Coursework

Project 4: Ex 4.4 Selfies

What does the phenomenon of the selfie tell us about how photography is popularly used nowadays? Illustrate your post with recent examples from the internet.

As this is solely an exercise I’m using it to throw down a few passing thoughts on positive aspects which I think can sometimes get overlooked in the light of stories in the media more often revealing some of the unpleasant aspects and effects.

I recently accessed a Post on the British Library blog writing about the tourist season in London and so many people with selfie sticks and smart phones – “…. It’s easy to wish that selfies didn’t exist”.  But such curmudgeonly attitudes to self-portraitists overlook the fact that selfies have existed for a very long time and offer unique insights into some brilliant and multi-talented artists.” That’s if we extend OED dictionary definition of ‘photographic self-portraits’ to cover those made with pen and ink then selfies have existed in Britain for over 1000 years. The earliest known surviving manuscript self-portrait was made by St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 988) in the 10th century and the blog post goes on to provide other examples, explaining that these often involved a different type of self-promotion – one focused on humility before the divine and saints.  There also looks to be a useful website here and Frances Borzello (1998) also provides fascinating example of the ways in which female artists were also able to include references to themselves in their work at a time when women artists were not usually recognized.

Fast forward to photography:-

According to Petapixel the earliest self-portrait made was by Robert Cornelius  , an amateur photographer and lamp-maker.

(Downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RobertCornelius.jpg)

Written on the back is, “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839”  no specific date though, so let’s say he was the first American photographer to create a selfie and leave the laurels with Hippolyte Bayard (June 1839)   creator of the first staged photograph Self Portrait as a Drowned Man pretending to have committed suicide because of lack of recognition of his own invention of a photographic process, in favour of Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype process.

Since photography’s origins in the late nineteenth century, artists have expressed the idea that the self-portrait is a form of performance. Kismaric states, “The photographer who attempts an investigation of his physiognomy or personality or who consciously or unconsciously projects an idea about himself enacts a role. The plasticity of photography allows the self-portraitist to experiment, to assume many identities; in self-portraiture the photographer can become the hero, the adventurer, the aesthete – or a neutral ground upon which artistic experiments are played out.” (Taken from a press-release for Self-Portrait: The Photographer’s Persona 1840-1985  an Exhibition at MOMA from 7th November, 1985 to 7th January, 1986.)

Cindy Sherman was one of the photographers included in that Exhibition and she is famous for her self-portraits commenting on traditional/stereotypical female roles. Sherman has also recently appeared on Instagram  with images that include weirdly distorted self-portraits.  I had almost reached the conclusion that this must be a different Cindy Sherman, but this was confirmed not to be the case by an article by Noah Becker which recently appeared in the Guardian  .  Thanks to my fellow student Sarah-Jane Field for alerting me to this article. Whilst I agree regarding the distorted shots and the mystery as to why Sherman is creating these portraits, I have thought further concerning Becker’s view that, “they hold up a dark mirror to our era of self-obsession”.

How is it that it’s okay for artists to continue using self-portraits to enact different roles and assume different identities but not okay for ‘the general public’ to do so with technology that is cheap, easily available and doesn’t require great photographic technique or talent?  The advent of cheaper cameras earlier in the 20th Century enabled those moving away from family to keep in touch in a more intimate way. Recent examples have been Facebook pages where those serving in the Armed Forces can do likewise. Adolescence is well-known as the time when many young people are struggling to answer the question, “Who am I?” and it’s not surprising that Facebook and Instagram have been seized upon by them so they can play out these versions of themselves.

Some artists have first become well-known through digital media. One such is Molly Soda, a digital performance artist who is best known for her book Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned from Instagram (see here) She began creating artwork in the webcam days of MySpace and Tumblr and her work has now expanded beyond the internet. Soda has a strong Instagram following  (68.9k followers at 4th January 2018) where her feed is composed just about entirely of photographs of herself – un-photo-shopped and au naturel which she believes makes her followers less self-conscious about themselves as well.  You can find out more about her by putting her name in the search box on dazeddigital.com. and this also brings up other posts on how Instagram artists are changing our views on body image and breeding a new generation of idols.

Another fellow student, Nuala, has just drawn my attention (via Facebook) to an article in Lens Culture . The essay by J.H. Pearl concerns the discomforts caused by being photographed, using Roland Barthes’ writing on this topic as a focus.  One of the paragraphs seems most timely in stating

To grouse about the vanity of selfies is to forget they comprise networked conversations. People, not just celebrities, use them to connect. For Barthes, ‘The ‘private life’ is ….that zone of space where I am not an image, an object”; the camera, he believed, invaded that space. But selfies seem less like invasions than invitations. And they permit us to be subjects, as well as objects, taking our own pictures almost however we like.

