Why Teach Photography?

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Colored school at Anthoston, Kentucky
Lewis Hine, 1916

These days about half my working week is occupied with teaching and with its accompanying activities; preparation, marking, tutorials, admin, standing in line for coffee. The amount of time I’ve spent occupied with this, and the fact I’ll be undertaking a post-graduate teaching qualification this year, has led me to think more and more about what it actually means to teach. Having been surrounded by teachers for much of my life, at home, at school, at university and then in college, it has always seemed such an everyday activity that it didn’t seem to warrant consideration. Teaching seemed entirely natural, like talking. Since I have started to teach I’ve gradually begun to think about it for the first time as a practice in the same sense that I think of photography or writing, as something which is cultivated and developed over time, which grows and evolves and solidifies, rather than being something that one just rather mechanically does.

This shift in perspective has opened up a multitude of questions for me, about what my ethos as a teacher is, about what constitutes good teaching, about how teaching can be sustainable and can not only function alongside other areas of my practice but in direct harmony with them. I have gradually started to synthesise some of the resulting thoughts into writing. I do this in the knowledge that these conclusions are likely to change over the following years as I think and learn more about teaching (and also as I do much more of it) but that’s rather part of the point. The ability to look back at my thoughts about things has always been part of the purpose of this blog, ossifying ideas so that later I can return, cutting through the strata of years of intervening contemplation, to arrive back at the bedrock, the foundations of it all. It is interesting in doing this to find that writing which seemed so essential and fresh at the time of putting pen to paper, now appears on rereading years later to be composed of nothing but ill shaped thoughts and vestigal ideas.

My approach to teaching has always been based on my own experiences as a student and of my relationships with those teachers who I remember years later, whether for better or for worse. I have always felt that one can learn as much from the bad as from the good, and like most people I have in my time had to contend with indifferent, bored, and even downright aggressive teachers and lecturers. I have been taught by people who made little effort to disguise their contempt for their students or mask the sense that teaching was a burdensome thing distracting them from their true calling in life, whether that was performing in a pub rock band or researching an obscure period of history. I’ve also been taught by people who actually seemed to rather hate their subject. These people have in a strange way become a minor guiding light of mine. They are a reminder to always strive to never become like any of them, and a reminder that whatever difficulties and frustrations are occurring elsewhere in my life I need to be mindful not to carry them into the classroom with me.

The many positive learning experiences I have had over the years as a student have been far more of an inspiration for my own teaching than the negative ones. I’ve had teachers who brought subjects to life and to light, who went to great lengths to make sure I understood, but who also did more than the bare bones of just decanting knowledge and making sure it stuck. I’ve had teachers who took time and expended effort to engage and know each student as far as they could, and in the process, they helped us know ourselves. These experiences all inform the class room environment I hope to create, one where students feel understood, that their tutors are interested both in their work on the course but also more broadly in what motivates and interests them. I hope an environment like this will in turn foster a sense that a diversity of experiences, interests, backgrounds, orientations and goals are all equally welcome, where students feel able to push and explore ideas about the wider world and about their own identities and aims. I don’t want to simply define photojournalism and documentary photography to my students, I want them to define it for themselves, in relation to their own experiences. Learning has been and continues to be a profoundly empowering process for me, a shy child who was always more interested in the constructions of his own inner world than the arbitrary reality outside of it. I want my students to have a similarly empowering experience, even while I recognise that the knowledge that matters to them and ways they might be empowered by it are likely to be very different.

At the same time as feeling empowered by education I want students to feel positively challenged in classes, intellectually and practically. This aim sometimes competes with the intentions outlined in the previous paragraph, particularly where a student group encompasses a broad spectrum of abilities and personalities, some of whom might require more or different challenge than others. A famous declaration by Finley Peter Dunne comes to mind when I think of teaching, his suggestion that the purpose of a newspaper was ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ would seem to have some relevance in the classroom. One aims for fairness and equality in treatment, while at the same recognising that different students need different guidance. Some students come with little confidence and need to be fortified simply in order to get them to make work, others come with an excess of confidence in their own abilities and need this to be questioned so that they can see the work they make with different eyes and in doing so make it better.

The Dunne quote I referenced above is also instructive in that it reminds me to constantly ask what the social function of teaching is, and to scrutinise where one stands as a teacher in the structures of society. Judging from my own experiences there is no fixed answer here, teachers can be activist, transgressive and speak truth to power (E.P Thompson’s searing expose Warwick University Limited comes to mind as an example from my alma mater). They can also  be conservative and defensive of ingrained inequalities and vested interests, a fact that seems particularly worth remembering in the context of the photography world, with it’s massive and largely unacknowledged inequalities, myriad gatekeepers and special interests. The idea of education as a force for social change, as articulated by Paolo Freire is one I find compelling, even if the promises of his ideas might be more modest in 21st century Britain than in the context in which he originated them. With the education sector increasingly seen as a business and students as customers, Freire’s ideas about how education can be a source of liberation or a means of entrenching inequality and his calls for solidarity and a blurring of the boundaries between teacher and taught seem highly relevant today. Likewise his idea of consciousness building seems pertinent to a field like documentary photography, where such a large part of the work is a process of disentangling the complex issues and systems one hopes to explore.

And lastly, I often find myself mulling questions of sustainability in a variety of senses. In some ways I find it remarkable how little technology has so far disrupted the teaching profession in contrast to other fields. I can’t see this lasting, and the smart teachers and institutions will be the ones anticipating how technology will change the demand, nature and delivery of education. An area I’m interested in specialising in is the use of online teaching platforms, technologies which bring with them their own peculiar dynamics, challenges and possibilities which are quite different to those of the physical classroom. With much current discussion of the precarity of the teaching profession I also find myself thinking about how teaching can be made professionally sustainable over the long term, both by working within traditional institutions of learning and outside of them. I often find myself wondering how teaching can work in harmony with the other things I want to spend my time on, and to some extent articulating these ideas here is a first tentative step into this area. The prevalent view of university arts teaching almost as a sort of subsidy for a small number of creative people to make their own work, research, or sometimes simply rest on their laurels, seems deeply unviable in the face of impending technological change, not to mention undesirable in the effect it sometimes has on those teacher’s attitudes towards teaching. So, these are the reasons I teach, because like so many things the challenges, promises, and the constant questions it presents are fascinating to me. In the end I teach, quite simply, because I want to learn.

