Monday, 2 February 2015

Assignment 4 planning (part 7) - first draft...

First cut document submitted to my tutor for feedback:

Objectivity, ethics and understanding…

Lyrics from Lilly Allen’s song ‘The Fear[1]

I don't know what's right and what's real anymore
And I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?

I'll look at The Sun and I'll look in The Mirror
I'm on the right track; yeah, I'm on to a winner

Allen’s song went straight to number 1 in January 2009 and whilst it was doubtless written ‘tongue-in-cheek’, it nonetheless, packs a weighty punch directly at the culture we have created. Allen’s keen observational skills enable her to poke fun at everybody, including herself, at the same time as abdicating any responsibility for the situation – “And it's not my fault; it's how I'm programmed to function.”

In our celebrity-obsessed, media-focused culture, it’s hardly surprising the Allen’s words “I don't know what's right and what's real anymore” ring with an ironic truth. As photographers, are we not at least partially complicit in creating this kind of confusion between what’s right and what’s real?

Photography has never been, is not and never will be ‘objective’. Is it not time we stopped talking about photographic objectivity and started talking about the subjective truth of photographs?

“For the first time, an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man… [requiring only] …the instrumentality of a non-living agent.[2]” “The status of photography, at its birth, hinged on what was thought to be its capacity for objective transcription[3]” and for decades subsequent literature about photography repeated this “litany of photographic truth[4]” until it became a universal myth. “The photograph may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like the photograph[5]” and this is fundamentally why the photograph has been unable to shake off this myth.

Objectivity is by definition “activities (including behaviours) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”. Objectivity relating to photography falls into two main categories:
Category 1.   The scene – the objective recording, by the camera and the photographer, of what was actually in front of the camera.
Category 2.   The photograph – the duty of the photographic team – photographer, developer, editor – the objective presentation of what was captured in camera.

Category 1 – the scene
“The human eye takes its visible world with it as it walks[6]”, in other words we are able to see everything but not all at once - our eye flits form one part of a scene to the other; the camera on the other hand, sees every detail all at once but only within its specific frame of reference – the boundary of the photograph. Thus the camera has not only changed the way we see, it has given us more to see and because of this new level of detail changed the way in which we perceived things.

To understand how photographs work subjectively we must accept the photographic paradox[7], that in addition to photographic composition (the denotation), the photographic sub-text (the connotation) of the image plays an integral part and must also be considered. These two different but important messages do not work in ‘collusion’; rather, they form a structural paradox, wherein the connotation is developed from information from the denotation. This ‘development’ in turn creates an ethical paradox; theoretically the denoted information is ‘neutral and objective and copies reality meticulously’, only to be ‘challenged’ by the coded message (the connotation) that requires interpretation by the viewer resulting in a potentially dramatically skewed reading because of their knowledge, understanding and cultural biases.

Connotation is further skewed when the photographer elects to stage the physical objects within the frame. Isobel Hilton (The Guardian) echoes this view, in her article entitled ‘The Camera Never Lies[8]” (2008), on the run up to the Robert Capa-retrospective at the Barbican in 2008, re-reviewing the controversy surrounding Capa’s photograph of Federico Borrell García (1936) and commented on war photography that “Ever since cameras first went to war, photographers have staged scenes, rearranged bodies and had events re-enacted for the camera and we look at them in two states of mind - open to their impact as authentic images, and aware that to perceive the camera as a neutral observer is naive.

Category 2 – the photograph
William Mitchell, accepted the existence of fake images and commented that “extreme manipulation … [was] … technically difficult, time-consuming and outside the mainstream of photographic practice.[9]” However, by the early 1900’s photographers were ‘normally’ reworking their negatives to create the ‘perfect’ image. Ansel Adams (who died in 1984) revisited favourite sites and reworked his negatives (from that site) until he was happy with the results, of ‘Moonrise’ (Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941) he stated that “the negative was always difficult to print” – requiring significant dodging and burning to create an acceptable print – he continued “it is safe to say, that no two prints are precisely the same.[10]

Reuter’s[11] stance on manipulation is “that anything that could have been done in a dark room is acceptable, but we can't tolerate anything that changes the editorial context”. To put this into context “Reuters, is one of the world’s largest international multimedia news providers, reaching more than one billion people every day.[12]”Thus, clearly the manipulation carried by Adams was acceptable; unfortunately when Paul Hanson carried out the same techniques on his winning World Press Photo (in 2012) of Muhammad and Suhaib Hijazi, the very emotional debate that followed conceded that it ‘did not change editorial context’ but left world opinion divided regarding the need for that ‘type’ of manipulation.

