Documentary Projects

Finally we are asked to look at some documentary projects of OCA photography students and/or recent graduates.

Penny Watson (OCA) Not Our Time

Penny’s project has a universal appeal and I am reminded so much of my own mother who spent her last years in a nursing home as well. The work is poignant and very personal, reminding the viewer of the precious time we have/had with our loved ones.

Beth Aston (OCA) Behind the Scenes

Beth’s project involved a biographical account of herself during various stages of an illness, which was extremely brave in and of itself. She presents her work in an abstract format, never completely revealing her face, so maintaining anonymity. The black and white format emphasizes the abstraction, allowing the viewer to focus on form and shape, while providing his/her own narrative.

Harry Pearce (OCA) A Dozen Eggs

Harry Pearce’s work, A Dozen Eggs was presented in the form of a book, again a very personal body of work. It is really a form of homage to his mother who went to live in a nursing home and the work revolves around his siblings. The captions seem to be hand written by each sibling and offer a rather humourous insight into the life of such a large family. According to the course manual a series of essays were incorporated into the book, but there is no evidence of them on Pearce’s website.

Omar Camilleri (OCA) Feet

In contrast with the other project above, Camilleri’s project was part of a collaborative event between painter-artist, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci and Omar Camilleri who were brought together by Josephine Vassallo. Camilleri’s photos were displayed across Merchant Street in Valletta. The main thrust of the exhibition being all about the path between death-rebirth-birth. Camilleri’s work is in black & white which contributes to the poetic effect of the cycle of life that runs through his photos.

Briony Campbell (Photographer) The Dad Project

I have looked at Campbell’s The Dad Project during the Context and Narrative module, so I will confine my comments to some of her other work which I have not seen. Campbell’s Love in Translation project is also quite personal to her, originating from her feelings for a Zanzibari boy while on a teaching assignment in Zanzibar. Her work focuses on African-British couples living in East Africa and questions whether mixed race relationships “offer a short cut to assimilation” (Campbell, 2017), while also bringing up issues such as otherness, cultural expectations, and colonial heritage. Over the course of two years she photographed couples and their families in Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Jess & Addisu’s first roadtrip. Lake Langano, Ethiopia by Briony Campbell

Campbell has made a video of her work – the intro is available at: https://loveintranslation.net/videointro. In the intro the viewer is introduced to all the couples in the greater body of work. Each couple has their own section with a blurb that documents how they met, some have video snippets where the couples very honestly present some of the problems that they encounter in mixed race relationships. Campbell has tackled this project with a great deal of sensitivity. One can tell she has spent a lot of time with the couples and their families to gain their trust.

Tanya Ahmed (OCA) 100th Street

Ahmed’s project is also personal. 100th Street is where she lived. It is also where Bruce Davidson photographed so she approaches her project as a “rephotography project”. All the people she photographed were her neighbours and she collaborated with them as to where and how they wanted to be photographed. One gets the sense that this work is definintely from an insider’s perspective. Her assessment work was supplemented by a series of postcards sent to the assessment team with further photos. A very strong presentation. I do have to wonder though if she ever worried whether her postcards would go astray in the mail?

There is an overriding theme that I’m picking up on with all these photographers and that is that there is always some personal element to their work. I think this is something to be aware of when doing future projects, but I do think sometimes that the personal element is subconsciously present and we only become aware of it later.

Bibliography

Camilleri, O. (2010) Feet- Photographic Exhibition. At: https://omarcamilleri.com/2010/09/23/feet-photographic-exhibition/ (Accessed  09/03/2020).

Campbell, B. (2017) Love in Translation. At: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/love-in-translation/?overview (Accessed  09/03/2020).

Campbell, B. (2017) video intro — Love in Translation. At: https://loveintranslation.net/videointro (Accessed  09/03/2020).

Kuit, L. (2015) Exercise: The Dad Project vs Country Doctor. At: https://lyndakuitphotographycn.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/exercise-the-dad-project-vs-country-doctor/ (Accessed  09/03/2020).

Pearce, H. (2012) A Dozen Eggs. At: https://www.harrypearce.co.uk/photo_9905227.html#photos_id=9905227 (Accessed  09/03/2020).

Student Work Uncovered – Penny Watson (2012) Directed by Open College of the Arts. At: https://vimeo.com/35847432 (Accessed  08/03/2020).

Student Work Uncovered – Tanya Ahmed (2012) Directed by Arts, O.C. of the. At: https://vimeo.com/42467929 (Accessed  09/03/2020).

Tanya Ahmed: Living on 100th Street (2012) Directed by Open College of the Arts. At: https://vimeo.com/43594038 (Accessed  09/03/2020).

Watson, P. (2012) The Marmalade Cafe: Not Our Time. At: http://marmalade-cafe.blogspot.com/2012/02/not-our-time.html (Accessed  08/03/2020).