An Exhibition and Book Making Resource

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Machine shop in the Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
c. 1909 – 1932

It might seem to rather fly in the face of what image making is now, but more often than not photography still ends up finally as a physical thing, whether as a book, an exhibition or something else. When this happens the extent to which the idea in a photographers head is realised in physical form is heavily dependent on the quality and variety of the firms that provide the paper, print the pages, bind the books, make the prints, mount them, and so forth. Both because I want to help support the companies that make it possible for us to do these things, and because I want to make life easier for photographers searching for the right firm to make their ideas into reality, I’ve been compiling a list of companies that might be useful for photographers. These range from paper merchants, to binderies, to fine art and business card printers, to film processors and camera repair firms. Alongside these I’ve also been updating my existing list of fee free grants, competitions and residencies and reproducing both as a rather more convenient embedded spreadsheet.

Originally I envisaged this new list as a resource for my BA and MA students, who often experience a mad flurry in the last stages of their studies to find firms able to produce the projects they’ve been labouring on over the previous months or years. Each year the teaching staff suggest this or that place as and when students come to us with requests or ideas, but I’ve long felt there ought to be a better way of doing this. Although the original idea was as an educational resource ass I’ve gradually worked on this list and shared it with incrementally larger groups of people, it’s also become clear to me that it would be a useful thing to many more established photographers. The list itself also benefits from this wider sharing since it very much depends on public contributions, you can see how for now, it has a very British bias and also tends towards the conventionally photographic (I would like add more firms offering esoteric services). So consider it a form of karmic contract. If you use this list, if you benefit from it, suggest a few additions in return.

On a more general note, as I’ve shown this to more people the response I’ve increasingly had is ‘how generous of you to compile this’. While it’s obviously nice to hear this I don’t see this project as particularly generous as all, this resource benefits me in my own work as much as it does anyone else. What I think that exclamation is more indicative of it how generally ungenerous and stingy the photography community can be, the way we often hold our knowledge close to our chests and can be really mean about sharing it with one another. The old idea that where one person benefits another most suffer some sort of deficit seems to remain a dearly held one in the photography world. So as much as being a useful resource I also hope this list is an example to resist this sort of meanness, and to embrace that idea that in helping others in the industry you more often than not end up benefiting yourself.

View the exhibition and book resource here.

View the competition and grant list here.

 

The Corrupting Image: Pornography and Propaganda

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Glitched Islamic State propaganda (Lewis Bush)

Can a photograph change the world? It seems like such a simple question, composed of only five words, and yet the tracts and discussions produced in the search for answer would fill shelf upon shelf. Such reams of paper and hours of debate over these few words stem from the knowledge that any conclusive answer would have radical implications for many of the ways we understand and use photography. To speak only of the two loose fields I am primarily concerned with, for photojournalists, documentarians and anyone who views their photography as a form of activism or advocacy, a conclusion to the negative would effectively pull out the foundations on which these practices are based. The intentions and understandings of photographers going back to Jacob Riis and earlier still would be rendered essentially flawed, their efforts and assumed achievements null. For artists and others who might position themselves as being above such lofty positivist aspirations as social change, the conclusion that photography really has no influence on the world it exists within would pose difficult questions as to why we employ it for anything at all. This is to say nothing for the implications for those who employ photography for a host of other practices, from commercial advertising to medical imaging.

I see the lines of battle over this question drawn more or less between three camps. For what might be called the positivist, or dare I say, traditionalist camp, the right photograph appearing at the right time can be decisive in changing the course of lives, ending wars, driving a humanitarian response to a crisis and much more. The second camp consists of those like myself who find themselves in no-man’s land of this question, believing that while photographs don’t themselves affect change in any profound or direct sense, they do have a capacity to work subtly on those who view them, causing slippages and disconnections in what we think we know. This in turn leads sometimes (but not always) to reassessments, reconsiderations and ultimately to us changing our stances. This occurs in ways which might be so subtle as to be almost imperceptible, or which might be more drastic, even conscious. For the third and final camp, who might be described as the post-positivist camp, photographs have no such power to create change. They act at best as momentary distractions, brief detours in the paths of thought that we follow which in the end do not change our final destination.

Yet as I have suggested before here, many of those who criticise the inability of photography make a real impact in the world would also readily accept that certain images should be banned or proscribed because they are perceived to have some power to pervert or damage those who view them. This is I think an interesting contradiction, rarely broken down and analysed, between the claim that photographs hold no power to do good, and the recognition that images can be a force for damage, a corrupting influence on those who view them. The influence of such images is a matter of significant public discussion, far more so than the question of whether journalistic photographs are able to influence for the good, a question mostly only concerns specialists and practioners of the medium. The press often erupt in discussion over the role of images of violence, in particular terrorist propaganda and extreme pornography, debating the extent to which it is their responsibility to show the former, and the extent to which access to the latter should be curtailed by state or corporate monitoring and intervention. These are not new conversations but urgency has certainly been added to them by the advent of the internet and the ready availability of both types of images, which can be called up in a moment by anyone, almost anywhere. Both of these ‘genres’ also clearly encompass a multitude of other media beyond photography, but in both cases photography is a significant and central means of their transmission.

