Thoughts on Photography (Part 3: Audience)

A few years ago, I wrote about my relationship to photography for a class called Photography and Language with Bill Jenkins. I recently found the essay, and remembered how important it was for me to think through my practice as an artist. Following is part 3 of 4 sections. I’ll be posting the rest of the essay over the next week, so stay tuned!

A vast minority of people appreciate photography as an art, yet I do not believe that vast minority is incapable of comprehending it. Photography is unique in the sense that, every single image it produces is familiar in a way that anyone capable of sight can find some relevance to their own experience in this world. However, photographs that do not follow formulas of composition or present a scene that is unexpected are often written off as art, as if art were a dirty word. The decision to “not get it” is a result of our culture, which harasses us with visual catcalls that dictate how things should be understood, as well as how they should appear, in and outside of the photograph. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I am bombarded by the noisy, filtered selfies; the heavily manipulated advertisements; the ‘shared’ links to the “AMAZING PHOTO PROJECT EVERYONE MUST SEE”; the soft, polished portraits of newborns in baskets and smiling high school seniors. I have seen these images thousands of times; their only real variation is the character that is acting within the photograph. Photography has been offered as a medium you needn’t think about, something you blindly use and numbly consume. Its acceptability comes from its vapid redundancy of uses in contemporary culture. People are not accustomed to questioning the photograph and its relationship to reality. We have come to this strange impasse where everyone takes photos, is photographed, and looks at photos, and no one asks why.

The nature of photography—Its ability to freeze time, to recall the past, to mimic reality—in all its wonder and complexity, is hardly utilized when reduced to the mundane system of uses that currently dominates the widespread understanding of applications for the photograph. Those that do engage with photography on a deeper level have done little to better the situation. The decision to shelter photography in art, protect it from the mass quantities of imagery that parallel the art photograph, and to polish it in ambiguity does not helping the situation. It is at the fault of our institutions, and of course, ourselves (the artists). Photography is not an obsolete medium, and I do not expect it will ever be, which is why it cannot and should not be held above the heads of ‘everyone else’. If we take a photograph to communicate, why should we be so selective on whom we choose to communicate with? Without art photography, the world is left with personalized stock images. It is left with photos that are telling us what to buy, who to be, and how to live. The art photograph, however, asks us to think and reminds us that that humanity exists beyond our sphere of experiences, and that the world we live in is still beautiful, curious, wonderful, interesting, etc. It is a fool’s errand to try to subtract photographs from that that was once there, to pretend like there was no context in which it was taken. As artists working with a medium that is so inherently relatable, it is strange that we do not have enough faith in everyone else to understand why we photograph. I believe that a connection can be made from the ‘art world’ to the ‘real world’, and given the state of our culture, oversaturated with photographs of all types, it might be of great benefit to introduce ‘everyone else’ to a form of photography that is less abrasive.  

The truth is that we owe our practice to the world. Our photographs would not exist without the people, the places, and the things that enter our domain. Socially engaged practice in photography is kind of an amusing idea, because photographers have been engaging with the world since the photograph’s conception. Two photographic movements come to mind when I think of the ‘socially engaged’: documentary photography (or photojournalism), and post-modernism.

Documentary photography directly explores social issues. It enters the cracks of society and shows what people are doing and how they are interacting with a problem. The documentary photographer tries to ‘expose’ the realities of the world. The photograph as document, however, only shows. It, like much of the imagery that dominates our culture today, professes unwavering truth. It cannot exist without ‘the story’, a linear progression of scenes, often accompanied heavily by text. Historically, the photograph as document did not profess to be art confessed to “personal vision or artifice”. In Trace and Transformation, Joel Eisinger said, “if their work was to appear to the public as art, it was to do so because of its capacity to dramatize the actual or capture particular truths while simultaneously transcending them to reach a level of universal truth.” The photographer’s perspective in juncture with the physical dynamics of the situation in front of the camera is the only truth a photograph can complain. The only other ‘truths’ must come from external information. Essentially, the documentary photograph is an aide to language rather than an independent artifact. Of course, there is no possible way for a photograph to “document” without the accompaniment of words. A photograph can only show what once existed, it cannot explain the context it was taken in.

Post-modern photographers also admitted to the reality photographs are derived from, but rather than expecting truth from an image, they were interested in the way a photograph functioned socially. Eisinger said, “A number of artists began to use photography without much concern for craftsmanship, personal vision, or formal invention. These artists were interested in photography as a broad social phenomenon, and they saw photographs as mass-produced objects, as documents of artistic ideas expressed in another medium, or as a quick and easy method of notation.”  The photograph, to the post-modern artists, was an “essentially transparent medium through which we receive artistic ideas.” While they often used the medium to critique society, to poke and prod culture, it was not because they were interested in the photograph itself. It was a transmitter of information and ideas, social or not.

While postmodernist ideas often revolved around social examination, their work was made for the gallery. It was art that made fun of art or it was art that created a social commentary for the art enthusiasts. It was cultural criticism in the form of an inside joke, borrowing from society but not confronting it. While the documentary photographer tried to avoid admitting the photographer’s perspective, the post-modernist relied upon it and denied any contribution from the nature of the photograph itself.

Neither of these photographic movements satisfies the model of output that I am looking for. I want my photographs to relate to people beyond academic, artistic setting, yet I have no inclination to TELL people what they’re looking at when they see my photographs (which is, in this social climate, what people expect). I confess to no truth, other than the one that drove me to take the photograph. My deepest hope is for my art to reach an audience that does not often get to experience photography in a way that allows them to think and consider the depth of an image. I want my photographs to help people understand themselves and their relationships to the world the way that photography does for me. I want to create a shared experience in which people can take from and are inspired to give back. 

I think this is where the notion of socially engaged practice came from. Artists had the desire to create some kind of social impact, and the structures of the art world do not allow for this. In his book, Pablo Helguera, author of Education for Socially Engaged Art, said, “most artists who produce socially engaged work are interested in creating a kind of collective art that affects the public sphere in a deep and meaningful way, not in creating a representation—like theatrical play—of a social issue.” Not in creating a representation. Creating representations is what I do. Creating a representation is what all of us have done. Is that not enough?