 

References

Borzello, F (1998) Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/08/medieval-selfies.html
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/molly-soda-digital-artist/9842/
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RobertCornelius.jpg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippolyte_Bayard
https://petapixel.com/2011/07/19/the-first-self-portrait-photo-ever-made/
https://www.instagram.com/bloatedandalone4evr1993/
https://www.instagram.com/_cindysherman_/
https://www.lensculture.com/articles/
https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/2195?locale=en
https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_327414.pdf
https://www.selfportraithistory.com/category/900/
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/aug/09/cindy-sherman-instagram-selfies-filtering-life

 

 

 

Project 3: Exercise 4.3 – Memes

 ‘Memes” are units of cultural information, which are exchanged not within a ‘gene pool’ but within a ‘meme pool’. The former transferring biological information and the latter being imitated as it is passed along communication networks and also influencing the behaviour of the recipients. They occur in a variety of forms and it seems like a ‘meme’ can be just about anything –  so long as it’s transmitted, repeated over and over and intended to change people’s behaviour. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene and is a shortening of the ancient Greek word mimeme – imitated thing/to imitate.  The word may be relatively new but the process is not.James Gleick looks at What Defines a Meme in an article in Smithsonian Magazine  in May 2011.

I’ve been wondering whether the wall paintings that appeared in early churches could be counted as memes – they were similar in form, acting to give messages to those unable to read the Latin in bibles and would serve as emphasis to sermons. Move forward to Lord Kitchener’s posters recruitment poster WWI which remains instantly recognisable to many and is still regularly copied in advertising and used as a satirical motif in the media.

BBC News online magazine presented an interesting article about the poster here

There was another influential meme produced during WWII

(Cartoon by Fougasse (pseudonym of Punch editor Kenneth Bird) 1940-1042 approx)

The saying “walls have ears” appears to date back Centuries ago and variations of it are found in many languages. There’s an article concerning an interview, found in the media,  with Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp, where Koum used the expression in referring to WhatsApp’s emphasis on privacy and what it was like growing up in the former Soviet Union. An interesting juxtaposition of influence and idea.

Memes and Digital Culture

Paul Frosh has referred to the propensity of digital technologies to “foreground the ‘memetic’ nature of much cultural production” (Frosh 2013:145) whereby the web and social media, “have enabled their multiplication as preferred modes of popular expression, while at the same time making visible memetic procedures of replication, mutation and dissemination”.

My Facebook feed usually contains a number of memes of different varieties – sometimes they make me laugh and sometimes they make me frown particularly those which include a piece of ‘fake news’ as a way of further ridiculing someone unpopular or attempting to persuade. I’m not being snobbish here as I occasionally post memes myself. Whilst they have been used for more altruistic purposes,  Internet memes can often  tend to focus on something ridiculous, that makes people look slightly foolish The example given being the ‘Crasher Squirrel” that then triggered ‘endless interpretations’.

On 11th December the Livewire site gives  “50 Internet Memes that Have Won Our Hearts” and, as I expected includes the famous Grumpy Cat (No. 4). During my research for this exercise I learned that photographing cats in in this way, including captions, goes back to the studios of Harry Pointer and Harry Frees in Victorian times and LOLspeak started in the 1830s in Boston newspapers – see here.

The list includes the  Spinning Ballerina Illusion which I hadn’t seen before. I saw her turning clockwise first, then anti-clockwise and so on. How about you?

In general, I’ve appreciated doing this exercise because it’s made me realise the extent of influence that apparently simple visual/textual captions can have a more lasting influence. The exercise requests me to create my own photographic response to an internet meme, something original or my own interpretation of an existing meme. It might be funny or profound, but it should make people want to look at it and share it. I’ll come back to this exercise when something has come to mind

 

References

Frosh (P) (2013) “Beyond the image bank: digital commercial photography” (2013) In:
Lister, M (Ed) (2013) The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 131-148

http://listverse.com/2014/07/12/10-memes-and-trends-that-are-secretly-centuries-old/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28642846
https://forward.com/culture/193876/jan-koum-whatsapp-and-the-meaning-of-the-walls-hav/

 

 

 

Project 2: Exercise 4.2 How is Foucault’s theory of Panopticism relevant to digital culture

Summary of Foucault’s theory

See below:

Summary of Foucault’s Theory of Panopticism_Project 2

Comments on its relevance to digital culture

Foucault is certainly very positive of Bentham’s theories and I am also reminded of Bentham’s other concept of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ which permeates some of our political institutions. The emphasis upon information collection fits with our increasingly bureaucratic system of government and reliance on quantification and data collection as opposed to quality measures and person-centred evaluation.  The notion of psychological trickery is a good one; how many of us automatically slow down whilst driving when we see warnings of a speed camera, despite knowing that many of them do not operate due to financial constraints.