Judging by the literature there seems to be little question that these types of extreme imagery do have an influence on those who view them. Studies of the effects of pornography have been particularly intensive, perhaps indicating the contemporary moral panic which often sees feature films with brief and mild sexual content given far more stringent ratings than those containing graphic violence throughout. The findings of these studies however are by no means consistent or uncontested, and research of the papers themselves suggests many come loaded with a definite prior agenda to prove or disprove the thesis the pornographic imagery is harmful. To pick out a few experiments. In 1986 Neil Malamuth conducted a study to determine the relationship between pornography and male violence towards women. His conclusion was that pornography had the capacity to exacerbate existing tendencies towards violence, but that it was not directly a cause. Ethical issues with exposing people to potentially harmful images make such experiments harder to conduct today, and as the piece above outlines much contemporary research into the effects of pornography rely on correlating a person’s self-reported use of such material with their view of relationships and the opposite sex, an approach which makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions or to identify other factors in a person’s makeup which could contribute both to a predisposition for viewing pornography and to difficulties relating to others. And yet there is also the question of whether the two issues we are discussing remain for some people largely separate worlds. Michel Foucault, who was active in San Francisco’s gay sado-maschism community, always resisted suggestions that these activities bore any relation to his philosophical writings on sexuality, power, and control. Whether this was a rare moment of naievity on his part, or whether sex can be ring fenced from a person’s intellectual life in the way seemed to suggest to his interviewers, is another question in itself.

Studies of violent propaganda imagery are harder to come by, with most instead focusing on the impact of direct exposure to violence at key stages in person’s life, rather than violence mediated through photographs. In 1961 Albert Bandura experimented with the effects of witnessing violence by exposing children to the sight of an adult punching a doll. When left alone with the doll many of the children repeated the same behaviour. His contested conclusion was that when confronted by violent behaviour we are more likely to copy it than to find it cathartic. Many of the attempts to engage specifically with the effects of violent photographic imagery have been philosophical rather than scientific, the topic a cornerstone of contemporary photographic theory from Susan Sontag’s much discussed 1977 book On Photography to more contemporary examples like Susie Linfield’s measured 2010 study The Cruel Radiance. There are exceptions to this trend though. A controversial study published in 2015 suggested that social media users could develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from the images of suffering, much of it violent propaganda, which regular circulates on these channels. This ‘vicarious trauma’ might not be as severe as trauma acquired from direct experience, but it suggests a powerful capacity for images to impact on those who view them, effects which might last long after exposure. Other studies have suggested it might not always be the default to identify with the victim of violence captured in a photograph, and that some people naturally identify far more readily with the aggressor.

Conclusions remain far easy to draw, but while the research often suggests different interpretations there is a common thread of acknowledgment that photographs do have an altering effect on those who look at them. This effect which in turn would often seem to alter their course and conduct through the world, whether in shaping a person’s relationships with others, or in the way they respond to subsequent violent imagery. It is interesting to note that far more intellectual energy has been dedicated to testing the destructive consequences of viewing imagery than considering the possibly galvanising effects, but it would seem to follow logically that this is a binary in which one consequence must exist alongside the other. It might also be worth noting that the two categories are not necessarily so exclusive as they at first seem, a fact hinted at by the conclusions of researchers who suggested that some people will identify with victims, and others with perpetrators. With this in mind these two categories start to collapse, and imagery which when viewed by some viewers in certain contexts is traumatic, violent and unpleasant, might in a different place, to a different viewer, be animating, even inspiring. The disparate responses to ISIS execution videos would seem to be an example of this, and it goes without saying that in terms of pornography what one person finds arousing another will find bizzare or even repulsive. With this in mind how can one begin to proscribe imagery on the basis of protecting a viewer, when the effect on the viewer is unpredictable until the moment of exposure? The banning of certain types of imagery in the belief that doing so protects the public, might be a modern day iconoclasm, a practice ISIS might teach us a thing or two, if our own history didn’t suggest we are already well versed in it.

Bringing the Drone War Home

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A camera mounted on a drone which belongs to ISIS, shot down by Iraqi security forces outside Fallujah AP (source)

In a globalised world nothing exists in isolation, and it has often been observed that whenever a country engages in an overseas conflict, something of the nature of that conflict often returns with the men and women who have fought there. In his book on the Soviet-Afghan war, the journalist Artyom Borovik described how Russian soldiers returned to the Soviet Union not only laden with contraband and psychological disorders, but he argued they also carried something far more insidious. Pondering the consequences of the war, Borovik wrote that ‘it’s difficult to determine exactly what we managed to teach Afghanistan. It is relatively easy however to assess Afghanistan’s effect on the Soviet people who worked and fought there. With a mere wave of [Soviet premier] Brezhnev’s elderly hand, they were thrown into a country where bribery, corruption, profiteering, and drugs were no less common than the long lines in Soviet stores.’ When the Afghan war began the Soviet Union was already a dying project, a body politic in the image of it’s ailing and elderly leadership. However the influence of Afghanistan, Borovik argued, was like a secondary infection in an already terminal patient.

The idea that the war returns in unexpected ways with the people who fight it is probably no less true of today’s conflicts, even if in some respects these wars are very different. As I wrote last week, the military hardware and tactics which are being brought to bear on the streets of US cities in response to protests like Black Lives Matter will all call to mind images of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq for which many of these technologies were originally developed and manufactured. Under the Excess Property or 1033 Program, the US government routinely dispenses surplus military equipment around the country for use by police forces, with materiel worth $449 million reallocated under this program in 2013 alone. There is much to suggest that the availability of something makes its use appealing in order to justify the fact that it has been made available in the first place, the explosion in the deployment of SWAT teams since the 1980’s would seem like an apt example. It is harder of course to argue the case that these conflicts have influenced a mind-set which produces police brutality, but there is certainly an observed tendency towards former soldiers entering law enforcement. Convincingly evidenced (much less empirical) estimates are hard to find, I’ve read anecdotal claims which suggest between a quarter and a half of US police officers have a recent military background. Whether those experiences contribute towards a higher propensity towards violence is also hard to say, one piece I read claimed that 75% of former soldiers applying to police forces are rejected in part because of issues with attitude.

