As the somewhat disjointed nature of this post will indicate, it’s been hard to process the events that took place in Paris this weekend. That in spite of the fact that such things happen with depressing regularity in cities all around the world, as they did just a day before in Beirut. The Paris attacks have hit home with many I suppose because the city is so known, so at the heart of Europe, but also for me because they coincided with the Paris Photography Festival, and so countless friends, colleagues, teachers and students were in the city at the time. Miraculously it seems at the time of writing that no one from this photography community was caught up in the violence, although that makes little difference to what remains a huge loss of life, and particularly in an age when all of us are photographers of a sort.
The maxim that if you have a hammer you’ll see everything as a nail rings true for me in the wake of these events. As a photographer my response to too many problems tends to be to ask if by photographing or otherwise visualising it I can do anything useful about it. In this case, and in spite of my belief that photographs can be a powerful force for change, the answer is a resounding no. What the attacks in Paris have reminded me of, alongside the fragility of the ordered societies we in the west take for granted, and the preciousness of human life, is how very limp the type of photography I do is. This type of authored photography that so many had converged on the festival to see, discuss and buy feels in a moment like this to be so irrelevant, so unable to react to events as they occur, only able to pick through them long afterwards, if even that.
At the same time though the aftermath of these attacks is also already demonstrating in another sense how very important and powerful photography is, and also how dangerous it can be. Not the authored photography of artists, or even journalists, but the forms of photography which are often overlooked or looked down on by many of these people. Imagery produced by a panopoly of what are often regarded as naïve, artless or automatic sources, from bystanders on the street, forensic investigators, satellites overhead. It’s too early to know if photography played a part in the planning of these attacks, but it will certainly play its part in the analysis of the aftermath, where the scenes of the crime will be meticulously recorded using conventional and unconventional forms of photography. I expect vernacular photography also will play a part in the reconstruction of the timelines of the attacks, perhaps as it did following the Boston Marathon attacks, as the mass of imagery and video produced by bystanders is pieced back together to give a fuller image of events than the forensic still-life of a crime scene photograph can.
Photography will play a critical part in casting the perpetrators, as more images of those suspected of plotting and executing the attacks inevitably emerge. However broad or fine the net that is thrown, Muslims, Arabs, Refugees, Syrians, or young men from the deprived Parisian suburbs, the imagery that is published of those involved will play a part in shaping the way people process what has happened, integrate these events into their experience and outlook on the world, and decide which groups are henceforth to be feared, suspected, watched and, inevitably, photographed. This process of revealing the perpetrators and the choice of how to represent them is problematic for many reasons (consider how a man killed in error by the counter-terrorist police was visually treated). It’s not least problematic in that, as the photographs that have been published of British extremist Mohammed Emwazi show, one person can have many guises for the camera.
Lastly I suspect photography will play a part in the promised ‘merciless’ retribution, likely the same type of retribution already visited on Emwazi by British and American drones, which ‘evaporated’ him in a joint attack a few days before the attacks in Paris. As much as a means of understanding what feels like an increasingly frightening and confusing world, photography also helps to make that world what it is. The camera is a part of the extreme asymmetry of modern conflict, where one side blow themselves up in spectacular attacks staged partly for the media, while the other side builds the camera into the very spear tip of it’s weapons systems, into remotely operated aircraft or the nose cones of guided missiles. Photography picks up the piece, but it also plays a part in the destruction.