Week 1 Webinar Reflections

As part of the first week’s webinar we were asked to select up to three of our own images that we feel relates to the theme of the global image. I cheated a little bit as I picked two images and then the set of three images below which provoked the most discussion during the webinar. I thought that these linked well with the theme of the democratisation of photography which is a topic I had also focused on during the online discussions.

week1webinar

In the first picture we see a man of simple means in Bastakiya, which is the old town of Dubai. He is wearing basic clothes, drinking water out of a polystyrene cup yet he has a mobile phone, a device that is not just used for a phone call as he is making here but also for taking photographs and sharing with family, friends or potentially the wider world.

I wrote about the way in which modern photography had acted as an enabler for those of lesser means to make photographs and in some cases to also forge careers in the industry such as in the case of Xyza Cruz Bacani or Mario Macilau. In this manner, photography is much more democratic when compared to some industries where progression can be dependent on wealth or familial connections.

The second image in the series is relevant here as it portrays the increased connectivity within the world today. Here we see a jogger who has stopped to connect to a free charging and wifi station on a beach in Dubai at night. The ability to access online resources provides our generation regardless of sex, race or social standing with a wealth of opportunities.

The last image portrays distraction. This is a portrait of my wife who I think was checking her work emails late at night and perhaps a little bit of Facebook or Instagram. One of the consequences of the increased connectivity is the speed at which photography can now move globally.

In looking at the three images together you can imagine someone with a smartphone taking a picture, connecting to free wifi and then it being consumed immediately by the user all within the space of a few seconds.

Technology has led to a saturation of the market and this poses a challenge to both the photographer in getting his work properly considered rather than being flicked through along with thousands of other images and the consumer in seeking out interesting content amongst all the other drivel.

There was a lot of discussion amongst the group around the sci-fi nature of the middle image and comparisons with Tron! The course leader asked about whether the images could also be read right to left rather than left to right which I thought that they absolutely could. He also proposed that I take this particular set of images further to try to expand the theme further beyond three images as he would be interested to see what would appear as the fourth and fifth images in a larger series. Something to take forward as a mini-project!

I was also advised that the three images together had a somewhat triptych feel to them, particularly with the smaller images either side of the larger image. I hadn’t considered this in the slightest when putting the images together and so it was interesting to hear that the way in which images are presented can have such an impact on the viewer.

A peer also referenced a photograph taken by Tom Hunter (“Woman Reading a Possession Order”) as the last image above seemed like a modern day equivalent with the use of technology. I had a quick scan of this and it was very interesting to see the comparison. I will definitely take a closer look at Tom’s work during the week.

There was a very interesting comment later on in another presentation how as photographers we can be somewhat mechanical. Whilst there is a lot of technical knowledge required, the mechanical nature can take away some of the artistic elements of our photography which is something that we need to battle with on occasion. There is definitely scope for my work to be less mechanical in nature.

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Reflections on Week 1 Presentations on the Global Image

Following the initial introduction to the Global Image, we were then provided with three presentations by the tutor on various aspects of the theme of the Global Image.

A Worldwide Medium

The first presentation on “A Worldwide Medium” provided an overview of the initial photographic processes and an introduction to the works of William Henry Fox Talbot, Niepce and Daguerre as the pioneers of photography.

I have quite a basic knowledge of the history of photography and so I found this the presentation very interesting. I was surprised about how quickly Daguerre’s type of photography (the daguerreotype) spread across the world. I have just picked up the book Photography: A Cultural History by Mary Warner Marien which provides a survey of the history of photography from the origins of photography right through to modern day. I think it is important for a practitioner to understand about the origins of their practice, how this has developed over time and also where it is heading. I think this is even more relevant for photography which continues to rapidly evolve day by day. I will write a separate post on the book once I have read this. It is 500 pages long and so this may not be next week!

Following the first presentation, we were posed with a few questions to consider for which I noted my thoughts below.

Do you see any parallels between the historic spread of photography and the transmission of digital imagery today?

The Daguerreotype spread across the globe through major cities along popular trade routes and colonial networks. Today the transmission of imagery is facilitated by the web-based trade routes enabled by technology to reach a much more global audience.

In the presentation we learned that African-Americans were among the first to take up the new technology demonstrating the appearance of a democratic industry.

Recent technological advances have brought about mass change in the photography industry enabling many who could not have afforded to pursue a passion in photography previously to do so. The ability to share work online has also enabled photographers who previously would not have been found to be discovered by some of the world’s leading agencies.