Aside from the high powered sniper rifles and mine resistant vehicles deployed in US cities (both of which would likely have been familiar to Borovik during his time in Afghanistan) many of today’s conflicts are typified by a new type of weapon, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones. The United States wasn’t by any means the originator of this technology but it has been one of its most enthusiastic proponents, successive governments recognising in drones an opportunity to avoid politically toxic military casualties. What I’ve often thought is interesting about the US drone program is less its, for now, rather exceptional scale and scope but rather the likelihood that it will serve (indeed already is serving) as a model on which other countries and armed groups develop their own drone programs. The fact that groups like ISIS are deploying crude homemade drones like the one pictured above for purposes like reconnaissance and artillery spotting in locations like Iraq is not coincidence. This extends beyond pure technology and into the legal and moral consequences of drone use. With the United State’s drone programs making such extensive use of legal loopholes, and so devoid of accountability, this sets a precedent for other countries and organisations who might follow suite.

Finally, beyond the influence of US drones on overseas battlefields, what interests me is the possibility with this technology that there exists something of the same capacity to ‘bring the war back home’ that one might expect in a conventional conflict. Last week Micah Xavier Johnson, who was suspected of having shot and killed five Dallas police officers, was himself killed by an explosive device attached to the manipulator arm of a police bomb disposal robot. Citing the danger of tackling the suspect conventionally, the police instead employed a robot conventionally used for disarming explosives, in other words intend to save and preserve life, in order to kill someone. There are precedents for this in Iraq, with soldiers anecdotally using a multipurpose remote controlled robot known as a MARCbot mounted with an anti-personnel mine to investigate suspected ambush locations and sometimes even to kill. The leap from employing this tactic in an active conflict to a law enforcement situation is huge, and while the domestic arming of a bomb disposal robot is for now an isolated, improvised incident, so too have been many such precedents which later become the norm, including of course the military drone program itself. When more and more of the US fleet of armed and unarmed drones start to reach retirement or battlefield obsolescence, it will be interesting to see in what new roles they might start to find back on the home front.

At the Gates of Photography

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A U.S. Army soldier hangs up a Liberty Bond poster on a sentry box
during the Occupation of the Rhineland, c. 1919 (NY Times archive)

It’s notoriously difficult to ever speak of a ‘photography industry’ because when we do so we are lumping together so many disparate professions and practices within that broad phrase. Even breaking it down to the many industries within an industry, when we speak of a practice like photojournalism we are still talking about a very distributed, diffused and international activity, in the very opposite of many other professions which even today remain top down in organisation and much more clearly regulated by specific bodies like unions and guilds. Instead photography has a much more nodal, networked structure, with a great number of different organisations all presiding over their own fiefdoms, sometimes intersecting like venn diagrams, butwith the interactions between them often disjointed and scattered.

A diffused industry has some clear benefits, this plurality is a large part of what makes photography an exciting and diverse field, but it also has some very significant disadvantages. In photojournalism for example talk of ‘industry standards’ with respect to issues like ethics or photo manipulation is hollow precisely because there is no single body which defines what these standards might be and which can speak with any authority for the entire industry. Part of the mounting frustration aimed at World Press Photo prior to it’s recent rule changes stemmed I suspect from the feeling that the organisation was starting to look like exactly that sort of industry arbiter, and photographers didn’t much like it (even as much as many of the same photographers dislike the wide ranging inconsistencies over manipulation and the disputes which can result). At the same time recent scandals over sexual harassment in photography highlight the fact that without any overarching body which moderates and speaks for photographers and photography professionals it is difficult to adequately judge or bring action against people suspected of breaking rules or laws, informal or otherwise. Once the online storm dies down they potentially remain free to practice and in such a large and disconnected industry I fear there will always remain corners where they can continue to exploit their profile and ply their trade to people who might be unaware of their past transgressions.

The latter example is important because I believe this diffusion of power throughout the photography industry contributes to an environment where people can more readily abuse their power and get away with it, whether in ways which are subtle or extreme. In contrast to a traditional hierarchical industry where those who hold power are very clearly defined and often subject to codified rules and systems whereby that power can be moderated, censured or removed, the highly networked and distributed nature of the photography industry leads to a diffuse and informal distribution of power without oversight. The result is a system dotted with a great many gatekeepers who are often unmoderated and self-appointed. The maddening thing is that many of these gatekeepers refuse or fail to recognise their own power or to acknowledge the influence they can bring to bear on their corner of the industry. I sometimes wonder if this is a product of wishful thinking as much as anything. By and large the photography world tends to be left leaning, and the natural inclination of those in it is often to associate with those they see as being at the bottom of the heap rather than those at the top. That may partly explain the lack of willingness by many of the industry’s gatekeepers to acknowledge the power they hold because to do so involves recognising that they are part of the same groups that they might have spent much of their career imagining themselves arrayed against. I can say from my own experience that this dissonance is a challenging one to process.

A related issue which I identified in a recent piece on anti-intellectual undercurrents in photography, is the reality that not all gatekeepers are the same. They come in all shapes and sizes, as do the gates they guard and the rewards which await on the other side for those granted passage. While writing, it occurred to me that while I am still very much a new arrival in this field, I have already come to stand guard over numerous gates, whether as a writer about photography deciding which work to discuss and promote (or savage) next, or as someone selecting prospective students for any one of the courses I teach on. Hence why as I have become more and more involved in photography the more important it has become for me to find my own mechanisms for being accountable, whether those be the small critical disclaimers I often include at the end of reviews on this blog to reveal any connections I might have with work I am writing about, or in declining or donating payment for participating in things like portfolio reviews which I have serious professional objections to. From what I’ve seen these minor mechanisms of mine are fairly novel in the industry and to my knowledge are rarely employed by peers at the same level as me or higher. I’d like to see them instead become the norm.

I’ve argued before that privilege and power are less of a problem than what you choose to do with these things, and I would say much the same is true here. Gatekeepers are a problem but they are also a reality of a diffuse ‘industry’ like photography, and I think that in practice few of us would prefer the alternative of an industry which is highly hierarchical and has more formalised power brokers. At the same time, I really believe it is important to find ways to moderate and scrutinise gatekeepers of whatever size, and to my mind the most effective way to do this is to call on them very directly to self-moderate and practice accountability and transparency in their actions. Many of course will decline, but that should tell you plenty about these people. The role of the press has been said to be to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and I think we could do with practicing some of that within our industry, calling these gatekeepers out when they engage in dubious practices or when they refuse to be transparent about their motivations for promoting or demoting work they encounter. This has long been the role of the informal photography press, primarily blogs and websites including this one, but photographers themselves need to actively participate in this process if the voices that call these figures to account are to have any real weight and are to really push for greater openess.