University College of London (UCL) ran a PanoptiCam Daily Time-lapse Project from Jeremy Bentham’s box there. The PanoptiCam was a tongue in cheek comment on Bentham’s “inspection house” but it also had a genuine research element ‘being used to test algorithms to count visitor numbers to museum exhibit cases using low cost webcam solutions”. See here

The concept can be applied to Facebook in terms of virtual surveillance – whilst each user becomes the centre of observation s/he can also control what is seen and not seen. Every action taken on Facebook is controlled and monitored by the site’s design and there is collection of data usage. Users have to be either male or female so fit into gender norms and the site’s rules and regulations help to control content.  Users self-regulate knowing that others are following them but they can also create ‘false’ profiles. We don’t know who is looking if posts are ‘public’ and I’ve been surprised by how many individual Users do maintain a public activity. The account doesn’t disappear when the User signs off so that also allows for constant surveillance. Here’s a peep into how the algorithms work

Currently, complaints about CCTV cameras and loss of privacy are also balanced by calls for more such surveillance of places such as hospital, nursing homes and schools to protect the vulnerable from harm. Drones can be used for humanitarian purposes as well as in remote surveillance or long-range missiles.

There are many opportunities for Artists/photographers take advantage of these types of surveillance/monitoring techniques. For example, I wrote about some of them here  in my review of the “A Handful of Dust” Exhibition. In his work A New American Picture .  Doug Rickard located American street scenes using Google Street View  and then re-photographed them on his computer screen  with a tripod-mounted camera, “freeing the image from its technological origins and re-presenting them on a new documentary plane”. Jon Rafman  is a Canadian artist whose work centres around the emotional, social and existential impact of technology on contemporary life (he also has a SecondLife persona).

Mishka Henner has sourced imagery through the internet, television and satellites to comment on activities which are usually ‘hidden’  – as here  . Broomberg & Chanarin  created their series Spirit is a Bone using a facial recognition system developed in Moscow for public security. The artists Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs, amongst others, have created performance works  that draw attention to the potential for attacks by drones on civilians in combat zones.

Edmund Clark’s work  links together history, politics and representation, in recent years focussing on, “…… the hidden experiences and spaces of control and incarceration in the ‘Global War on Terror’. Such practices seem many steps beyond Foucault’s concept of mind over mind psychological trickery inculcating self-regulation to one of psychological torture/terror  (as in Guantanamo: If the light Goes out)   and remote control and surveillance (as in Control Order House. In many respects the idea of remotely tracking offenders’ movements can seem like a more humane method of curtailing sentenced offenders’ movements as an alternative to imprisonment but Clark offers a different viewpoint here in respect of returning detainees.   In Section 4 Part 20: One Day on a Saturday (2011) he also created an installation work putting together material emanating from the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay. An extract is below.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/80264839″>Section 4 Part 20: One Day on a Saturday (2 min extract)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user12964987″>edmundclark</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

References

Evans, J & Hall, S (1999 ) Visual Culture: The Reader, UK. SAGE Publications Ltd

http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/panopticam/
http://jonrafman.tumblr.com
http://mishkahenner.com/Field
http://www.broombergchanarin.com/#/spirit/
http://www.managetrainlearn.com/page/elton-mayo
https://blog.bufferapp.com/facebook-news-feed-algorithm
https://geographicalimaginations.com/tag/leon-cmielewski/
https://www.edmundclark.com/work/
https://www.edmundclark.com/works/control-order-house/#1
https://www.edmundclark.com/works/guantanamo/#1
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/23/panopticon-digital-surveillance-jeremy-bentham
https://www.ukessays.com/essays/media/panopticism-in-the-digital-age-media-essay.php

 

 

 

 

Project 1 and Exercise 4.1 : Creation of false or alternative identities online

The Virtual World of Second Life

Second Life (SL) was originally conceived by Philip Rosedale who began working on the concept in 1991. At first it was more like a video game but then he and his team realised that users wished to create their own experiences. SL began beta testing in November 2002 and went live on 23rd June, 2003. It is an online virtual world created by Linden Lab where users create avatars (virtual representations of themselves) and have the ability to interact with other virtual avatars, places and objects. The objects are built by using 3D modelling tools based on simple geometric shapes and are able to interact through the use of Linden Scripting Language (a procedural scripting language) Sculpted prims, mesh, textures for clothing or other objects, animations, and gestures can be created using external software and imported and users retain copyright for any content they create.

Anyone can register, download, install and run SL but there is an optional monthly charge if one wishes to buy land, a house or purchase more complex avatars.  A monthly subscription includes a set amount of virtual Linden dollars to use for these purposes but more virtual dollars can also be obtained in exchange for additional ‘real’ currency. That’s the odd thing about it because people can actually make money by selling objects within SL.