Research Point: Crowd Funding

I’ve always been rather skeptical about crowd funding, thinking that its an easy way to get money, but I suppose that, like all things, it rather depends on the scenario. After reading the Light Stalking article, it is clear that there is a lot of work that goes into funding a KickStarter project.

A lot of the marketing advice is straight forward and common sense – create your personal video (this is your main selling point), have realistic expectations regarding the financial goals, like any project plan have quantifiable goals throughout the project, target specific networks (or create them if you don’t have any), be creative with the rewards for the pledgees so that you don’t blow the budget, keep the momentum going by maintaining contact with all pledgees and networks.

The OCA article made mention of Pete Brook’s Prison Photography KickStarter campaign and it is obvious that he has made use of his vast photographic network in order to generate his rewards.

I’m not sure that I will use crowd funding in my work, but it is good to know it is there should the need arise.

Bibliography

Maentz, J. (2012) The 7 Essentials of Crowd-Funding Your Next Photography Project (and How We Funded Ours) | Light Stalking. At: https://www.lightstalking.com/crowd-fund-photography/ (Accessed  08/03/2020).

Open College of the Arts (2011) Crowd Funding | The Open College of the Arts. At: https://www.oca.ac.uk/weareoca/photography/crowd-funding/ (Accessed  08/03/2020).

 

Exercise: Kingsmead Eyes

Visit the web pages of the Kingsmead Eyes project (http://gideonmendel.com/kingsmead-eyes/) or http://www.kingsmeadeyesspeak.org/). Investigate the original 2009 project and the latest Kingsmead Eyes Speak project.

Write notes in your learning log about how the work is presented on the website, in particular the use of mixed media – stills, video and audio.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:107)

Gideon Mendel’s collaborative body of work made with the pupils of Kingsmead Community School in Hackney. The pupils represent a very diverse group and the aim of the project was to reflect the cultural diversity. Looking at Mendel’s website, I was immediately drawn in as I had some a similar project at the university where I used to work back in 2010 for a Peace Day event. I’d photographed eyes, mouths and left side/right side of students faces and a collage was made afterwards.

FDU Mouths by Lynda Kuit, 2010

The initial Kingsmead Eyes project in 2009 presented in video format begins with Mendel’s headshots of all the Class 5 students roaring by at breakneck speed to the sound of African drums in the background, building momentum (and sound) and then stops on a composite of all the photographs, moves on to the title, scrolls by a few more students and stops at an individual student who then proceeds to present his story, and photographs and then scrolls by more students stopping for the next story. Apart from the students narrating their stories, various other ‘school-type’ sound effects can also be heard in the background as well as students incorporating poetry into their narrations. (This is something that I need to investigate for my A5 – whether I’ll be able to have more than one effect running at the same time).  The video is about 15 min in length.

The subsequent project Kingsmead Eyes Speak (2011) follows a similar format beginning with composites of the children’s mouths, eyes and portraits fading away into the background. Each student again narrates his/her own story, but some video has been incorporated into each segment and I’m thinking that some of this was done by Mendel as the student features in the videos actually using the camera. The project website features the headshots of all the students, where one can click through to their individual pictures and their poems. I found it extremely interesting to read some of the captions. The photographer’s intent clearly stated in many of the captions. There is also a poetry book that can be downloaded, which features the poems which the students narrated during the video. The website also features a link to the parents workshop and their photographs, all centred around diversity as well, as well as a link to the 2009 project. The whole process is also documented on the website (Mendel, 2011a) from the photography lessons the children had from Mendel and his partner, to their field trips and their take-home projects in Week 1, to their editing process in Week 2, as well as the poetry initiative.

I think these initiatives are really a creative way to encourage ethical photography and a wonderful way to bring about social awareness into various issues that happen in communities.

 

Bibliography

Mendel, G. (2009) Kingsmead Eyes 2009 | Kingsmead Eyes Speak. At: http://www.kingsmeadeyesspeak.org/kingsmeadeyes/ (Accessed  08/03/2020).

Mendel, G. (2011a) About | Kingsmead Eyes Speak. At: http://www.kingsmeadeyesspeak.org/about/ (Accessed  08/03/2020).

Mendel, G. (2011b) Kingsmead Eyes Speak. At: http://www.kingsmeadeyesspeak.org/ (Accessed  08/03/2020).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Documentary – Fact & Fiction | Photography 2 Course Manual. (PH5DFF120419) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

 

Research Point: Photovoice

We are asked to research the current activities of Photovoice, check out some of their archival projects, such as New Londoners: Reflections on home.