Photography and Anti-Intellectualism

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 I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, John Baldessari, 1971

In a recent post on his blog Grant Scott argues that photography is a democratic global language and takes aim at the ‘powerful cabal’ of practitioner-educators who try to protect photography as something special, failing to equip students with the skills to survive, and punishing those who refuse to fall into line with their view of what good photography is. I agree with the ethos here and there is nothing productive about courses geared to churn out identikit students without the skills to make a living or the intellectual independence to make their own work and continue their creative development after their studies end. But there are also quite a few issues in this piece which need discussing in more depth, and which in some cases need challenging.

Major ones are the two assumptions in the title of the post, which I don’t really want to dwell on in great depth because I’ve already written about them both in past posts and may well do so again in the future. The ideas that photography is a language and democratic are both laudable aspirations, but repeatedly saying these things doesn’t make them true. Photography is not a global language, at best it is many languages understood by the many different groups who use photography in very different ways. The idea of photography as a global language takes no account of the complexities of what different images and symbols mean in different cultures and to say nothing of the need to simultaneously understand the customs and conventions that take place behind the creation of images in order to be truly ‘literate’ of photography. Likewise in terms of the democracy of photography, while the medium has certainly long had democratic potential I would argue that potential is still on it’s way to being fufilled and it remains primarily a tool of elite individuals, groups, and societies. Photography’s history to date has in fact often been the very opposite of democratic. It’s been oppressive, totalitarian and hegemonic.

What I really want to address though here is Scott’s concern with a particular sort of photography education. Again this is an area well worth scrutinising, and from my perspective photography education has its share of problems which need to be addressed through open discussion among teachers, students and the photography industry at large. It’s absolutely a problem when teachers take the approach of trying to shoehorn their students into making the same work as their own, and photography education at its best ought to be a space where students are free to be taught, learn and experiment in whatever direction they want within a framework aimed to steer them towards an independent career. But in connecting these problems with educators who make work which is ‘obtuse and deconstructed, supported by and clothed in a thick cloak of verbose socio-political language’ what Scott seems to be trying to do is to rather awkwardly lay these issues at the door of those who are interested in the intellectual side of photography, without acknowledging that there are bad photography educators of all bents, including those who are dogmatically interested only in the commercial and technical aspects of photography.

To me this criticism of what you might call ‘thinking photography’ is resonant of a barely latent anti-intellectualism in many sections of the photography world, an often quite inarticulate rage directed at people who want to talk about the ideas on which photographs rest, as well as actually making images. Abbas Attar (a photographer who I’ve long admired) once said that ‘young photographers think too much. If I did all that thinking, I would never go out and shoot anything’ which rather sums up this attitude for me. Referencing a famous quote from Magnum founder Robert Capa, photographer and educator Tod Papageorge offered a nice if unintentional rejoinder to Attar’s comment when he wrote that ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough’ [this quote was attributed to Papageorge by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Papageorge maintains he never said it. A tip of the hat to Adam Bell for that information]. Ideas certainly are sometimes poorly articulated, even by the people whose job it is to do just that, but some ideas are also just bloody hard to express. Their being so does not mean there is some sort of conspiracy to over intellectualise, to create privileged territories for academics and their favourites. To suggest otherwise and to imply that these sorts of discussions are irrelevant is I’d argue just a total abdication, a failure on the part of the accuser to engage with ideas which are hard.

Among certain sections of the photography community it’s fairly routine for terms like ‘artist’ and ‘academic’ to be used as terms of insult intended to suggest the target is hopelessly lost in their own esoteric field of inquiry, regardless of whether anyone else is concerned by it or not. Whatever you feel about artists and academics, the one thing you have to acknowledge about even the tallest ivory tower is that occasionally something drops out of it and falls to earth with a resounding crash. Academia might be a domain of people fixated on niches, but those niches widen out into things which later have enormous benefits for the rest of us. Scott’s piece is confusing in this regard because at one turn he seems to praise the mass of non-professional photographers for producing images without concern for ‘peer review’ (except what is an Instagram or Facebook ‘like’ but a mechanism of peer review?) while in the next breath criticising practitioners who are unconcerned that their work isn’t relevant to the great bulk of these normal people but only focused on institutional rewards and funding (i.e. their peers).

And now for the tough test, should we make the work that matters to us, or should we make work we think audiences will respond well to? The answer of course depends entirely on circumstances. If I do a job for a client, as I was before I wrote this piece, listening to my audience becomes pretty essential if I want to get more work. If I want to make photographs for myself, to see what I can do or where I can push my ideas, then broad audience response is much lower down the list of priorities. Throughout history not worrying exclusively about mass appeal has often been what has made for provocative, beautiful art work. As I said at the start of this piece, I agree with the Scott’s basic point that there is nothing useful about courses geared to churning out identikit students without the technical and intellectual skills to satisfy clients and themselves, but nor is there any value to being anti-intellectual for the sake of it, however easy the target and however fashionable it might be to do so. The fact is there are many gatekeepers in photography, and a career in the field often unfortunately ends up being to a lesser or greater extent dependent on these people. However not all gatekeepers are the same, the gates they keep are not all the same size, nor do they all lead to the same rewards for those allowed passage through them. Depending on where you stand Scott is a gatekeeper, and loathe though I am to admit it I have to acknowledge that I am one as well. That’s a fact something we both need to be conscious of, working actively to counter it in our deeds and words, and opening the gates we ward to as many people as people. Unfortunately this sort of reverse snobbery and anti-intellectualism is as bad at doing this as is the worst academic obfuscation.

