Cultures of Consumption

Madeleine Corcoran’s thought provoking post over on the Duckrabbit blog about the ethics of using a World Press winning photograph to promote an album forced me to return to some writing I’ve been labouring over for a while. While her post rightly engages quite specifically with the ethics of taking a news image out of its original context to promote a product, for money, my own concerns are a bit more general.

I’m fascinated by consumption in a broader cultural sense and how this is tied into the particularly powerful ability of photography to reduce fleeting, transient things like a moment between two people into an object ready to be consumed at will (quite literally consumed in the sense that something is used up each time an image is viewed, the image’s ability to effect is diminished, and the context of that diminishing power is significant). Photography is a process of production, the camera makes products out of everything that it captures, and the difficulty is of separating legitimate consumption of those photographic products from the gratuitous or distortative is huge. For that reason my own writing on the subject is at a painfully early stage. Gradually like all ideas I suppose it will develop its own gravity, drawing appropriate ideas into orbit around it until it reaches some sort of critical mass. Until then will remain lurking but unseen.

Judging by the comments posted in reaction to Madeline’s writing, these are controversial issues that not all photographers want to talk about. I don’t agree with all the points she makes in the post, but I do think these are important issues that need to be raised and discussed even if they are ultimately dismissed, and photojournalism, perhaps photography in general, would benefit greatly from more of these types of debates not less. I think its rather telling that this isn’t the first time a World Press winning image of a moment of intense human suffering has been used as an album cover, Malcolm Browne’s photograph of Thich Quang Duc self-immolating made it on to the cover of Rage Against the Machines first album and subsequently all sorts of merchandise. It probably won’t be the last time either.

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