Photovoice’s mission statement is “… to promote the ethical use of photography for positive social change, through delivering innovative participatory photography projects. By working in partnership with organisations, communities, and individuals worldwide, we will build the skills and capacity of underrepresented or at-risk communities, creating new tools of self-advocacy and communication” (About PhotoVoice – Ethical photography for social change | PhotoVoice, s.d.).

Photovoice works internationally and the main thrust to to enable local communities to represent themselves and to tell their own stories. Working with various charities, NGOs and community organisations, Photovoice helps design projects specific to the individual community’s needs or issues, and helps that community promote the project. Taking the community’s feedback into consideration this then provides organisations to provide new resources, training or workshops in order to address the issues.

The New Londoners: Reflections on Home project was done in 2006 – 2008. In this participatory project PhotoVoice worked with 15 young refugees aged 16 – 23 with the aim of helping them to assimilate, to see themselves as “new Londoners” and not as refugees. The participants were mentored by Adam Broomberg, Oliver Charain, Gayle Chong Kwan, Suki Dhanda, Jillian Edelstein, Jenny Matthews, Sarah Moon and Othello De’Souza Hartley. They were given the brief of documenting what it was like to be a “new Londoner”.  The project was presented in book format at the Tate Modern.

CAFOD Wash Project, Zimbabwe 2013-2015 by PhotoVoice

Each PhotoVoice project has specific aims and outcomes. In the CAFOD Wash Project (Zimbabwe) was a project designed to teach people correct water sanitation methods and how to avoid water-borne diseases. The aims were to a) inform progress – examining and evaluating the community’s current practices, b) chart progress – build a body of work that documents the changes in the community’s practices, c) increase beneficiary engagement – an educational opportunity to better inform the communities and to get more direct involvement from them, d) supporter engagement – to create a body of work that shows the problems and successes of the WASH programme in order to promote it among other communities. The project outputs revealed some previously thought obsolete practices taking place among the community. The thrust of the campaign was aimed at the women in the community as they are regarded as the educators.

We are also asked to comment on the documentary value and visual qualities of the work. I think that the documentary quality of the work is quite high. It comes across as honest and definitely from an insider’s perspective. There is an air of innocence about the work and I get the feeling that the participant is trying to be very factual about what he/she is recording, not trying to skew the story by selective framing. I found that the visual quality in some of the photos were rather good. Clearly there had been some instruction as to visual composition, but even the few that I did see that were blurry, or not tack sharp did not detract from the overall message. If anything, I think those “mistakes” probably enhance the projects.

Bibliography

About PhotoVoice – Ethical photography for social change | PhotoVoice (s.d.) At: https://photovoice.org/about-us/ (Accessed  08/03/2020).

PhotoVoice (2006) New Londoners – Ethical photography for social change. At: https://photovoice.org/new-londoners/ (Accessed  08/03/2020).

PhotoVoice (2015) CAFOD Wash Project – Ethical photography for social change. At: https://photovoice.org/cafod-wash-project/ (Accessed  08/03/2020).

The Judgment Seat of Photography

We are to read this 38 page essay by Christopher Phillips and add the key research materials that are mentioned in this journal article. The list of references at the back of the article total 81, so I very much doubt I will be researching all of those mentioned – that’s a 2 month job on its own! I may touch on a few.

— oOo —

 

Photography = what Jean Baudrillard calls “industrial simulacrum” [something that is mass-produced].

Key Reference #1: Szarkowski, J. (1970) ‘Photography and the Private Collector’ In: Aperture 15 (2) Summer/1970 pp.59–60.

As I have access to Aperture’s magazine archive I have created screen shots of the actual essay. Click to enlarge.