Two photographers that I have been following quite closely recently are Xyza Cruz Bacani and Mario Macilau who are great examples of current photographers who were raised in less privileged circumstances who have succeeded on a global scale with photography. Both have remarkable stories and it is well worth reading about their backgrounds and viewing some of their work if they are not already familiar. There are some links below for those who may wish to find out more about their work.

http://www.xyzacruzbacani.com

http://www.mariomacilau.com

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34090145

Mario grew up in Maputo where he did odd jobs at the market often sleeping overnight there instead of going home. He used his first camera aged 14 which he borrowed from a friend taking pictures of his surroundings and documenting people from the townships. He developed some images in the darkroom of his mother’s house but it was difficult for him to pay for the film and the chemicals. In 2007, at age 23 a friend brought Mario a camera as he had no idea how to use it so he swapped it with Mario in exchange for a mobile phone that his mother had given him as he was the breadwinner in the house. Friends told Mario about a way to share his photos online and how to create a blog which he did using the free internet to post his work online. Mario got positive feedback and was eventually invited to take part in exhibitions. In the short time since then Mario has gone on to get wide international recognition.

Xyza’s story is even more impressive. Xyza was a domestic worker in Hong Kong using photography to raise awareness about under-reported stories, focusing on migrants and human issues. In the short space of time as a photographer she has been recipient of a number of awards including being appointed as one of the Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellows in 2015. Her work has also been published in a number of high profile magazines and periodicals such as Foreign Policy linking back to our discussions earlier in the week about the role that photography has as an advocate for change.

Can you think of any problems associated with the speed at which the photograph moves?

The enhancements in technology in cameras and smartphones bringing about further democratisation of photography coupled with the ability to transmit images immediately via the internet and various social media channels provides a large part of the global population with a constant flow of images from a number of sources.

David Bate noted in “Photography: The Key Concepts” that “Indeed the spatial location of photography globally is an increasingly important issue, precisely because of the ease with which images can slide around the world today …. Of course, there are provisos to the idea that the globe is saturated with accessible images. Economic hardship, political, religious or state censorship, geography, and legal conditions all still mean that access to modern media technology and the information and images that it generates are not necessarily available to everyone everywhere. … The fact that something in one part of the world has an impact in another is much more easily transmitted today, with no guarantees of its consequential effect being decided in advance.” (Bate, p.190)

On the whole, I think that these advances in technology bring about many positive changes such as in providing photographers with access to a wider audience and opportunities for both consumption and development of images across a wider number of locations and across different social classes (as we have seen in the case of Xyza Cruz Bacani and Mario Macilau). However, the speed at which the photograph moves also creates a number of important issues as inferred by Bate.

The ability of almost anyone to produce a photograph at a relatively low cost and to instantly share the image is leading to saturation of the marketplace and a consumer that is drowning in the number of images viewed on a daily basis. This was well portrayed by Erik Kessels in his art installation featuring prints of all the images uploaded to Flickr in 24-hour period. This provides the practitioner with a challenge in competing amongst the noise and the consumer with distractions when surfing the net.

erikkessels

Kessels. 2011. 24 Hours in Photos. Available at http://www.kesselskramer.com/exhibitions/24-hrs-of-photos [Accessed 28/09/16]

Legal conditions in certain countries provide challenges for photographers operating within and from outside of a jurisdiction. This intentionally prevents some photography from outside the jurisdiction from reaching the relevant local market through its media controls such as in China and in other cases aims to protect the privacy of individuals through the use of laws on the use of social media. Distribution of photographs, either intentionally or unintentionally, without regard to the laws can lead to significant issues for the distributor in countries where an individual’s privacy is highly valued and the laws are in place to protect the privacy of the individual. (As mentioned in a previous post, this is an area that I also need to get a clearer understanding of over the course of the next few weeks.)

Lastly, for practitioners who share their photography online there is also the issue with ensuring ownership and copyright of the work. This risk is inherent in the world that we live in today and some photographers restrict what work they share on social media for fear of it being stolen which has the downside risk of reducing the exposure of the photograph and losing out on potential future business.

Windows on the World

The second presentation provided an overview of the concept of photography as a window on the world. Three of the earliest photographs made contained a window within the photograph and this continues to be an object commonly used in photography.  The tutor described the metaphor of the architectural window as an aperture between an internal or an enclosed space and the infinite world beyond with the viewfinder of a camera always framing and always cropping from a larger whole.

I was fascinated with the idea that photography can be considered a two-way exchange that allows the world a glimpse of the photographer. An introduction to John Szarkowski’s exhibition in 1978 on Mirrors and Windows stated that “In metaphorical terms, the photograph is seen either as a mirror – a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window through which the entire world is exposed in all its presence and reality”.

Following the first presentation, we were posed with the below question to consider for which I noted my thoughts below.