The Terms of Service are quite comprehensive (see here)  and users have to agree to them before accessing/using SL and two Sections in particular are important to take into account. [i] [ii]  Although you can do ‘virtually’ anything you like, appear how you like, choose to be a different gender etc SL’s rules and Etiquette are listed on a notecard in every User’s Library, including six cardinal sins (“the Big Six” which are intolerance, harassment, assault, disclosure, indecency (unless on private land) and disturbing the peace. [iii]

I have only been able to find a 2008 version of the official guide to SL which does provide a comprehensive introduction to the way the site operates. Some real-life universities have set up a virtual branch there, as well as companies, well-known pop groups and a virtual art world.  In 2007 Richard Minsky, artist and entrepreneur, started a website and blog SLARTmagazine.com as a critical review and journal of art in SL, and there is information and a video here  where he gave a presentation at Location One.  This included him navigating SL in his avatar identity (blonde-haired woman) to show the variety of artists and art locations there which appear and disappear as time goes on. Having registered SLART as a trademark with the US Patent and Trademark Office Minsky also threatened legal action against those who used the term to refer to art in SL, see here . In 2008 he filed a complaint against Linden Lab and an art gallery in SL operated by an avatar but litigation ended in January 2009 when a private settlement was reached. The SLART website no longer appears to exist but there is another site The ArtWorld Market Report which includes a blog – the last post being in June 2015.

I’ve noted the above information as it shows how we sometimes continue our propensity towards conflict into a virtual world despite the opportunities towards personal development. I want to return now, though, to  the emphasis on the opportunities for social interaction and self-development in SL.

“Your avatar choices say a lot about who you are; to the people you encounter in the SL world, your avatar is who you are. It’s true too – your avatar choices reflect your personality and mentality.” (M. Rymaszewski et al (2008), p.10).

Chapter 11 is titled “Considering your real-world self” and beings by asking readers to consider who they are offline.  Yes, it does seem odd to offer this virtual world where I can be anything and then to ask me, “Who are you?” That’s because,

“… rather than totally reinventing ourselves when we enter a world like Second Life , what we’re really doing is extending ourselves – our existing hopes, ambitions, and ideals – and adapting them within the newfound communities of people that the online space affords”. (ibid, p. 227).

“So before you discard yourself at the digital doors, remember that who you are inside of Second Life is part of who you want to become when you’re offline. Don’t reject it – embrace it! ” (ibid p. 228).

I’m sure many people desire to become a whole, new, different person in a virtual world so this struck me as quite a strong message that we can never entirely escape the effect of our culture, nature and upbringing, whilst acting as a reminder that change is possible. Examples are also provided by Robbie Cooper in his book Alter Ego: Avatars and their creators (2007).  Cooper, also known for his work looking at young video-game players  spent three years travelling the world and interviewing people who ‘played’ in the virtual world; placing their portraits next to their avatars whilst also looking at how we create our online personas in a way to transcend our physical existence. He looked at a number of players and game designers on a variety of sites, several of whom had SL presence as Users/Avatars; SL personnel; designers and/or research analysts. Of course there are some who have become so immersed in this virtual world that they spend inordinate amounts of time there but there are other hopeful stories about the way in which people who suffer from disabilities have been able to transcend them in SL, as can be seen in the video:-

 

References

Cooper, R et al, (2007) Alter Ego: Avatars and their creators
Rymaszewski et al (2008) second life: the official guide , Indiana. Wiley Publishing Inc
http://minskyreport.com/index.html
http://secondlife.com
http://virtuallyblind.com/2008/01/25/slart-trademark/
https://www.lindenlab.com/tos#tos2
https://www.lensculture.com/articles/robbie-cooper-alter-ego-avatars-and-their-creators
http://www.location1.org/slarttm-art-in-second-life/
https://www.nytimes.com/video/magazine/1194833565213/immersion.html
http://www.patentarcade.com/2010/06/case-analysis-minsky-v-linden-research.html

 

Endnotes

[i] Section 2.4 states “You grant certain Content licenses to other users by submitting your Content to publicly accessible areas of the Service”.

[ii] Section 2.5 states “You also grant Linden Lab and other users of the Service a license to use your Content in snapshots and machinima that is displayed in publicly accessible areas of the Service”

[iii] In fact from early 2007 to late 2008 there was a website/blog Virtually Blind http://virtuallyblind.com/2007/01/21/welcome/  which covered legal issues that impacted virtual worlds.

Beginning – Thinking about the Digital Self

Thanks to my fellow student Julie  for introducing me to the phrase ‘digital native’ – used as early as 1996 and then popularized by Mark Prensky . Prensky’s view was that there is a distinction between the young ‘digital natives and older people, who he termed ‘Digital Immigrants’ .

“The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were “socialized” differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.”  (M. Prensky 2001).

According to this piece there are also ‘Digital Settlers’ – those there at the start and ‘Digital Immigrants’ who learned how to use e-mail and social networks late in life..