  • Brief summary on Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “aura”. Two components: cult value(art’s origins in religious or magical rituals -> unique presence = aura of the work of art. Exhibition value = the changing function of the work of art as it becomes portable and able to be duplicated. How does this happen? When art is removed from its cultural constraints it becomes duplicable. The availability of the art work to the general public increases and gives way to universal availability and accessibility. This in turn leads to the dissolution of the aura, multiple meanings, a shattering of the tradition. Benjamin’s Marxist leanings emerge and he welcomes the ‘desacralization of the work of art and getting rid of cultural tradition’ (Phillips, 1992: 16).
  • Beaumont Newhall: His Photography: 1839 – 1937 exhibition concentrated on the way photographic techniques had evolved and the subsequent specializations arising from these techniques. He did not deal with the aesthetics side of things at all “photography should be examined in terms of the optical [the details] and from chemical laws [tonal fidelity] (Phillips, 1992: 19). By doing this he was most probably laying the foundations for the acceptance of photography in the art world. Newhall was appointed Curator of Photography in 1940. Called for the study of photography to be modeled on that of literature. Newhall’s first exhibition as curator and assisted by Ansel Adams was 60 Photographs: A Survey of Camera Esthetics. The exhibition concentrated on ideas of authenticity, rarity and personal expression. Newhall put forward ideas how authenticity could be ascertained, and brought genre classifications to the foreground. The exhibitions during 1940-1947 can be seen here. “Photography … was laid out on an institutionalized interpretative grid and made the object of expert aesthetic judgment” (Phillips, 1992: 23). But Newhall had failed in the eyes of the powers at MOMA, to elevate the status of photography to that of fine art and he was replaced by Edward Steichen in 1947.
  • Edward Steichen: It was Steichen’s Road to Victory exhibition that had changed the MOMA’s trustees thinking. The images were presented as 45 degree angles to the wall and floors (in some cases) and were very large. I would imagine, that from looking at the photos, the effect of walking through that exhibition which was in an S-shape, would have been quite emotional. The images jut out from the walls to meet the viewers in a rather confrontational manner, while those on the floor lean back slightly and physically draw them in. Steichen was instructed to focus “on photography’s demonstrably central role as a mass medium that dramatically “interpreted” the world for a national (and international) audience” (Phillips, 1992: 27) . The Department of Photography’s remit was no longer confined to the aesthetic realm. The Family of Man (1955) exhibition was a global initiative in answer to Steichan’s call for images depicting universal qualities of the human experience, ranging from life to death and everything in-between. Another exhibition that I would really have liked to see. The presentation just absolutely fascinates me – the way the images are suspended from the ceiling and cause barriers that one has to walk around. Again some of the artwork juts out from the walls. All the aspects of the presentation just shout out viewer engagement in some form. Phillips states (1992: 28) that Steichan’s modus operandi was one of reappropriating images, using them out of original context, applying different captions, recropping them and presenting them for dramatic purposes thereby creating new predetermined narratives. The photographers were required to sign over their autonomous rights allowing the museum to crop/print/edit their images. In this way their personal expression (and intent) was removed and control given to Steichen. He was responsible for demonstrating that photography could be channeled into mass media. The photographic values that Steichen encouraged was that which would appeal to the glossy picture magazines. Anything defining a social or aesthetic nature was quickly dismissed and this forced photographers hoping to exhibit at MOMA to comply with Steichen’ mass-media appeal. Robert Frank complained in an interview with Creative Camera that the exhibition was always about Steichen. Steichen totally undermined the cult value of the fine art print, obliterating the individual photographer and relegating their work to that of illustration.
  • John Szarkowski: succeeded Steichen in 1962.  Newhall’s fine-art trappings of standard white mattes, wooden frames and glass coverings reappeared in exhibitions. Galleries were sparsely hung, print size returned to conventional sizes and the ordering of prints was extremely uniform, “… the museum’s claims for photography’s “cult value” had been dusted off and urgently revived” (Phillips, 1992: 34). Szarkowski, in his press release for his first exhibition, Five Unrelated Photographers clearly defined the way he would be managing the gallery. Speaking of the five photographers ( Ken Heyman, George Krause, Jerome Liebling, Minor White and Garry Winogrand) he stated that “the exhibition does not include their work, it is of it. No attempt is made to link them together with a central theme or idea”(The Museum of Modern Art, 1963). In Szarkowski’s article in Aperture 13:3, he explains that the basic effect of mass media on photography eroded the photographer’s creative independence and also his/her accountability. This was not a value judgment, but a shift in effective authority. During the 1920s through to the 1950s photography, specifically photo-journalism enjoyed a special status (picture magazines). After WWII, however, the advent of the smaller camera was partially to blame for the change in the photographer’s role. The photographer was able to take more photographers and this resulted in a dilution of content. This also diluted the photographer’s role in defining the meaning of their story, giving more authority to the editor. Modern reproduction methods in the form of halftone screens, billboards and TV scanners have complicated this even further. A photograph reproduced in mass media is no longer “an object of contemplation. The good modern mass media picture on the other hand is less like seduction and more like rape. Its object is to make its point now and quickly” (Szarkowski, 1967: 56). Definitely food for thought. As Szarkowski mentioned (1967: 56) when have you ever seen anyone get out of the car to contemplate a billboard for its second meaning? Szarkowski’s main aim was to rescue photography from its foray into mass media culture and set it on an autonomous route once and for all. He accomplished this over the span of about twenty years through a selection of essays. He established a formalist vocabulary that was capable of understanding the visual culture of a photo, isolated modern visual poetics and steered photography away from the Stieglitz/Weston tradition of high modernism and this was detailed in his book The Photographer’s Eye (1964) wherein he laid out the basic elements of a photograph: the detail, the thing itself, time, the frame and the vantage point. He regarded these characteristics as modes of photographic description which “set the stage for a move to the iconographic level” (Phillips, 1992 :37).  Szarkowski’s emphases prepared the ground for the emergence of an aestheticized authorial “voice” proper to photography” (Phillips, 1992 :38) and it restores the presence of the artist through its reading.

