The new CRASSH Research Group Power and Vision: The Camera as Political Technology reports on their first session.
As Walter Benjamin predicted nearly ninety years ago, “[t]he illiterate of the future will be the person unable to read images” (Walter Benjamin, 2015: 54). This future has surpassed us now. To tackle this and contribute to create, develop and foster the visual literacy of which Benjamin and his successors wrote, the ‘Power and vision: The camera as Political Technology’ research group was formed at CRASSH this year. Our first event of the Michaelmas Term, From Analogue to Aerial Surveillance: Reading the History of Political Imaging opened a space to discuss the readings of popular and academic texts, images and multimedia. These readings aimed to explore historical and contemporary usages of visual technologies, that is, how the camera has evolved into a technology of subjective observation, documentation and surveillance.
The list of readings the power and vision group arranged for this session offer different perspectives from which to examine images and how they work. These perspectives include the history and developments of the camera and imagery productions. They also address the political uses of the camera, for example, how it works to render visible/invisible certain objects/subjects and to frame, represent, and (de)construct narratives. These perspectives can draw on semiotics and the communication of meaning, in particular, what is the relationship between the visual (images and texts) and language and the elision of language by images. Lastly, another important perspective refers to the politics of art, and the art of politics, including aesthetic, emotional, and political forms of conveying messages.
Based on these perspectives, we began the session by presenting a selection of twenty images to participants. For this selection, we chose images that in some way or another defy their context by evoking a subject, place or time that is different from the one in which they came into existence. These images ranged from emotionally striking to mundane ones. Following Berger’s focus group method in ‘Ways of Seeing’, we used these images as prompts to think about how photographs work and the importance of context, composition and photomontage. We then asked participants what these images meant to them and how they related to them. This question was aimed at understanding the audience’s relationship with images, and establishing a point of departure for our discussion. Drawing on Roland Barthes’ concepts of the ‘punctum’ and ‘studium’ in the photograph, which he develops in Camera Lucida (1980), we asked participants to distinguish between what they know about an image and what the image evokes in them, to think critically of what draws us to images and how we respond to them.
After this initial visual conversation, we sought to foster critical intellectual and public conversation around how the images seen across everyday digital and print media work politically, socially and aesthetically. During the event, participants, who included academics and practitioners alike, as well as the general public, engaged with a rich series of contentious themes and questions. Among others: What is ‘the’ purpose of photography? Should photos and pictures tell a story? Is context essential to ’accurately read’ a picture? What do we mean by the politics of photography? And what role does ‘time’ play in the practice and reception of photography? The event’s core objective was to encourage participants to move beyond an awareness of the politics of photography to an appreciation of this phenomenon in countless aspects of our daily lives.
In regard to the purpose of photography, the spectrum of opinions only seems to expand. Is it art, documentation, recording and capturing reality, a source of entertainment and joyful practices as in taking selfies, or something else? At times, it is many of these purposes combined; at others, a single motive prevails. In such light, the act of reading photos represents an intellectually amusing exercise. It forces one to think, reflect and predict. It ultimately compels one to reach a conclusion that often reflects one’s own self more than it speaks about the photo. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1977,
“as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world” (Susan Sontag, 1977: 88)
The subject of photojournalism and the political use and abuse of photography was another interesting theme that brought many voices into the discussion. The rising phenomenon of fake news urges a close consideration of the relationship between facts, news and photojournalism. Essentially, one needs to ask what role a particular picture, or a series of them, play in building a news story, advancing certain ideas and/or effectively suppressing others. Indeed, such role is undoubtedly subject to the type of news, the policies of the news outlet, the storywriter, among other factors. In the digital age, photos are becoming an integral part of contemporary journalism. In fact, one role that photos predominantly share across news pieces is persuading people to read long stories by offering short breaks in-between paragraphs.
Other recurrent points that were addressed in the discussion revolved around the mediation and production of meaning, in particular through semiotics, images, and film. We addressed how narratives are structured around these meanings, as well as the ethics involved in this. Many participants in the discussion were interested in the technological aspects of making images, how these are consumed and (de)contextualized through other technological platforms, including google image and google search. This point draws a reference to Teju Cole’s (2013) insightful remark on the way in which visual organization precedes rather than transcends subject matter. In turn, visual organisation and subject matter resonate with McLuhan and Fiore’s (1967:8) proposition that “[s]ocieties have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of communication.” In relation to this, another important point that came up in the discussion was the value given to aerial surveillance and drone photography on both popular and journalistic imagery, and how there is an anthropomorphism of the camera as the eye (I).
We rounded up the discussion by posing the question of whether we could do away with images and words that tell histories or not. On this topic, some important aspects to consider involve the tension between totalising narratives and a fragmented narrative; the relationship between truth, narrative and the imageries of visual practitioners; as well as the politics of time and how that frames different understandings. On this last point, Susan Sontag’s remark that “[w]hat is surreal is the distance imposed, and bridged, by the photograph: the social distance and the distance in time” (Susan Sontag, 1977: 58) seems pertinent.
• Contributors: Jessica Fernández de Lara Harada and Engy Moussa