Prensky’s view was that young “digital natives’” brains have physically changed as a result of the digital revolution. I know much has been written about the negative effects of the digital revolution on young minds – unable to spell; short attention spans; needing information in short bites only;, unable to engage in a group because they are always checking their phones and shutting themselves off from ‘normal’ human intercourse; cyber-bullying etc. There are positives though, many children and adolescents learn to balance their use of digital media with both physical and interpersonal activities. One study, ”A Day in the Digital Life of Teenagers” spent a year of fieldwork  looking at the lives of 28 teenagers and the researcher was encouraged by how well they managed digital devices and content and concluded that these have become teenagers’ way of ‘asserting their agency’.

My eight year old grandson, a ‘digital native’ born into the age of digital – deep into the world of ‘Minecraft’. What I really noticed was, whereas I could only pretty much see large, blurry pixels, he was very engaged in building a world for himself; a non-competitive world at that, Whereas I would need an image, a sentence of description in a book – even a word, written or spoken, his brain has learned to build a world using a few pixels.  From there he will often move to his lego collections, building scenarios, creating animated videos. His use of the digital world is just one of his many other activities.

Photographer Wendy McMurdo’s project used photography, film and moving image to explore how the use of online building games impacted on identity formation in children and ‘to bring together the invisible world of data with the concrete world of ‘things’, through merging photography and 3D rendering techniques. I’ve kept thinking about ‘Minecraft’ and how, to me, those pixel blocks provide an external, visual representation of the networking of our brain cells as they manipulate data to form ideas and constructs. This reminds me of the theories of Marshall McCluhan in the 1960s and his writing on the effect of printing on the way people perceived their world.

McMurdo’s book The Skater (2009) was the outcome of a commission she was awarded by Ffotogallery to mark their 30th anniversary and she drew inspiration from a painting by Sir Henry Raeburn, Rev Walker Skating on Duddington Loch, 1784, to explore the theme of the way in which young skaters are used as models for realistic computer aided avatars., “I wanted to explore the more immersive environment of gaming for teenagers with the emphasis on highly developed role-play and interactions with virtual environments” (W. McMurdo (2009: 42) The project included exploration of the adolescent gamers themselves with portraits of them at play  and a parallel film The Loop (in collaboration with filmmaker Paul Holmes)  utilising split screens to follow a young girl as the mirrors the movements of a young figure skater on an adjacent screen.

A recent Aeon article refers to ’the extended mind’ whereby memories, thoughts, perceptions extend beyond the body to algorithmically mediated objects, databases and networks”. Our brains adapt just as they adapt to reading the symbols that comprise the alphabet, or music, or, in my case, learning shorthand. I don’t think of it as one thing or another but as an accretion of knowledge and skill.   Simon Jenkins wrote an article in The Guardian   (2 Feb 2017) noting that sales of old-fashioned vinyl records have soared to a 25 year peak (I should add that we have some and they are digitally re-mastered to provide enhanced sound), printed books are recovering ground from e-readers, plus there is more questioning of the negative effects of the internet. Jenkins suggests that we are now heading for ‘post-digital’, employing new technology as a servant and not as a master.

I was born into a world where few people had telephones and there was no television. News was from the radio, newspapers or Pathe News at cinema visits – obviously old. I consider myself to be a ‘digital settler’ being there at the start of the digital revolution and welcoming computers – maybe because I already knew how to type with all my fingers!  Also, to my mind, it maybe isn’t so much of an ‘age’ thing but the degree of  aptitude/orientation, i.e. some people are better at reading maps than others because their spatial skills are more developed. I’m writing this in hope because I still can’t follow those pixel blocks in ‘Minecraft’, let alone work my way building a website – yet!

 

https://aeon.co/essays/how-algorithms-are-transforming-artistic-creativity
http://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no4/koutropoulos_1211.htm
https://theconversation.com/a-day-in-the-digital-life-of-teenagers-58553
http://www.borndigitalbook.com/excerpt.php
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/02/digital-revolution-age-of-experience-books-vinyl
http://wendymcmurdo.com/photography/classrooms/

 

Exercise 3.4: Post-photojournalism

Project 4. Re-thinking photojournalism 2: ‘post-photojournalism’

 Exercise 3.4 – Look at the work of one of the practitioners discussed in the project. Write a short analysis of one of their projects or the practitioner’s overall approach. Comment on how appropriate you think their creative responses are. What is your impression of the evolving nature of photo journalism?

 Looking at new strategies used by photojournalists to maintain viewers’ attention in the light of ‘compassion fatigue’. I’ve written previously (on other Modules) about Jeff Wall and LucDelahaye. Looking at Benjamin Lowy’s work on his website, what struck me the most was that I found it difficult to tell whether the images were produced from an iPhone or a DSLR. Comment is made in the DiAC Handbook (p.77) that perhaps it is the familiarity of the smartphone image ‘that gives it a fighting chance of catching the attention of apathetic audiences’.  That seems counter-intuitive somehow because I would imagine that because it was so familiar it would just become one of many to be scanned-over quickly and the the eyes move on.