 

Bibliography

Phillips, C. (1992) ‘The Judgment Seat of Photography’ In: Bolton, R. (ed.) The Context of Meaning | Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, MA and London, England: The MIT Press. pp.15–47.

Steichen, E. (1942) Road to Victory | MoMA. At: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3038? (Accessed  25/02/2020).

Szarkowski, J. (1967) ‘Photography and the Mass Media’ In: Aperture 13 (3) 1967 pp.56–58.

Szarkowski, J. (1970) ‘Photography and the Private Collector’ In: Aperture 15 (2) Summer/1970 pp.59–60.

The Family of Man (1955) At: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/2429? (Accessed  25/02/2020).

The Museum of Modern Art (1963) ‘Five Unrelated Photographers: Heyman, Krause, Liebling, White and Winogrand‘ [press release] 28 March 1963. Available at: https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_326309.pdf (Accessed 5 March 2020)

The Museum of Modern Art (1963) Installation view of the exhibition, “Five Unrelated Photographers.“ | MoMA. At: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3441/installation_images/18333 (Accessed  06/03/2020).

Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics – Ine Gevers

The Brief

Read the article ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ by Ine Gevers (Documentary Now! 2005).

Summarise in your learning log the key points made by the author.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:105)

 

Preamble

Documentary photography is a tradition with its own history and reflection. Currently there is a blurring of boundaries and a mixing of disciplines happening. This results in many voices, various critical positions which are taken up by different disciplines and this has resulted in what Gevers terms ‘postdocumentary photography’.

Introduction

Historically speaking aesthetics has an ethical foundation. This used to mean having the capacity to stand back from the framework and looking at something from a new perspective, but aesthetics has grown from an “ethics of perception” (Gevers, 2005:83) into a concept that is no longer accountable to anything/one. The media regards ethics to be the converse of aesthetics. Due to mass-media/reproduction/image saturation “aesthetics has lost much of its original frame of reference” (Gevers, 2005:84) – refer Benjamin’s concept of the loss of “aura”. According to Gevers ‘aesthetics is threatening to colonise our gaze’.

“Its function of promoting perception oriented towards knowledge and insight is proving to be its opposite: it gets in the way of our view, it makes us experience every break as an irritation, conjures up barriers and creates deep abysses between people”. (Gevers, 2005:84)

Postdocumentary photographers are questioning whether their involvement should rather be defined on an ethical basis instead of from an aesthetic perspective.

Oscar van Alphen, documentary photographer, inspired by Barthes, Foucault and Bataille chose to turn away from aesthetics and images that functioned to illustrate other people’s interpretations.

Photography: objective, aesthetic, colonial

According to Gevers, photography opens up new knowledge, experiences and enlarges our perceptions. Portrait photographer, Anton Corbijn creates ‘another way of seeing’ with his group photo of the music group, Station 17. A few of the group members have various physical disabilities, but the viewers are not aware of their ‘otherness’. Corbijn has achieved this by having them all dress in suits and ties, sunglasses and all stand with their hands at their sides, almost at attention (compare photos by other photographers of the same group on Station 17’s website). Their core identity no longer revolves around their disabilities. Corbijn’s image ‘creates space for both the viewer and those who are represented’ (Gevers, 2005: 85).

Station 17 by Anton Corbijn

But photography can also have the opposite effect – objectifying people. Documentary photography, according to Gevers, has become its own worst enemy in that it initially presented itself as a ‘mirror of reality’ but has now become a slave to that reality. But did it though? John Grierson, first person to coin the term ‘documentary’ spoke of documentary as ‘a creative treatment of actuality’ (Franklin, 2016:6). Ironically one of Gevers references that she uses a few paragraph later in the essay, also confirms this: ‘ … documentary has denied itself as a mirror of the real almost from the very beginning’ (Richardson, 2000).

It has been used for indoctrinational purposes, and propaganda to such an extent that the public believe a photograph to be more real than actual reality. I would say this is probably more true of the millennial generation than others as they are so dependent upon their mobile phones. Gevers tends to generalise quite a bit in her writing stating: ‘… nobody believes any more in the ‘reality effects’ of documentary film or photography, everyone is still expected to behave as though they do’ (Gevers, 2005: 86). Is she speaking for everyone here? That’s quite a sweeping statement. In reading the Richardson essay alongside this essay, (where it seems Gevers’ idea comes from), it is clarified that it was the Eastern Europeans who no longer believed in the ‘reality effects’ and not ‘everyone’:

‘No one believed in the “reality effects” of these documentaries, but everyone was expected to act as if they did, so that language, vision, and consciousness itself were always doubled. In the East, the documentary was more distorted, and precisely in this sense all the more “real,” for it exposed the latent mechanisms of the documentary-form, and its complicity with the discourse of ideology … and the ideology of discourse’. (Richardson, 2000)]

In the past, documentary has subjugated itself to the ‘flavour of the day’ (my emphasis) ideology, due to its invisible construction and limited aesthetics and this has led to the reinforcement of ‘oppressive institutions and practices’. According to Gevers, documentary has had to endure so much postcolonial criticism that it has basically had its day and that ‘representation in its totality is in a crisis’ (Gevers, 2005: 87).