Approve or otherwise, the situation remains that photographers regularly used dark room tools to perfect the look of their images. Historically, the tonal look of an image started with the film the photographer preferred, this was further enhanced by the chemical ‘reworking’ and lead to the development of individual styles; similarly today many documentary photographers have developed very unique and recognisable styles enabling them to stand out in the crowd, for example, Edward Burtynski (CA, b 1955), Sabastiao Salgado (BR, b 1944), Yuri Kozyrev (RU, b 1963), Marcus Bleasdale (UK, b 1968). The ‘style’ may be specific to the photographer (e.g. Salgado) or specific to a digital imaging laboratory (e.g. 10B[13]); irrespective ‘style’ is a form of personal expression and as such directly contravenes the definition of objectivity. But does ‘style’ not change the editorial context? It could very well add gravitas to the article because of the professional standing of the photographer.

Deliberate fakery aside, the transportable nature of photographs means that we should always question their integrity. For example, a party, regardless of whether it genuinely contained any memorable moments, becomes memorable as soon as somebody takes a photograph at that party – “the event is only an event because the narrator/observer created the event; The French Revolution was not the French Revolution from day one, it only became the French Revolution after the event, the event is not what happened but that which can be narrated.[14]” Since the relative importance of any given situation can only be determined after the event rather than before (and often during) the event, the decision to take the photograph can only have be arbitrary, therefore, subjective rather than objective.

A photograph is created by isolating a fragment of reality from its specific place and period in time; the danger, once isolated the fragment immediately loses its original context and we are free to create it a new one. “The camera multiplies possible meanings at the same time as destroying original meaning.[15]” The same image will be treated differently by different people: - thrown in the bin – considered worthless; stored in a draw – suitable for reminiscing; printed and put in a frame on the mantelpiece - a proud moment to be shared with everyone; printed and put in a wallet – a treasured moment to be relived as required. In each of these situations, the same image has been given a new context and has thus acquired new meaning. The status given to a photograph is, personal, subjective and dependent upon the emotional relationship between the viewer and the subject. In addition, this relationship can and does change over time as the feelings/emotions of the viewer change towards the subject. Consider ‘the wedding photograph’ and a couples thoughts towards it as they approach their fiftieth wedding anniversary versus their decree absolute.

The above examines the personal relationship with the personal photograph, but do we react any differently to ‘external’ images? A photographic discourse is a system within which the culture harnesses photographs to various representational tasks.[16]” Back to the two photographic messages and their importance – the denotations readability and the connotations understandability – without these the photograph has no intrinsic communicative value. A photograph communicates via a set of signs and symbols that build into a visual language and the combination within the composition dictate the strength (or not) of the message. Religious iconography is an interesting example, it is everywhere and normally universally recognized – the people because of their attire and the places because of the style of the building – nonetheless, this recognition has done nothing to develop an understanding or tolerance towards other religions. We are still killing in the name our own God’s and have been doing so for thousands of years! So, whilst the denotation is understood, the connotation is what? Not understood, misunderstood, ignored, not important because it does not relate to me – our reaction to the image is totally subjective. Unless we can bring some level of personal investment to the photograph, it is merely another picture to be glanced before we move on to the next.