I’ve looked at the work of Patrick Chauvel and his series Guerre Ici [War Here] (2009) . bringing the conflict home with his digital composites combining images of war zones with views of Paris.  I would imagine it did get people to look then but now, given what has happened in Paris in more recent years, such images might seem in bad taste – similarly in London and Manchester.  In fact, thinking about it, these recent dreadful incidents could really have brought home the consequences of war and how far their web stretches.

Thomas Dworzak

A Magnum photographer, Dworzak was working in Afghanistan when he found some portraits in a photographer’s studio in Kandahar. These were illicit images requested by Taliban sitters (all photography banned except for ID purposes).

 

Do portraits like this ‘subvert the regime by exposing the contradictory behaviour of its adherents’ (Handbook p.77).  In a Vice Interview  Dworzak acknowledges that he received a lot of criticism in Europe for being disrespectful – as if he had taken the photographs himself.  He bought and published them because he was wanting to point out the inconsistencies. I agree there are and they do intrigue me and make me look because they make me think of more than the inconsistencies.  The backdrops they were taken against don’t look like Afghanistan (although maybe I’m stereotyping here) they look like some idyll of a different life.  The flowers add femininity beauty somehow, softness.  The portraits make me wonder what thoughts and feelings these Taliban fighters have about their lives and the constraints around them and what choices they had. I feel sad even whilst knowing of the Taliban’s brutality.

Compare with two other photographs taken by Thomas Dworzak

What do I think about the evolving nature of photojournalism. Well, it’s like a chameleon, changing according to prevailing circumstances to survive and I think that’s a positive strength.  Viewers suffer compassion fatigue and I would imagine that photojournalists do become burnt-out; inured to what they see.  I’m not surprised that some of them feel the need to venture into other modes of being to reclaim themselves.

Exercise 3.3: Breaking the news?

This exercise  follows from Project 3 on Re-thinking photojournalism 1: the citizen journalist. The exercise asks us to read the blog about the New York Post’s image of a man about to be killed by a subway train; analyse the event and then comment on the ethical decision of the commuter who took the picture.

 I don’t know where the ‘commuter’, R. Umar Abbasi, was standing when he saw what was happening. Was it a camera phone or another more powerful phone? Presumably he knew about the power of the flash given that he is said to be a New York Post freelance photographer. I would have thought that a man running and waving his arms might have caught more of the train driver’s attention than the light of a flash in a lit station platform but then the article refers to other people there doing exactly that.  However, Abbasi apparently said that the train driver saw his camera flashing but told him he couldn’t stop the train fast enough. He obviously questioned the man – was this on the basis that he was a ‘reporter’? I also read that the train operator was treated for shock and brought out of the stain in a wheelchair wearing an oxygen mask. Did Abbasi speak to him whilst he was in shock or afterwards.

No other people appear in the photograph except the unfortunate man on the tracks, Ki Suk Han, who was pushed by the suspect after trying to calm him down when he was ‘harassing and cursing at straphangers. I could presume that Abbasi was in front of everyone else.  If he was repeatedly firing his flash then presumably he was repeatedly taking photographs as well. I might presume that, given that he is named as a freelance photographer, the adrenaline flowed and his photographer self immediately went into action ahead of his ‘rescuer’ self.

I was relieved to read that the adrenaline flowed in a different way for another person – Dr Laura Kaplan, a second-year resident at Beth Israel Medical Centre who saw the man on the tracks and later rushed over to administer CPR.

There is information in the blog that the victim, Ki Suk Han, had quarrelled with his wife beforehand; had been drinking; one witness claimed he was the aggressor on the platform, and that the authorities found a bottle of vodka on him afterwards. Are we expected to feel less sympathy for him because of that? Does that minimize the actions of the man who pushed him?

If I hadn’t read the article and seen the photograph then I could well assume that this is a ‘case study’.  It raises many implications for the role of the ‘professional’ photographer, including are they just ‘witnessing’.  Personally I couldn’t stand by but then I wouldn’t want to be a photo journalist anyway.

The ethical decision of the Newspaper isn’t queried in the exercise. What purpose does the article have except to provide sensational news but then what about those photographs showing people jumping out of windows in an attempt to escape from the Twin Towers? Why were we shown those? What purpose did it achieve? Why do human beings have this need to gaze upon disaster, violence, tragedy?

PS : The New York Post was criticised for publishing the photograph. An article in the International Business Times   comments on this and considers the ethics involved. Kevin Z. Smith, Chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee (in the United States) gave his view in a phone interview with Christopher Zara, IBT. Smith cites the “Minimize Harm” section of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics (link given in the article). The website of the Press Association in the UK is here . I’ve looked but can’t find mention of a Code of Ethics so I’ve emailed them.

 

Exercise 3:2 from Project 2- Digitising atrocity

Quite a large part of me didn’t want to do this exercise because there are some images I’ve had such strong feelings about and think were wrong that I don’t want to publicise them by inserting images or providing links. I think part of it is the intent behind the photograph being taken or if I perceive that advantage is being taken of someone vulnerable, particularly a child.