A number of examples

Photography has been heavily used as a documentation tool in realm of science – both as an archival function as well as facilitating research material. It was heavily used in the medical and psychiatric fields recording patients ailments/disorders. This type of photography was supposedly to obtain ‘objective’ facts about the illness/disorder, but in reality was a violation of the patient’s life and personality (and privacy). The purpose was to “… not only intended to record reality, but … to explain that reality” (Gevers, 2005: 87). This ‘objectivity, states Gevers, reduces the other to just a symptom.

  • Martha Rosler: works by overturning accepted notions of factuality, truth and objectivity in relation to the image and text. Her The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-1975) depicted the rampant problem of alcoholism in her neighbourhood, without featuring any people. In presenting her work in this manner, she allowed the individuals to retain their dignity and individuality, subverting the viewer’s “lurking voyeurism” (Gevers, 2005: 88).
  • Allan Sekula: Gevers holds up Sekula’s work in comparison to Rosler’s. Sekula’s work is perhaps less conceptual in that he uses a familiar aesthetic, and plays to the viewer with regards ambiguity and possible connotations. He photographs social, cultural, political-economic developments. Furthermore he is very concerned about controlling every aspect of his work – from the context, the installation, the text, how the text and image play together, and the relationship of juxtaposed images. This seems very restrictive to me and rather undermining of the viewer’s intelligence, perhaps.
Representation – interpretation – counter-presentation

Gevers goes on to discuss the way in which photographs can be turned into commodities by virtue of presenting them in different context than originally intended. The example she refers to is the S-21 archive (photos taken of the genocide victims of Pol Pot’s reign of terror just prior to them being executed). Clearly the terror is expressed in many victims faces (see here). American photographers, Douglas Niven and Christopher Riley devised a way to save this threatened archive by removing the majority of the photographs, creating a limited edition of 100 of the photographers (there were 6,000) and donating two of the limited editions to Cambodia. The rest were removed “for safety’s sake” (apparently for humanitarian reasons) states one of Gevers footnotes.  One has to wonder why the entire archive did not remain in Cambodia. It is after all Cambodia’s collective memory. Niven and Riley published the book The Killing Fields and this brought about an entirely new construct of cultural history. The visual thrust of the work now became an interrogation between people who were deprived of all their rights (sentenced to death) vs those who enjoy life (and watch from a safe distance). To compound matters further a selection of photographs was exhibited at MOMA in 1997 by Steichen, where the work was viewed as art. Seriously! Mugshots of people about to be executed can never be classified as art in my opinion. That is just ethically wrong! Christian Caujolle showed the work in Arles in 1998 and made every attempt to emphasize that this body of work was not art, but did not succeed in this endeavour. The objective was to question the role of photograph in establishing collective memory and Caujolle also wanted to emphasize the responsibility that lie with the photographer and viewer in this interpretation.  The exhibition was criticized for being too mute. “… the medium revealed its powerlessness to give the subject a voice at the moment when it still lived and was photographed” (Gevers, 2005: 91) and Gevers brings up Sontag’s statement about the “ethically unjustifiable power relationship” that exists between the photographer and the one being photographed.

Alienation as Strategy

Gevers then goes on to give brief synopses of various philosophers and artists to indicate the extent to which images have affected our behaviour resulting in our difficult to discern actual reality.

