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.