Spiking the War Primer

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War Primer 3

This piece is an adapted version of a talk I gave at Helsinki Photomedia 2016 on the theme of materialities, and in my talk looking specifically thinking about how elements like material form contribute to the reading and meaning of photographic projects published as books. Over time I’ve become more and more interested in the politics of images, and I’ve found it’s often useful to think about photographs in terms of their having something of a metaphorical genetic code which might be mapped like an organisms genome and then sort of read for insights which can guide the way those images are treated and used. In the real world a genetic code is something we are all born with, but exposure to the environment causes that code to periodically change and mutate, in ways which might become a beneficial evolution or which might prove to be a fatal cancer. I’m interested in the way that different stages in the life of an image might do something similar, mutating the image’s base genetic code in ways which accent or even completely change the genetic code of the image. I’m speaking in metaphor here, but with digital imagery the idea of a photograph having a genetic code clearly becomes much more concrete.

One example of these mutational changes maybe is the context of your encounter with image, the situation you first see an image in (whether gallery, book, magazine, etc.) and the material qualities of the image in that encounter, whether it is printed, projected on a screen, or something else. You might take the example of how the presentation of forensic images in an exhibition like The Burden of Proof already prefigures how you understand these photographs, before any further context is provided for them. A second example is what the photograph actually shows, and perhaps just importantly how it shows that thing. Thirdly, going right going back to even before the ‘birth’ of the image, the technology that creates it is important to it’s politics if you feel as I do that the circumstances of any technologies creation become an irreducible part of it. For an example, the fact that contemporary civllian mapping satelites are the direct descendents of optical surveillance satelites is not something which can be separated from the images they produce, nor is the fact that the rockets that launch them are the direct descendents of rockets intended to flatten cities. These things all impart important elements of the genetic code of any image which results from them.

This will all probably seem very obvious to some people reading this, and in many ways it is obvious, but I think it’s those obvious things you can easily forget to include in the equation. Engaging with the politics of how images are made and disseminated is valuable because if you work in appropriative way as I sometimes do, or in a way which is commenting on the production and circulation of images, as I also try to do, this offers a way to identify how powerful images might be, at the risk of horribly mixing my metaphors, defused or ‘spiked’. For the uninitiated spiking is a method of sabotage once used to disable heavy cannons in wartime. It involves simply hammering a small pin into the channel which is used to light the main charge, thereby rendering a huge cannon is as good as useless with a piece of metal not more substantial than a nail. I’m drawn to the grace of this image of sabotage and this is more or less what I have sometimes attempted to do in my work as a photographer, to take a perhaps rather dangerous form of imagery developed, created or employed by powerful interests and to try to find a way to twist or subvert that visually in a way which turns that power back against the original owners and creators. I wouldn’t say I’ve always done it successfully, but that’s one of the consistent aims I have when I make work.

And so an example of where I’ve attempted to do this is with my book War Primer 3. This is an appropriation of an appropriation of an appropriation, where each level of appropriation mutates the physical form of the book to say and do quite different things. The first iteration of this was Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, the name given to the 1998 English edition of his 1955 book Kriegsfibel. This is a fascinating, creative and at times very moving analysis of the deceptive qualities of press imagery particularly in the context of war and politics. In essence it’s also a way of slipping semiotics in through the back door, and teaching people that press photographs can’t be trusted as objective information. The teaching element is also evident in the name primer, which implies a children’s textbook, and the physical form of the original version of the book very much plays to that. It is a mass produced, affordable and essential work. From a photography perspective what I think is really interesting about War Primer is that Brecht is sort of employing similar strategies to those that make his plays so compelling, primarily the idea of alienating an audience, showing them the cracks in the narrative and the medium sued to create that narrative, and in the proccess hinting at the arbritariness of reality, and the idea that reality is not a fixed thing but something we shape by our actions as individuals and societies.

The second iteration of the book is Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2. Again a fascinating work, the duo build on Brecht’s book by adding new photographs over his originals. This new images are intended to resonate with Brecht’s original poems and critically they all relate (more or less) to the global war on terror. In effect the duo thereby make the argument that many of the issues of censorship, propaganda and manipulation that frustrated Brecht remain present today, albeit by making a somewhat dubious equation between the Second World War and the War on Terror. More problematically for me, the method of production involved in the book turns it in to an unattainable art object. Even more problematic was the use of interns to produce the work. As with Brecht’s original I think there is a form of alienation taking place here, but it is less the alienation of Brecht’s epic theatre and more the alienation of Marx’s critique of capitalism, i.e the alienation of a workforce from control, profit or credit of their labour. I should say at this point I’m not a Marxist, my relationship with theory is much more that if something as resonances for what is happening in the world it is useful, and I think that’s the case here.

And so finally we come to my version, War Primer 3, which in turn appropriates Broomberg and Chanarin’s book and updates it into a piece about the global economic conflict that is capitalism, and which highlights various examples of the fallout from that. It does this by combining images of economic inequality and disaster with the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Readers History, which is very much a eulogy to the forgotten workers, soldiers and slaves of his history. One imagines interns might have featured in it as well. But besides these interventions a very important part of reworking the book was to return it to a material form closer to Brecht’s original intentions to make a book which was mass produced and everyday, like a child’s school book. Given the material resources available to me the only logical solution seemed to be to disseminate the work online as a PDF, so that’s the form it took. A physical book of War Primer 3 exists which served as the base for making the PDF, but the physical book is not the book, the PDF is. And I think an unintended but quite pleasing consequence of that is that when you search for War Primer or War Primer 2, my book appears scattered about the results. So while I haven’t perhaps nullified all of the things in it’s predecessor which I perceive as problematic, and while War Primer 3 also undoubtedly introduces problems of it’s own, it has for me been one of the better successes for me in terms of appraising the politics of images and then using that knowledge and a material form to try and spike them.

In Praise of Peers

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Ramillies Place street sign in the Peer Forum meeting space at The Photographer’s Gallery.