  • Slavoy Žižek: “… an impending implosion of symbolic reality to the extent that nothing any longer has meaning beyond what it appears as” (Gevers, 2005:91)
  • Guy Debord: “… every relationship we enter into with others will be increasingly staged on the basis of a similar ‘instant’ approach to the world. We no longer live life, but act in a film, which we call life … it alienates us from reality” (Gevers, 2005:92). Debord made this prophetic statement in 1960. How apt is it not for today’s Facebook age?
  • Alfredo Jaar: Due to the influx of sound and images affecting our perception of reality, it is very difficult for art to extricate itself from this pervasiveness. Jaar’s installation of the genocide in Rwanda, Real Pictures, confounded viewers’ expectations by only showing one photograph, the rest concealed in black boxes. The lack of images was done “out of respect” (Gevers, 2005: 93).
  • Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition – wrote about the effects of alienation from the world.
  • Keith Tester: The Inhuman Condition – (a reply to Arendt’s work) – confirmed man’s alienation from the world and self “… product reality – ‘instant reality’ – has turned into our first nature, the whole idea of ‘contemplation’ has become implausible’ (Gevers, 2005: 93)I do tend to agree with this statement – again it links up to the social media way of living each and every moment online, never taking the time out to think about implications or consequences, to name just one instance. Tester goes on to state that alienation in the world determines the place and direction of the engagement, that we “need to see the world that we experience and participate in as a complex set of problems and challenges we have to face” (Gevers, 2005: 93). Doesn’t this really amount to an unnecessary complication of life? Are we to go and ‘look’ for problems where they don’t exist, or are we to assume that everything is a problem?
  • Kendell Geers: what can I say? A South African artist who decided to change his birthdate (as a political act and reclaim his identity) to coincide with the 1968 African equivalent of the Arab Spring (student uprisings throughout Africa). Why he should change his birthdate just boggles my mind, because if my math is correct it is either the same year he was born or adjusted on year earlier. That being said, his work seems to be as radical and far out as his thought process and I’d best leave it at that.
  • Alain Badiou: doubts whether alienation can be a ‘conscious’ choice. He feels that “… ‘the artist’ as someone who, as a result of … often traumatic event, feels the necessity to pursue a personal truth and to remain faithful to it in spite of considerable opposition” (Gevers, 2005: 94). According to him artistry and ethics are tied up together. Contemporary ethics (as in the Declaration of Human Rights) comes close to nihilism. He feels that this is not a reflection of reality. Would prefer that ethics “become the enduring principle of individual processes” (Gevers, 2005: 94). Truth is something that cannot be communicated, according to Badiou. It is not an opinion, but it is something that you encounter (in the form of an event). It is something that happens to you. The notion of evil … “is inextricably bound up with an resulting from the ethics of truth” (Gevers, 2005: 95).
Personal is Political

Gevers then reiterates Martha Rosler’s commentary (Rosler, 1992) about documentary photography’s decline from the Grand Narrative into the small and personal narrative which is counteracted by Badiou’s ethical concept of individual processes. This is none other than Barthes concept of the viewer as author of the work, bringing his/her culture, experiences to the work of art. It is the way that images are consumed, viewed and interpreted that give the documentary photograph its autonomy. Autonomy that is not purely dependent on individual skills, personal characteristics or institutionalised agreements, but that is granted to a  person by others” (Gevers, 2005: 97).

Bibliography

Gevers, I. (2005) ‘Postdocumentary photography, art and ethics’ In: Gierstberg, F., van den Heuvel, M., Scholten, H. and Verhoeven, M. (ed.) Documentary Now!. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Kendell Geers (2019) In: Wikipedia. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kendell_Geers&oldid=929496734 (Accessed  04/03/2020).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Documentary – Fact & Fiction | Photography 2 Course Manual. (PH5DFF120419) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Richardson, J. (2000) Est-ethics of Counter-Documentary – ARTMargins. At: https://artmargins.com/est-ethics-of-counter-documentary/ (Accessed  28/02/2020).

Rosler, M. (1992) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ In: Bolton, R. (ed.) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp.303–340.

Vaupotič, A. (2001) Philosophy of Mikhail Bakhtin: The concept of dialogism and mystical thought[1] | KUD Logos. At: http://kud-logos.si/2001/philosophy-of-mikhail-bakhtin-the-concept-of-dialogism-and-mystical-thought1/ (Accessed  26/02/2020).

Exercise: Jim Goldberg – Open See

I have previously research Jim Goldberg’s Open See during the Context and Narrative module (here), so will only comment on the work and how it works within the gallery space here. The video we are asked to watch in just over 3 minutes long and the footage shows people preparing Goldberg’s work for the exhibition, measuring, hanging, etc., while Goldberg briefly discusses his work. His work was made in Greece 2004 and focuses on illegal immigrants – various refugee groups from different countries. He touches briefly on a few photographs explaining them in more detail, but makes no mention about the trope that he frequently uses in his work – that of having the subjects write on their photographs.

His website is more illuminating. The Open See project website begins with a scrolling montage of all his proofs for the project, complete with his markup markings. It is interesting to see the various crop decisions and which photos made the final cut – quite a small percentage really. If one clicks on a photo in the proof montage, a slideshow of some of the polaroids with inscriptions opens up. This is a more concise edit than what was displayed in the TPG video. There are various links on his website. The Tate link opens up a video “How to fold your single sheet book”. Goldberg provides verbal instructions while the subject proceeds to follow them to fold a large sheet of paper that has a montage of photographs on one side and a large portrait on the other. The end product is an 8-page book of the photographs. I’m presuming that this was an interactive activity when Goldberg’s exhibition was at the Tate.

