‘Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics – Ine Gevers

This article gives an insight in how to step out of the ethics/aesthetics dilemma and a new approach and vision on how to perceive documentary photography. A very good read, that I should probably read again to pick up more. Here are a few points that I want remember:

  • Postdocumentary photography doesn’t have a clear distinction between the roles of a photograph, documentation, registration or  work of art
  • Aesthetics used to have an ethical foundation, all that is beautiful is good, this has lost it meaning, because all that is beautiful is not necessarily true.
  • Focus on aesthetics threatens to colonize our gaze.
  • Stereotyped or system confirming messages are not just bound to one medium.
  • We have become part of the postmodern ‘society of spectacle’.
  • Artist should pursue personal truth and remain faithful despite opposition.
  • Contempary ethics come dangerously close to nihilism, there is a need to bring ethics back to concrete situations.

Ine Gevers. ‘Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ (Documentary Now! 2005)

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Exhibition – In the Shadow of the Pyramids

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In light of studying the place and effect of documentary photography in the exhibition space, Laura El-Tantawy’s In the Shadow of the Pyramids was very insightful and thought provoking. It is a very strong example of how an exhibition space can provide a space and setting that empowers the documentary value of the work and touches its viewers beyond the visual experience, leaving a profound impression and insight in the theme and subject matter of the work. I have been a great admirer of Laura El-Tantawy for a long time and was very excited to hear that her work was being exhibited in New Delhi.

The exhibition consisted of different constellations of images and sound, showing images of El- Tantawy’s childhood in Egypt, political uprises taken in Cairo between 2007 and 2013 and life streaming from Tahir square, connecting memories, hopes and reality in a very personal way. The images are very impressionistic, blurry and grainy and have a much more personal voice than regular photojournalism. In the accompanying booklet Rahaab Allana questions: When such an aesthetic is linked to the question of the photographer’s intent and function, the question arises as to the place and relevance of Laura’s atmospheric, evocative, lyrical images in a media-dominated world that almost invariably upholds and valorizes ‘factual’ representation as the legitimate expression of ‘truth’. Can subjective, poetic media documentation be trusted? (Allana, 2017)

I think they can, but maybe for different reasons than for the purpose of getting factual information. Because the images are so vague, feelings and emotions that entrenched the political uprises come across very strongly. Maybe because I was not distracted by specific details in the images I felt the urgency, desperation and hope. It almost gave the same sense as when you’re dancing in a party. Movements blur, you become more introspected, but on the other hand very aware of the emotions and atmosphere around you. So in that sense I think I can trust that the emotions that are triggered in me touch the emotions that the people on the square were feeling. I read them in the images and feel connected.

On the other hand, when I read the booklet and looked at the images again, but this time with captions and in chronological order, I felt a deeper understanding and became even more aware of the desperate struggle that the country has been going through. It is interesting to notice such a difference in interpretation depending on the amount of information and context in which I look at photographs.

Knowing that the Arab Spring did not last long and has not brought the future the Egyptians hoped for, the images carry a stronger sense of nostalgia and a heavier load than if we had not known the outcome. The sacrifices we see, the hope we read and triumphant joy turned out to be for nothing, a dream shattered, a country disillusioned.

Because Laura El-Tantawy includes images from her childhood, the viewer becomes aware that the photographs are much more than a documentation of a historic event. We see the shattering of the photographer’s dreams and hope, the longing for a time when a place seemed happy and innocent, in which dreams of change came true but were soon after shattered. As is written in the exhibition’s opening line:

The beginning meets the end.
Here I choose to bury my most valued possession.
In a place I once called home. (El-Tantawy, 2017)

Laura El-Tantawy mentioned in her speech that the Arab Spring is forbidden to be talked about or taught in schools. There is a strong censorship on this recent history, actively quieting the voices of protest. However, this exhibition is proof that it actually did happen, together with thousands of other images and documents that are still shared online. Interestingly, the political attache of the Egyptian embassy was at the opening of the exhibition as well. I am not sure how he experienced the work or whether he was touched by it, let alone whether it changed his opinion about it. However, it does show that elevating documentary photography in the art scene and therefor in higher social circles provides an entryway for the influential upperclass to experience it, snobby as it may sound. I believe it is very positive for different outlets of photography, the media, social media and art scene, to live next to each other and therefore reach an as wide audience as possible.

Text on exhibition wall:

El-Tantawy’s most impressionistic views embrace the spectacle of urgency in which the humanbeing becomes an unforgettable prism of crisis, fear, endurance, hope sorrow and other states of emotional extremity.

Such acts of bearing witness also raise the question of the discursive after-life of images – theirre-purposing, re-versioning and dissemination through continually circulated digital media. One positive outcome of such participation in Egypt was the establishment of activist-driven citizen journalism organizations such as Masireen and Thawramedia, which further substatiate the power of digital platforms, a fact confirmed by one newspaper declaring unequivocally: ‘Facebook is the revolution’s headquarters’. Clearly, the coalition of such activist forums into dynamic media alliances after the government had disconnected telephone and internet corroborates social media’s potential as a mode of opposition intervention and critique.

