The MA course began last week with an introduction of the global image. The tutor provided an overview of how photography today is ubiquitous and is encountered by the majority of the world’s population on a daily basis in many different forms and for many different purposes. As a result of the pervasiveness of photography he stated that there is great diversity in this medium.
The tutor used an example of Sebastian Salgado who has been to some of the most remote parts of Brazil to photograph the local populations who have not previously been exposed to the medium and noted that he is a photographer who is divisive when it comes to discussions around the moral challenge of photography and the sometimes objective nature of photography to focus on difference and the other. I found this interesting as I had never really thought of Salgado’s work in this manner but perhaps this is because I had not explored his photography very deeply and only admired his work on the surface.
I have been reading “On Photography” by Susan Sontag and the Salgado comment made me think of one of the observations that Sontag had made:
“The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning, and marks the confluence of the Surrealist counter-culture and middle-class social adventurism. Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentarists prefer the latter …. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality that is hidden from them” (Sontag, p. 55)
This resonated with me as I have been very interested in documentary photography as a genre and it is one that I would like to explore further as part of this course. From my limited experience it does seem the case that documentarists have tended to focus on lower depths. For me, perhaps this will also be the case on occasion, however I would hope that this is not purely for fascination of “the different” or “the other” but rather to raise awareness of a particular situation – whether to celebrate this or to help advocate for change where appropriate.
Documentary photography is an incredibly wide genre and I am reluctant to pigeon hole myself into a particular style as I believe that there is a lot of crossover across various genres and sub-genres of photography. For example, documentary photography is typically associated with photojournalism or street photography yet it may also incorporate distant landscape photography or intimate portrait photography. What I think is important as a documentarist is to find a subject that matters to the photographer and to bring this to life through their photography. This was something that was also emphasised by the tutor in considering our final project as part of this course.
At the end of the first introductory presentation, we were asked to post an image of what we felt addresses the theme of the global image. In thinking about the phrase “the global image” I had considered two different aspects. The first relates to the democratisation of photography through enhancements in technology providing access to photography to many through different platforms in creating a photograph or viewing that photograph. The second relates to the way in which a photograph can have a global impact on society. For the purpose of this exercise, I chose the second theme in picking the photograph below taken by Ron Haviv in Panama in 1989 that I came across during an online Creative Live workshop led by Ron Haviv and Ed Kashi.
Haviv. 1989. Panama. Al Jazeera [online] Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/05/magazine-read-panama-1989-150521084631350.html [accessed 20/09/16]
The photograph shows a bloody Guillermo Ford, who was the vice-president elect following the recent Panamanian elections, being beaten by a paramilitary with a soldier looking on doing nothing to prevent the situation. The country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega, had lost the elections and nullified the result resulting in the would-be victors going out into the streets to protest which led to battles between civilians and the military. Guillermo Ford was arrested shortly after the photo was taken but the photo ended up on the cover of several leading magazines including Time and Newsweek. Not long after the photograph was published, George H.W. Bush, the then US president, announced an invasion and used the photograph taken by Ron as justification.
This is just one example of how powerful photography can be. It can have a significant global impact on society, either positively or negatively. The enhancements in technology since this moment back in 1989 have made this an ever more important medium as photographs are now taken by everyone on a continuous basis and can be easily transmitted to all corners of the globe at the push of a button. There have been hundreds of cases in recent years of images going viral with significant knock-on effects on individuals or society.
One of my peers posed a good question as to whether an image going viral in the blink of an eye is always a good thing giving the example of the riots in Tottenham. These were aggravated by pictures on social media. He noted that the democratisation of photography had in some respects let the Genii out of the bottle.
A fellow student posted an interesting photograph of the silhouette of the general public holding up their various cameras and smartphones to take a picture of the Taj Mahal in the background. This reminded me very much of my first thoughts on the global image and the association with the democratisation of photography. This would be something that I would explore a little further in the latter part of the week. In response to the same image, another student commented on how this reflected the current status of photographic tourism and how in a lot of cases people just take a quick snap to show that they have been there rather than actually opening their eyes and ears to experience all that the place has to offer. Sadly, this is very true.