Screenshot of Deutsche Börse video – boat story

Another link takes us to the Deutsche Börse which opens another video, where a young girl narratives a story about refugees drowning at sea. In this video the young girl follows written instructions on how to fold another sheet of paper containing photographs and literature into the shape of an origami boat. Another novel way of interacting with the photographs while presenting a rather dark subject in a light-hearted manner.

Goldberg also has an Objects link which links to photographs of found ephemera of things washed up on shore after boats have capsized, documentation of torture, advertisements of human trafficking, written accounts from victims of human trafficking. Finally there is a Resources tab that lists the issues that his subjects face.

Goldberg’s work is definitely not fine art, but hard hitting, cold documentary work. It stands to reason that in exhibiting his work in a gallery, he would need to create some mechanisms to engage the public in viewing his work as he has done with the book and boat creation. By doing so he has succeeded in appealing to all level of audiences, although I would probably be rather hesitant to take a primary school child to such an exhibition as some of the photographs are quite graphic. It was interesting to note that in the gallery his work is presented in a variety of sizes, most of it is quite small which I think would be another way of forcing the viewer to engage by coming closer to the work.

 

Bibliography

Goldberg, J. (s.d.) OPEN SEE. At: http://www.opensee.org/ (Accessed  26/02/2020).

Interview with Jim Goldberg (2011) Directed by The Photographers’ Gallery. At: https://vimeo.com/22120588 (Accessed  26/02/2020).

Cruel + Tender

For this exercise we are asked to read the 2003 Teachers’ Guide to the Cruel + Tender exhibition held at Tate Modern. The guide is obviously there to support student study visits and doesn’t really offer too much for a distance student. Instructions on how to use the guide, recommended booklist for students to refer to, some very basic historical & critical content (most of what was mentioned was not featured in the exhibition), curriculum and classroom suggestions (relevant to teachers). The main section of interest to me was the Themed Links.

It seems that the exhibition was divided into four sections: Occupied Spaces (‘where public policy and people collide/where economic decisions and human lives meet head on’). This section featured the work of August Sander with his taxonomic portraits of the German people; Walker Evans’ photographs of the Depression and Paul Graham’s contemporary study of the social security offices in Britain.

The next section dealt with the theme ‘On the Road’. This explored urban and rural spaces. Again featured was Walker Evans as well as Robert Frank and Stephen Shore.

The following section dealt with the “cruel” element of the exhibition (Exploring Vulnerability). This section involved thematics of ethics, politics and morality. Artists mentioned here were Rineke Dijkstra, Diane Arbus (specifically mentioning her photography of people with disabilities) and Boris Mikhailov whose work I personally find questionable from an ethical standpoint (refer his Case History body of work).

The penultimate section involved Industrialisation and Consumerism, featuring the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher (surveys of various structures), Lewis Baltz (man-made landscapes), Andreas Gursky (deadpan depictions of a supermarket).

The final section was about Life Stories. This mainly consisted of portraits of people ‘not objectified by what happened to them’. Most of the images had the subject in the centre of the frame and framed in such a way that very little contextual details were visible. Artists mentioned here were: Fazal Sheikh, Nicholas Nixon and Rineke Dijkstra

We are asked to watch two interviews with Rineke Dijkstra and Fazel Sheikh who exhibited their work in the Cruel + Tender exhibition in 2003. Once again the links have expired. Instead I have substituted this video for Rineke Dijkstra where she discusses her work on exhibition at the Guggenheim:

Known primarily as a portrait photographer, Dijkstra uses a large format camera which allows her to focus on details one would normally not see. Her photographs are usually quite large. By focusing on her subjects, she eliminates most of the contextual details and this allows the background to become like a studio backdrop. In her New Mothers series she captures the turbulent emotions of the women who have just given birth. In Holland most women give birth in their own homes and Dijkstra had the women stand in a neutral part of their home, again replicating the studio backdrop. She is interested in photographing transitional emotions – e.g. photographing Portuguese bull fighters just after they come out of the ring, still high on adrenaline. Basically at a time when emotions are not easily controlled and the subconscious takes over.

And this one for Fazal Sheikh discussing his work at the Denver Art Museum:

Sheikh works by stepping back and allowing place and people to inform him, rather than relying on his own preconceptions. Sheikh treats his subjects as individuals, provides their names and explains their circumstances. He wants his work to function within the art context but also to be political, social and most importantly to be of benefit to the communities that he photographs so he spends some time living in the communities to get to know them better. He regards his work as an open invitation to the viewer whereby they can second guess that which has been politicized and to listen to what the people in the exhibition have to offer.

Bibliography

Photographer Fazal Sheikh Discusses Common Ground (2017) Directed by Denver Art Museum. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHUF0a7H9Wk (Accessed  23/02/2020).

Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective (2014) Directed by Guggenheim Museum. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSAmkX26cdw (Accessed  23/02/2020).