Reflection Topic 1: The Mirror/ Window analogy for photography.
A photographer like Eugene Atget, travelling the streets of Parris in the 19th century, recording the architecture of shops and dwellings made images which we can see today as both beautiful and serve as historical documents. In that sense not just a window on the world but also a portal to travel back through time.
Whilst on paper, the idea of a-window-on-the-world, seems laudable, both in terms of broadening the viewer’s understanding of how and where other people live and providing entertainment and education, it is important to remember, what is shown is rarely unbiased. As was mentioned in the presentation on this topic, “The topographical approach had an imperial nature in the medium’s infancy with the objectifying colonising gaze of the camera: viewers in the one country can peer through a very one sided voyeuristic window at subjects faraway”
The practice of arriving at a location for a safari, to hunt interesting prey to shoot leaves me very uneasy. In 2019 I took my camera to Antigua and walked through the villagers where the locals lived. Although I made some beautiful photographs of people living simple lives in run down properties. It felt like “stealing” even though I asked permission to “capture” my subjects. I consider it “poverty porn.”
What my Antigua project revealed to me is the ease in which it is possible, without intention, to create work that merely supports stereotypes. If, for example, the general public are asked to think of Africa, they may conjure images of people suffering famine, poorly equipped armies locked in ruthless civil wars and wild animals hunted to extinction. These images come to mind because these are the photographs and media stories that are most commonly made and broadcast about the continent however there are many other sides to Africa and its people, which have far less visibility from the West.
If the photographer is part of the world they are documenting perhaps there are less issues of exploitation, but, perhaps that isn’t true either. Am I saying that journalists, war correspondents or artists such as Martin Parr should all retire? Surely not.
Photographers such as Nan Goldin when making her ballad of Sexual Dependency are photographing from within their landscape and thus holding a mirror up to it. Soutter points out there may be pitfalls to the mirror as well: “Many photographers, especially students, want to make personal images that feel true to their own physical and emotional experience… they photograph themselves and their environment and expect the images to reflect the intensity of their own feelings. In the context of photography education, however, such images may be criticised as essentialist, trite, self-involved, blankly disengaged from the broader world and failing to take control of what and how they communicate to a viewer.” *1
So, if I remove the window and the mirror what is left? To quote Gilbert and George, I want my art to be “a living art, which suggests feelings to each viewer, and poses questions that may, or may not be answerable, but are personal, piercing and vital as questions.” *2
In order to do this I have to return to my first love, performance, and look at ways at creating narratives and characters which are not of this world but born from my imagination or by referencing art history. On this quest I find myself, between the artist Lucas Samaras and the “phoetic” *3 Duane Michals, both men behave as if their work were coming from their “hearts and minds” rather than their eyes, rejecting the notion of capturing the outside world, instead staging and recording the concerns of their imaginations.
I want to continue my quest to communicate my stories to the public whilst persistently questioning what and how I photograph as well as the form in which the final image/ project/ art work is offered to its audience.
*1: Soutter, Lucy 2018 Why Art Photography 2nd edn. London Routledge Pg. 84
*2: Brackwell, Michael. What is Gilbert and George 2017 London Heni Publishing Pg. 15
*3: a photographer who does poetic photographs TCF ep. 525 – Duane Michals https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtqGIIMuL58 5.40 minutes in.