I had very conflicting feelings about the images of the little three year old boy, Alan Kurdi who drowned, along with his mother and five year old brother, when his family, with others,  were attempting to reach the island of Kos after escaping from Syria. Twelve people died in total including five children. There were several photographs taken and what disturbed me was that in one of them a policeman was standing over the body of the little boy and it looked as though he was taking a photograph.  Obviously someone else was also photographing that scene.  I accept that this little boy was being used as a representative for all the suffering that has been caused by this conflict, lives lost, futures cut short but it seemed so disrespectful to me. The justification for publishing these photographs was that what happened should force authorities, countries to get together and form a plan to tackle the refugee crisis.  This child drowned in 2015 and still nothing has been done.

There was another photograph, again of a small Syrian boy, five years old this time, pulled from rubble in Aleppo after a regime airstrike in August 2016. Covered in dust from head to toe, injured and sitting alone in a chair, looking so dazed. I felt so angry that he was being photographed in such a state instead of being comforted. The photograph is a still from a video which shows him being rescued, carried into the ambulance, placed on the seat and then his rescuer walking away from him so that someone else could take the photograph. This photograph and video were in a Guardian newspaper online article which also contained another image from Twitter. A Telegraph reporter had photographed the little  boy after treatment – bruised and bloodied with a bandage round his head. The photographs went viral.  Again nothing has changed.

I’ve read quite a lot recently about digitising atrocity and the role of the photojournalist. Peggy Phelan’s essay ‘Atrocity and Action: the Performative Force of the Abu Ghraib Photographs”(2012) very much  drew me .  I won’t go into detail here because she takes a different, more philosophical approach concerning the way in which we, as viewers, of images such as the Abu Ghraib photographs respond; disavow, become defensive, angry. Her reasoning is complex, introducing the concept of the “….. given-to-be-seen and the blind spot that are central to seeing a photograph” and I want to return to the essay in future to re-read and digest more fully. Phelan begins with the questions posed by such photographs; the actions portrayed within them and also the viewer’s potential action – “What can I do to fix this? How can I limit this atrocity?”

 

PS Ariella Azoulay wrote about “The Civil Contract of Photography” (2007). Azoulay wants action not empathy and believes we don’t know how to look at such images. This is a note to access the book.

 

Exercise 3.1 – Fred Ritchin Towards a Hyperphotography (2008)

I found this essay very interesting – in fact it led me on to research other articles, videos etc. There’s a strong message coming through all of them in relation to photo-journalism and its need to use interactive digital methods to engage, weave together multiple narratives, and allow all points of view to emerge.  All this achieved through hypertext and hyperlinks which can be contained within an image (hyperphotography)  so that further information can be accessed.  His example of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is a very clear one to begin to understand his concept and here is a helpful Wikipedia article that gives contextual background and presents other photographs taken at the same time. Imagine though a web image of the actual photograph with links embedded that travel to comments and memories from Florence Thompson and her family. In the essay Ritchin writes ‘reality has no single truth’ (2008:147). He posits the idea of a contradictory ‘double’ image which is cubist, staged events  or simulations which could be exposed by a second photograph.

The Exercise asks if we can find any visual examples of ‘cubistically unmasking photo opportunities’ and to look for multiple points of view around a single news event or story. In his essay Ritchin refers to the  website akaKURDISTAN here  – “a place for collective memory and cultural exchange”.  There is a story map and the introductory panel quickly changes to a map which has highlighted yellow spots

Every spot takes the viewer to a different story. One took me to images and story from a teacher of what happened at midnight on June 19th 1963 to the people of Sulaimania. Many were captured and four teachers were executed and placed in a mass grave.  No one knew about this until November 1963 and when the bodies were exhumed a friend of theirs (the narrator) took photographs of the exhumation. The father of one of the executed men said, “I have no photo of me with my son so please take our picture together”.

The website was one of the outcomes from work by the photographer Susan Meiselas  who used MacArthur Foundation funding (beginning in 1992) to curate a photographic history of Kurdistan which resulted in a book as well as the website.

I will be writing more about Fred Ritchin’s views on photojournalism in a digital age in Assignment 3.

Summary Notes on Archives, Photographs and Indexicality

Readings and Reflection: Brief notes on Archives, Photographs and Indexicality

The following notes are a synthesis of my reading (so far)

Archives

Any archive has a structure and has been built for a specific purpose. This will mean that its contents are filtered to meet that purpose both from the intentions of the archive itself and also the fact that it is not possible to keep everything. Archives hide history, secrets and truth but can be interrogated – or psycho-analysed as Jacques Derrida termed it (bearing in mind he said this in the context of a Conference at the Freud Museum) Derrida, J (1995)– and de-constructed to explore new meanings. Artists can ‘lend speech’ to traces of the past.