In order to make sense of our world, Allen states “I’ll look at The Sun and I'll look in The Mirror” in theory, not an unreasonable option to refer to a daily newspaper to understand what is happening in the world. But does objective reporting exist or do captions and the relative position (on the page) of the photograph further skew the original narrative? We are all now well aware that in newspapers and magazine “photographs, which fiddle with the scale of the world, themselves get reduced, blown up, cropped, retouched, doctored and tricked out.[17]” However, we still firmly hold to “our conviction that we are free to choose what we make of a photograph [rather than truly understanding that] the wholeness, coherence, identity which we attribute to the depicted scene is a projection[18] and as such the vision (the subjective view) of the editor.

Whilst photography is part mechanical function and part human endeavour, neither of the parts is completely objective. Mechanical function aside, the physical ‘extraction’ of an event from reality creates a subjective view of that reality. The choice of framing, inclusion and exclusion of elements; the camera settings; the style of the final image are all specific to photographer and therefore subjective rather than objective. To continue to drive for something that cannot be achieved is a fool’s errand and illogical.

Moving forward, rather than focusing on objectivity, it would be more practicable to challenge photographers to tell the truth and work with integrity and more appropriate to encourage the development of style and individuality.

Paraphrasing Christopher Anderson (Magnum Photos) “Facts do not exist, but truth does; authenticity and integrity are things we understand intuitively. All photography is a lie; the question is not whether or not it is factual, the question is whether or not it is true.[19]

Adams stated that “a great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense!” whilst undoubtedly true, it’s hardly objective.

Lilly Allen’s – The Fear
I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don't care about clever, I don't care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuck-loads of diamonds
I heard people die while they're trying to find them

And I'll take my clothes off and it will be shameless
'Cause everyone knows that's how you get famous
I'll look at The Sun and I'll look in The Mirror
I'm on the right track; yeah I'm on to a winner

I don't know what's right and what's real anymore
And I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?
'Cause I'm being taken over by the Fear

Life's about film stars and less about mothers
It's all about fast cars and cussing each other
But it doesn't matter 'cause I'm packing plastic
And that's what makes my life so fucking fantastic

And I am a weapon of massive consumption
And it's not my fault; it's how I'm programmed to function
I'll look at The Sun and I'll look in The Mirror
I'm on the right track; yeah we're on to a winner

I don't know what's right and what's real anymore
And I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?
'Cause I'm being taken over by the Fear

Forget about guns and forget ammunition
'Cause I'm killing 'em all on my own little mission
Now I'm not a saint but I'm not a sinner
And everything's cool as long as I'm getting thinner

I don't know what's right and what's real anymore
And I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?
'Cause I'm being taken over by the Fear

[1] Full lyrics for Lilly Allen’s  The Fear (2009) can be found in Appendix A
[2] Bazin, A (1958) The Ontology of the Photographic Image. OCA Course Material
[3] Solomon-Godeau, A (1994) Photography at the Dock. Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press
[4] Ref: 2 cont.
[5] Sontag, S (1977) On Photography. London, Penguin Books Ltd
[6] Berger, J (1973) Ways of Seeing. London, Penguin Books Ltd
[7] Barthes, R (1977) Image Music Text. London, Fontana Press
[9] Mitchell, W (1994) The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-photographic Era. London, The MIT Press
[10] Adams, A (1983) Examples, The Making of 40 Photographs. Boston, Little, Brown and Company
[11] The Guardian – David Viggers (Reuter) commenting on image manipulation
[14] Campbell, D (2010) Lecture on Narrative, Power and Responsibility
[15] Ref: 5 cont.
[16] Sekula, A (1975) On the Invention of Photographic Meaning. OCA Course Material
[17] Ref: 5 cont.
[18] Linfield, S (2010) The Cruel Radiance. London. The University of Chicago Press Ltd.
[19] British Journal of Photography – article on World Press Photo Controversy

Feedback from my tutor:

1. Did not agree that there were only 2 categories relating to objectivity - accepted, I should have been clearer that I only intended to discuss 2 categories in this document. 

2. Was unclear re religious iconography and asked for an example image. Not sure whether this was reference only or whether an image should be included in text - therefore removed section on rewrite.

3. Recommended the inclusion of some reference to impact/influence of social media on photographic objectivity. References added.

4. References in text (bottom of the page) did not include page numbers. References corrected and separate bibliography added at the end. 

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