What do you make of the window and mirror analogy? As a practitioner do you associate more closely with one or another?

I had always associated photography with a means to provide the world with the photographer’s insights on the world but I had not given full consideration previously to the “two way exchange” that also allows the world a glimpse of the photographer. I am not a very outspoken person who likes the sound of his own voice and perhaps for me photography is an avenue for which I will develop more of a voice – giving the world a larger insight of myself as a photographer. This is something that I would certainly like to develop further over the course.

Later on in the week when I was looking through my image library I noticed that I had subconsciously also taken a number of photographs through windows over the last couple of years. Having thought about it a bit more during the lead up to this webinar I have been left thinking that perhaps this may be a little bit of escapism on my part. Looking through a window at another world.

Unity and Change

The last presentation for the week focused on the possible power of photography to promote change on a worldwide scale. A number of different images and photographic projects were shared that prompted unity and in some case helped lead to political or social change. For example, William Henry Jackson’s topographic work in Wyoming is considered to have had significant influence on Congress with respect to the creation of Yellowstone into the first National Park in 1872. However, there is debate as to whether it was actually Hayden’s written account of Yellowstone that was more influential in the establishment of the National Park.

The presentation went on to compare the still photograph with the moving image. It was proposed that a still photograph can have a deeper and more persistent emotional impact than the moving image as the viewer is able focus for longer on what is before them and has time to reflect on the photograph. This is the impression that I have and the two still photographs of the falling man and the second plane approaching the second tower during the 9/11 attacks are two photographs that I think will stay in my mind forever.

The last concept shared was that of photography promoting a universal view of the world. The example provided was that of the Family of Man exhibition by Edward Steichen who, after World War II, collected photographs taken by different photographers from all over the world to form a piece of propaganda reportage that promoted a global community and peace. However, this did lead to immediate criticism that it had overlooked real differences and conflicts in the world.

Following the presentation, the tutor posed the following question which I have noted a response to below.

Do you think the power and influence of the photograph is overstated? Does this devalue the true extent of the role of the photograph in bringing about change? Or Is the power of photography as a lever for advocacy understated? What photographs and bodies of work do you think have inspired unity and change?

I think the power and influence of a photograph can be overstated when it is considered on its own merit. An image can be misconstrued without context and explanation. Without which a photograph may lead to the wrong assumptions and misunderstanding of the situation being portrayed.

That said I don’t believe that this devalues the true extent of the role of the photograph in bringing about change. I believe that a photograph is a communication medium that has the possibly the greatest impact on the viewer e.g. when compared to a written report or a moving image. In my mind a photograph provides an image that stays in the mind with the viewer for longer. It encourages pause and reflection. It also acts as a quick referral point or reminder of a situation in times past.

Of course all of these considerations depend also on the purpose of the photograph. As we have seen with the Family of Man, photography can be used for different purposes and to push different agendas and so it is important to also always consider the background and context of the photograph.

The Challenges of Global Photography

Following the presentations, we were asked to reflect on these and to consider what is the single most important challenge that the global nature of photography poses for both image-makers, and consumers of photography. This provided a diverse set of responses looking at this from different perspectives, some of which I had not considered.

A common challenge raised was that of being able to trust what we are seeing given that the image can be manipulated in a number of ways to portray something in a particular manner. One student observed that this can depend on the agenda of the person making the image and what purpose they want it to serve (similar to the example above of The Family of Man). On the flipside, another student commented that the photographer themselves may be inclining to produce a photograph in a particular way to obtain the viewer’s attention. There was also another very interesting comment on the censorship of certain photographs by the press which may not show the full story – an example given of the photographs taken during the Vietnamese War which, if published, may have led to the end of the war earlier than it had. This censorship had in this situation provided the American public a false perception of the atrocities of the Vietnam War and led to some indifference.

This led to me doing some further research on this subject during which I came across the following comments from Philip Jones Griffiths, president of Magnum, who once said that the media conglomerates pose a dangerous threat to photojournalism: “What we get to think and know about the world is in the hands of a very few….A truly informed public is antithetical to the interests of modern consumer capital…..Today, the photographer is sent off to illustrate the preconceptions, usually misconceptions, of the desk-bound editor—an editor biased not by any knowledge of the subject but by the pressure to conform to the standard view ordained by the powers that be. Any deviation from the ‘party line’ is rejected. We are probably the last generation that will accept the integrity of the photograph.” [WorldPress.org. Available at http://worldpress.org/Europe/665.cfm accessed on 26/09/16]. Strong statements but no doubt some truth behind them.

Week 1 – An Introduction to the Global Image

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.

panama

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.