New forums for documentary – Post documentary Photography, Art and Ethics

Exercise

Read the article ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ by Ine Gevers (Documentary Now! 2005).

Summarise in your learning log the key points made by the author.

The article was broken into different sub-headings so I will respond likewise.

Preamble

Main points –

  • Documentary photography is a tradition with its own history and reflection.
  • Since the Seventies there has been such a blurring of boundaries
  • In today’s post-media age,  should there be a new label of ‘post-documentary photography. ‘
  • What is the ethical stance of the photographers?

Introduction

Main points –

  • Aesthetics is a complicated concept, and needs much clarification and examination.
  • Looked at etymologically, aesthetics has an ethical foundation.
  • Aesthetics and ethics are intertwined. Aesthetics growing from ‘ethics of perception’ into ‘a concept that appeared to be more and more autonomous and was no longer accountable to anything or anybody.’
  • Ethics and aesthetics is a contentious issue with ‘The media merely see ethics and aesthetics as antitheses.’ ‘Thoughts about beauty and truth seem to have ended in stalemate.’
  • ‘Faded aesthetics’ (a new sub-label?) can be ‘presumptuous, elitist, arrogant, undemocratic and even fascistic at times.’ it ‘judges, censures, discriminates, stereotypes and restricts.’
  • Aesthetics has become dogmatic and can cause more harm than good.
  • Postdocumentary photographers, filmmakers and artists question if their work can be defined on an ethical instead of purely an aesthetic perspective
  • Oscar van Alphen is cited as being influenced by Barthes, Foucault and Bataille, and  turning away from aesthetics.

Photography: objective, aesthetic, colonial

  • Photography opens up our world, enlarges our awareness, creates knowledge and makes everyone share in experiences
  • Photographic images, whether they are documents, snapshots or works of art, can turn people into objects. Introducing cliche and the ‘numbing of our conscience’ – Susan Sontag
  • Documentary rather than being a mirror to reality too often is used as a tool for propaganda and indoctrination.
  • Documentary photography  too often supports the ‘status quo of oppressive institutions and practices.’
  • Documentary film and photography are being harshly viewed in light of  post-colonialism.
  • ‘Representation in its totality is in a crisis’ – possibly a little over dramatic in tone?

Examples

  • Gevers links photography to scientific disciplines, archiving and research
  • Postulates that American artist, writer and activist Martha Rosler is not a documentary photographer herself but uses documentary photography in her work. Subverting ‘qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word.’
  • Rosler introduces the idea that photographs alone are incomplete, inconsistent and inadequate ‘descriptive documents’ embrace different disciplines and media, also collaborative projects with people.
  • Gevers discusses Allan Sekula, who has ‘appropriated documentary photography as his domain’ yet ‘opts more consciously for a recognisable aesthetic approach,’ focusing on ‘social, cultural and political-economic developments in today’s (post)capitalist society. The photographic work never stands by itself.’

 

Representation – interpretation – counter-presentation

  • Photographic documents can be turned into commodities which can be distasteful given some of the subject matter, being ‘distorted’ by presentation e.g. The Killing Fields
  • ‘In 1997 the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited a selection of the S-21 portraits, oblivious to their problematic role in the politics of representation. Elaborating on an existing tradition, the photographs were selected and presented on humanitarian grounds. The public, however, regarded the photographs as art, an aesthetic appreciation that was nurtured with no shame whatsoever.’
  • A more recent example would be images from Abu Ghraib prison, ‘which were sent out into the world like trophies.’

Alienation as strategy

  • The reaction of the art world to the attack on the Twin Towers was a mix of shock but impotence
  • The awareness of the aesthetic impacted on what to show and how to show it
  • More and more filmmakers are turning to deliberately not showing images, a tactic that goes back to Guy Debord’s 1952 film without images, Howls for Sad.
  • Alfredo Jaar (1994) travelled Rwanda and took thousands of photographs following the mass slaughters – later, he made an installation Real Pictures. The installation contained many photographs from Rwanda, but only one could actually be seen. The rest lay in piles of closed black boxes.

‘The artist’ in aesthetic terms

  • More philosophy from Alain Badiou, ‘the artist’ is someone ‘who feels the necessity to pursue a personal truth and to remain faithful to it in spite of considerable opposition. According to this argument, being an artist and ethics are inextricably bound up with each other.’
  • Truth is not something that can be communicated

Personal is political

  • Gevers returns to Rosler and an argument that ‘photographers and artists have shifted their attention to ‘the small’, the personal. Their goal, it seems, is no longer to change the world but to know it.’
  • The Atlas Group’s pictures show how, on the basis of personal experience, truths can be formed and put into context in such a way that the viewer can supplement them with his/her own experiences and observations.
  • Photographs themselves have no weight. Only those images acquire meaning that have it in themselves to unleash such a truth-process
  • It is up to the viewer as co-author to give weight to the image – Barthes punctum

 

Wow…ok…lots of insights and having to pick between examples to get to the main points which seem to be that ethics and aesthetics collide a lot in documentary photography, that don’t believe everything you see, everyone has an agenda…messages can be put across in many ways. The interpretation of the image is the responsibility of the viewer and when this is realised ‘only then can an image, a documentary photograph, a written intervention, a staged situation, give the other the opportunity to become involved and engrossed.’

Research

Gevers, I. (2005) ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ in Documentary Now!

http://inegevers.net/site/?s=publications&id=244

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