Today marks the final session of Peer Forum, a monthly mentoring session I’ve been organising since last year in conjunction with a group of nine other photographers and supported by The Photographer’s Gallery and Artsquest. Peer Forum provides a space for its participants to regularly meet and share work with each other for feedback and comments, as well as a chance to hear from invited guest speakers from a range of backgrounds in the industry. The idea for Peer Forum was that each person would share the same project throughout the six months as a way to sense what progress was being made and so that the group didn’t encounter new work each time, and so advice given would build on previous discussions. The result of this was, for me at least, really pretty amazing, and I thought I’d write up the experience as a way to mark its end, and make a general claim for the value of creating organised groups of peers within which to share ongoing work.

The project I’ve been sharing is titled City of Dust and it’s one which I’ve been labouring with for about two years. When I say labouring, really all I’ve laboured with was the idea, specifically suffering from a paralysis in terms of figuring out what I was trying to talk about this work, and an equal difficulty then getting the idea to match up with the photographs I’ve been taking. At the start of the Peer Forum process I was seriously thinking this might be a project I would just have to abandon, it had reached the point of feeling so untractable and unresolvable. Of course like many things we lose sleep about most of that intractability was just in my head, the consequence of tying myself in knots thinking about the project and failing to just get on with it.

Sharing it with a group of peers proved a turning point, and City of Dust has resolved itself from a miasma of loosely connected ideas and vaguely defined objectives into a much simpler and I think better project, which still addresses the key ideas that really interested me when I first started it. Simply having to articulate what I was trying to do to a group of people and listening to the confusion of most of the words coming out my mouth really helped to drive me to crystalise previously vague ideas. The more I spoke these ideas out loud the clearer they seemed to become. The impetus to make new work to show each time was also very useful, an artificial deadline of sorts which proved very motivating.

My positive experience of these six months has got me really interested in the wider possibilities of peer mentoring and learning, both as a tool I want to increasingly employ in my formal teaching, but also as something I want to to advocate for greater use of within the photographic community. I feel it could have a number of real benefits here, as an alternative for example to the trend towards paying for access to professionals for feedback through portfolio reviews and like, and as a way to counteract the inherent isolation of working as a photographer, particularly on your own projects. Of course almost all of us engage in peer mentoring on some level, typically the informal one of showing a friend a few photographs or a dummy book over a coffee or beer, but I think working in small groups and formalising these sorts of meetings offers a number of strengths.

For one a formalised group seemed to foster an environment of equality and quid pro quo which is very much at odds with the demands and power imbalances of paid for portfolio reviews. Advice is very clearly exchanged for advice and everyone has a go at both giving and recieving. This is also in contrast to what can happen in more informal exchanges where some people are much more routinely demanding of others and give less back in return. Another nice thing about Peer Forum was that things like age or career stage felt far less important in this sort of environment than they might seem to be in an informal mentoring situation or a paid for review. Equal membership of the group felt like a very effective (if admittedly arbitrary) leveller. These comments all come with the caveat that this was my experience of one group, we knew each other to some extent before the process began and were all fairly invested in the process. What I’m really interested to do now is to see how the positive experience I had of the proccess can be replicated in other settings.

Ken. To be destroyed by Sara Davidmann

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Ken. To be destroyed by Sara Davidmann

If the archive is defined as sort of memory technology for gathering fractions of a complex and disintegrating present so that it might later be retold, it is not hard to see why it holds such allure for photographers. Photography in a sense is a very similar practice, and photography as a medium has tended to carry similar expectional burdens to those of the archive. Expectations about objectivity and neutrality which are often misplaced and found wanting in the final account. Perhaps because of this closeness photography practice has undergone an archival turn in recent years, as a growing number of photographers and artists have turned to disparate archives for influences, ideas and material. To cite just a handful of examples you could consider Simon Menner’s interventions with the archive of the East German Stasi, the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition which included a rambling display drawn from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict, or more recently The Burden of Proof exhibition which makes extensive use of imagery from criminal and other institutional archives. The archival turn is an interesting one, particularly for someone with one foot still planted in academic history, but what I find is often missing when photographers make these turns are important questions about exactly what archives are, the politics of their making and survival.

The contents of Sara Davidmann’s book Ken. To be destroyed belongs to a particular genre of archive known to practically all of us, the family photo album. In many ways it reveals the sometimes misleading and constructed nature of these collections in a way which is not dissimilar to the supposed neutrality of bigger state or institutional archives, where some things are hidden, left out, or forgotten. The book tells the story of Davidmann’s uncle and aunt, Ken and Hazel Houston and the family’s discovery soon after their marriage in 1954 that in private Ken was transgender, something which in the context of the time was little understood either medically or culturally. To put things in perspective regarding British attitudes towards sexuality, 1954 was the same year that Alan Turing committed suicide after being convicted of ‘gross indecency’. Despite the discovery Ken and Hazel remained together pursuing joint interests including ballroom dancing, and Ken’s transgender identity remained a family secret up until and beyond his death in 1974. Despite Davidmann having worked for some time with transgender people in her own practice she only made the discovery in 2011 while clearing out her mother’s house. There she discovered several packages labelled with the four enigmatic words which are the title of the book, parcels which contained letters and photographs sent throughout the fifties and sixties between Hazel and her sister, Davidmann’s mother. This cache has allowed Davidmann to reconstruct the narrative of this family secret.

This reconstruction is achieved primarily through the letters, which recount events from Ken and Hazel’s first meeting through to Ken’s correspondence with doctors in an attempt to research and understand his condition. These letters are shot through with a very strong sense of a particular era in British social history, from the couple first meeting by writing letters to each through the British Friendship Society, a sort of analogue penpal service, to Ken’s tentative first contact with the Beaumont Society, an early advocacy and support group for transgender people. Alongside the letters are also reproduced a series of photographs of the couple, including a number taken by Ken of Hazel, which resonate strangely between affection and a tension produced by the sense of a photographer looking intenesely at another person who was what they themselves could never be. The photographs are initially reproduced unaltered and at approximate scale, but as the book goes on Davidmann intervenes with them in various way, for example tracking in close to the image, forensically scanning it for marks and traces, and in the proccess very much calling to mind Jacques Derrida’s obsession with the ‘substrate’ of archives, only in this case the concern is with literal substrate of the photographic print. In other cases Davidmann intervenes more dramatically, rephotographing or reprinting the images, overlaying them with objects, printing them as chemigrams and collaging them together. In one series Ken’s head is collaged onto Hazel’s body, an attempt Davidmann says, to imagine how Ken might have looked had he been able to openly liven as a women.