Photography

Photography is simultaneously the documentary evidence and archival record of an event (Okwui Enwezor 2008) see here also . As such the making of a photograph is a mechanism of time-travel through which we return to the past and also create new meanings. Like other archives photographic archives also only present a version of the ‘truth’ but can be similarly de-constructed to find hidden meanings and produce new work (see H. Foster [2004] and my summary here  and also my writing on the way in which photographers have approached archives here   .

I was taken by Freud’s concept of the Mystic Writing-Pad, (S. Freud 1925) and its similarity to a palimpest in how it leaves a trace of the writing that has been erased.  This widened my thoughts towards the traces left on our skin from our life experiences – scars, wrinkles, tattoos.  Then I considered the photograph as such – the mechanics of its construction,  the way in which ink is layered on the photographic paper and how the photograph as an object in itself is affected by changes through time – changes which can be analysed. I think that Photoshop layers are another way of portraying new narratives; layering different photographs, documents or fragments from different time periods and have experimented with using this strategy.

The concept of an archive depends on a recognized structure, just as a family album usually has a particular structure/order to form a narrative that the maker wishes to portray. There’s anarchy though in an ‘archive’ consisting of fragments, ‘orphan’ photographs and un-dated documents which I think provides even more freedom to make of it what one will. However, when photographs are removed from their original context (including a family album) they become detached from collective memory and are forgotten or might be revealed as images that in their very banality, erase or negate meaning. Thomas Demand made this point about the construction of historical memory and the partiality of photographic vision with his work Room (Zimmer) 1996   when he re-staged a 1944 photograph by Adolf Hitler’s official photographer.

Thomas Demand.Room Zimmer) 1996
Room (Zimmer) (c) Thomas Demand (1996)

Demand created paper tableaux and photographed them to provide an illusion of the ‘real’, attempts to reconstruct an historically grounded, 3D ‘reality’ based only on information contained in media photographs.

However,  a photograph removed from its original context can yield hitherto unnoticed information for example Gillian Rose’s respondents believed their family photos were truthful in showing what somebody really looked like but they could also see truths not seen at the time – such as illness (G. Rose [2010]).

Notes on the indexicality of photography and memory

I’ve much more to read on this so the following are serving as a bookmark.

Regarding the ontology of the photographic image – this enables the subject to elude death because, by its very nature, the image preserves the subject through the act of memory and remembering – the ‘victory of time’ in artificially preserving bodily appearance. (Bazin, A & Gray, H [1960]). Interesting to me because the first sentences link the origin of painting and sculpture with a ‘mummy complex’ and I only recently wrote about photography, memento mori and sacred objects here . This implies an indexical relation between the image and its referent, and a reliance on memory’s capacity to recall such images but it is now frequently emphasized that our memories are faulty (which is problematic given that much of our Criminal Justice system relies on the memory of witnesses).

A photograph might be both evidence and record of an event but this is mediated by the influence of memory, perception/psychological processing of events in the past. For example, with my family photographs I have often either known the person or heard stories about them and so this cannot but influence the way I read these photographs. I don’t think we can escape our psychological/neurological make-up, but we can become more aware of the process and challenge it.  Added to this, memory (whether it is ‘true’, probably true or ‘false’) is the foundation of our sense of identity. If it is challenged, then the individual has to process the effect of cognitive dissonance – deal with new truths or harden current beliefs to retain/renew sense of self.

I also think of imagination in relation to memory, including the process of ‘magical thinking’ that we still retain in some form after childhood, and that allows us to re-shape our perception (and memories). Writers such as Simon Schama (1995) have pointed towards the effect of collective memory in particular places – often connected with sites of tragedies of human nature. In his writings on ‘Aura’ Walter Benjamin also had a view that the events of history, “shrivel up and become absorbed into the site of the event” (1977:179).  These feelings that people experience, how much is that due to imagination I wonder; imagination that allows us to be in that place, here and now, and then, in some fashion, extend our senses into an empathic response to it? In fact, can I even extend this to photographs and Barthes’ ‘punctum’?

 

References

 

Bazin, A & Gray, H (1960) “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4. (Summer, 1960) pp-4-9 at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Bazin-Ontology-Photographic-Image.pdf (Accessed on 26th January 2017)
Benjamin, W (1977) the Origin of German Tragic Drama, Verso Press
Derrida, J. (1995) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression
Enwezor, O (2008) Archive Fever : Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, New York, ICP
Foster, H (2004) An Archival Impulse in OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, pp. 3-22 MIT Press
Freud, S (1925) Note upon the “Mystic Writing Pad” (1925) pp in  Freud, S (1963), General Psychological Theory, Chapter XIII, Macmillan Publishing Company, pp 207-212
http://www.caareviews.org/reviews/767#.WIoo67F0eWY
Rose, G. (2010) Doing family photography: The domestic, the public and the politics of sentiment. Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing.
Schama, S. (1995) Landscape and memory. London: HarperCollins Publishers.