When a people’s revolution implodes, disintegrates or fails through being crushed by a regime or through internal fracture, any digital documentation of the distortions and abuses of power – globally circulating testimonials that cannot be seized, denied, erased or proscribed – becomes a multiple utterance of a particular truth. Technology may be used by oppressive regimes to pulverize protest, but it can also be eventually used against them through the freely distributed image. The critical domain of image reception that El-Tantawy touches upon is the importance of such counter-archives at a time of immense visual democratization and distribution. (Allana, 2017)

El-Tantawy, L. and Allana, R. (2017). In the shadow of the pyramids. [Photographic Installation Booklet] New Delhi: Art Heritage.

TAHRIR SQUARE: JOURNEY: IN THE SHADOW OF THE PYRAMIDS by Laura El-Tantawy. [online] Intheshadowofthepyramids.com. Available at: http://www.intheshadowofthepyramids.com/journey/tahrir-square/018_LET_egypt-book/ [Accessed 30 Aug. 2017].

Jim Goldberg – Open See

First of all I want to say that I am always struck by Goldberg’s work. He is able to say so much with seemingly little. He really lets his subjects speak, through written text, while at the same time showing work that is visually striking. This cooperation results in stories that come straight from the heart from his subjects, giving them a voice, showing their humanity, braveness and resilience under horrifying circumstances.

I believe that the gallery space is a suitable space to show this kind of work. First of all, because of the space, there is ample room to show the work exactly the way the artist would like it to, the overall experience of seeing, listening and doing (folding the boat) while concentrating on the life stories makes a very strong impact and leaves you changed.

When people visit the gallery and exhibition they are open to experience and think about the work, I think this is more effective than if it was shown somewhere else. On the other hand, I am not sure if the audience will be broad enough to tell the story to the ones who should be seeing it.

I think it is a responsibility of schools and museums to draw as many people from different walks of life to these exhibitions. If that happens, there is even a stronger point to be made for showing this in a museum.

The Judgement Seat of Photography

An interesting read that describes the developments of Moma’s relationship and acknowledgement of photography. Even though the phases Moma has gone through are very much in line with developments worldwide, I find it striking that each director has had a very strong influence on what was presented and therefore probably on the general attitude towards and acknowledgement of photography in general.

Newhall’s vision was the further establishment of the photograph as a piece of art, which showed in the installments, treatment of the photographs and importance of the work of the individual photographer. In a sense it sped the process of taking photography out of the realms of journalism and evidence, narrowing down its audience to the more elite, changing the subject matter from documentary and journalism to the qualities of the prints and techniques, focusing on the individuality of each photograph and photographer and through that rising photography itself into the realms of art.

I just can’t image what a shock it must have been for Newhall to be replaced by Edward Steichen, a commercial photographer who was used to produce and show work for a broad audience, focused on selling a product, or telling a story. Photography was given back to a wider audience, with the focus on telling a narrative, not the individuality of the photographer or image itself. Grandiose as the installations may have been, the pieces themselves were not valuable, nor treated as pieces of art. The issue here is that the stories shown were the stories Steichen decided on, the ideas of the photographers themselves were not as important. However, they did sell, and the stories triggered an interest in photography and journalism that has had a big influence on the generation of photographers that came afterwards.

Szarkovski continues Steichens storytelling but focuses on telling a full narrative in a single photograph, elevating and revaluing the photograph itself back in the arts’ scene and bringing back a focus on the individual qualities of the photographer. However, Szarkovski holds on to quite strict definitions of what a photograph should be and what it should hold, and is therefor quite exclusive in its curation of photographs, and might consequently have a preached a restrictive view on the meaning of photography and which works should be considered good and art.

After having read both articles, I am more aware of the powers that defined the place of photography in art, exclusivity versus access of a broad public, which narratives are told and by whom, the voice of the individual photographer and the role of the distribution of images and the context where this takes place.

With the rise of internet and the possibilities for photographers to market themselves or enter the art scene has changed dramatically. Besides being dependent on curators, a big emphasis lies on the behavior of followers and their taste on social media sites. It will be interesting to see how museums respond to this added element that defines the curation, success and sales of photographic work.

Phillips, C. (1982). The Judgment Seat of Photography. October, 22, p.27.

Benjamin, W. (2010). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Lexington, KY: Prism Key Press.

 

Documentary in the Gallery Space – Cruel and Tender

A few things that I find very interesting about this exhibition:

  • Through categorizing the photography in themes instead of artists, viewers are guided in discovering the meaning of the photographs in a certain context instead of the characteristics of the work of a particular photographer. It triggers viewers to make comparisons and discoveries that otherwise would not be made and puts iconic work under a different light. The photographs start to function as a response to each other, which layers new meaning and insights in the work and practice of the photographers.
  • Rineke Dijkstra mentions how men and women responded opposite to the ‘mothers’ series. How the men thought it was not alright to show women while they were so vulnerable, while women were relieved to see images of these life changing moments in which they are hardly ever seen. The discussion of whether showing and looking vulnerability enforces or weakens the vulnerable is a very interesting discussion.
  • Fazal Sheikh shows that the value of taking time to photograph a subject matter and involve the subjects in the process itself. His images are very powerful, I think also because the sitters were empowered by the process of being photographed itself. I am very impressed with the care he takes to do justice to the individuality of each refugee, giving them back a right of existence, even though they don’t have any place to go to.