Ken. To be destroyed is an attempt to bring a particular story or record into the light, but there is a sense that it is also an attempt to resolve or settle bad history, to offer some sort of retrospective retribution however delayed. This will be an inclination familiar to anyone who has worked with archives which tell stories which ring with a sense of injustice or personal loss, and where the temptation is always there to try and heal the wrongs of the past, if only by the act of allowing them to be witnessed and remembered by the present. For the French historian Jules Michelet the task of the historian labouring in the archive was imbued with an almost ressurectional power. In the preface to his 1844 History of France he wrote of conjuring the forgotten of history from their slumber amongst the dusty documents of the Archive Nationales. ‘Softly my dear friends, let us proceed in order’ he wrote, ‘as I breathed in their dust, I saw them rise up. They raised from the sepulchre, one the hand, the other the head, as in the last judgement … or as in the dance of death’. The archival proccess as a sort of death dance is perhaps most apt, since the historian or the photographer must always know that any hope of restoring the dead to life is pure performance and illusion. For Derrida this was in the essence of the archive, as a place very much the product of the Freudian drive towards death, whatever the aspirations of the archivist or historian, the archive could only ever remain a form of tomb.

(Critical transparency: Review copy provided by publisher. Sara Davidmann is research fellow at London College of Communication, where I also teach. However we do not know each other).

What is Documentary Photography II

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People watching the solar eclipse of 1912, Eugène Atget

Words are exacting things, and however similar a synonym might sound, one phrase swapped for another will never mean precisely the same thing. This fact matters for a writer in much the same way that it matters for a photographer to know what a difference it will make shooting a subject close up with a wide lens rather than from a distance with a telephoto. Superficially, the content and meaning might seem the same, but the implcation of the image can be dramatically transformed by such a change. Definitions matter then, which makes it problematic for me when something is widely used but also unclearly defined. An example of that which I find myself confronted by on a regular basis, is the vague definition of documentary photography, the practice that has come in various ways to take up an inordinate part of my time. In particular, as I have come to teach the subject more and more that question becomes more constant, and the answers I attempt to offer seem by comparison shakey and uncertain. I’m hardly alone in this, and searching the web for the question ‘what is documentary photography’ reveals a host of malformed and differing responses, including an old one of my own.

I have attempted to define documentary photography here before, and to say that I feel the need to clarify further is not exactly to confess that the previous answer was hopelessly flawed. Each time you try to solve a question without a binary answer that solution reflects the depth of knowledge you had at the time about that subject, and perhaps the particular needs you had of that answer. As knowledge and experience grows, and most importantly is processed through the filter of thought and reflection, the answer that was given before starts to seem increasingly two-dimensional. Therefore, to return to a previously answered question is not exactly to admit the original answer was inadequate, but that it served a particular purpose at a particular time and place. I daresay this answer will also seem in time to be equally insubstantial, and I think that is just something that has to be accepted as part of the process of writing or thinking about anything.

Previously when I discussed the definition of documentary photography I took a very literal approach to the question, exploring the etymological root of the word documentary, with its connotations of learning and evidence, (however problematic such a literal definition might be in light of what we know about photography’s often-questionable role as witness and evidence). This definition I attempted to align these with a certain type of practice related to photojournalism and occasionally overlapping with it, but perhaps also more visually sophisticated, experimental and less canonical. This first attempt at definition is still a useful one for me, but it could do with some further augmentation. One issue I didn’t really discuss before is the self-initiated and personal nature of much documentary work, and I think that while this is by no means a universal or a prerequisite to regarding work as ‘documentary’ in nature, it is a fairly consistent attribute especially in the 21st century. This idea snuck in accidentally last time when I drew attention to Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph The Steerage as a prototypical documentary photography, an image which (as far as we know) was very much made in response to something Stieglitz saw and felt rather than in response to a commission or response. In the long run this poses the big question of exactly what aduience documentary photography is for. My previous attempt at definition, and others which are available online, suggest that the audience is often partly an abstract and unknowable future, that documentary photography is in part a practice of archive and record making for posterity or history, an idea I’d like to revisit in more depth another time.

Perhaps another rather more contemporary marker of documentary photography is its flexibility when it comes to dissemination and display. Photojournalism might be increasingly willing to appear in the art gallery, and art photography might make ever more forays into mass media and printed matter. However a characteristic which I think is defining for documentary photography in the 21st century is its ability and willingness to shape shift and adapt for different forms of dissemination, from newspaper and magazine to gallery wall via photobook, multimedia and dedicated website (and a great deal of other modes in between). For me what this hints more at is the idea that as far as one can talk about documentary photography as a coherent and stable practice, it is also one which readily overlaps with many other areas, most prominently photojournalism and art photography. While advocates of these two categories often seem keen to assert the integrity and separateness of what they do from other forms of photography, my experience of documentary photographers is they will readily and openly cannabilise ideas from other fields which appear useful to them (and that certainly can cause problems of it’s own). Thinking back to the discussion about professional names which I posted here a while back, I’ve noticed that documentary photography peers often hardly use the term themselves, typically describing themselves just as photographers. I’m not exactly sure whether that speaks to a readiness of documentary photographers to borrow from other fields and not to pin themselves down by definitions, or whether it just reveals the falsity of bothering to even talk about ‘documentary photography’ but there it is. Perhaps in spite of it’s roots in a very specific period of artistic and photographic modernism, a period which still exerts a very strong hold over photojournalism, documentary photography is now increasingly defined by the post-modernity of much of it’s practice, even if perhaps beneath that, it’s core beliefs remain rooted in much the same age.