ranged from Jason Fulford's outright embracing of the ambiguity of the image (and William Empson's 7 types of ambiguity got a name check in his talk) with its associated stripping of meaning and value to Mathieu Asselin's statement that "There is no room for ambiguity."

So who's right?

Asselin is the author of the fantastic Monsanto and I do find it refreshing that somebody is making a book that is saying 'This is Wrong and This is Bad' - because it is. We are so used to hedging our bets and dealing in obscurities and irrelevances that sometimes we miss the fact that we are not actually communicating anything, that our obsession with semiotic micro-details can make our visual utterances meaningless and self-indulgent.

It would get pretty tiresome if everybody made books like Monsanto, but Asselin has done the work, and he has the stories and the research and the images to back it up. And he looks like Jesus, so that helps. Anyway, more on that later.

While waiting for the symposium to start, we chatted with the interpreter, Silvia Pallottino (she's on the left). She has interpreted world leaders and witnessed the decline of the English language, she told us about interpreting for a 15-day conference on Mariology at the Vatican (it's the study of Mother Mary), and she told us about language, power and the interpreter as an apparently neutral zone. It was completely fascinating and we had planned to turn the symposium round to an interview with Silvia on translation, meaning and power. But that didn't happen. We did want it to though.

The interpreter is essentially an intermediary receptacle through whom discourse takes on a temporary, emphemeral meaning that has it's own flexible dynamic. Interpreters are deliberately used as a filter, both to evade responsibility for ill-prepared and thought-out words, but also for the times when the words that are being uttered don't actually have any meaning. And of course the difficulty is at times there is ambiguity which must be conveyed. Ambiguity with a cultural, tonal, or even physical feel. And at others there is no room for ambiguity. And all of that was conveyed. Silvia's translation (and that's why it's interpreter and not translator) wasn't just a linguistic affair, it was at times also physical and emotional and I imagine that is even more the case at political events. This is just one interpreter in one setting. Different interpreters will have different imperatives depending on where and who they are interpreting for.

All of which ties in to photography and the way in which we transmit ideas, meaning, and create a story. We all work in interpretation in other words, and the meanings are not just visual, but also linguistic (and Jason Fulford talked about this with his touching on textual analysis), cultural, generic and emotional. It's a lot to think about and it's tremendously difficult. We can never get everything right and that is something we should never forget.

Oh, I almost forgot!

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