Having Conversations on Photographing Others

A number of recent articles have created conversation on the photography of communities by outsiders. They include Teju Cole's writing on Steve McCurry, two posts by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa on Aperture here and here and Jan Hoek responding to Wolukau-Wanambwa's attack on his work.

I'll leave others to reply to the serious issues raised regarding race, class, power and visual stereotypes of people of color. Instead, I'd like to lay out four points on how we have conversations about work made by photographing others.

The Subjective Demand

The closer we are to someone, the more difficult it often is to be objective about them. My mom looks at my photography and thinks it's better than Lee Friedlander or Daido Moriyama. Ask anyone in the photo world, and they'll all tell you, yeah, not so much. When we're at a crucial decision point or if we have a life issue, we often seek advice from strangers in the form of counselors, priests, psychologists and Dear Abby that can tell us things honestly and "objectively" because of their emotional removal from us.

The distance of professionals we sometimes seek in our personal lives is paradoxically considered problematic in photography. We generally demand photographers have a full engagement with their subject when photographing another community under the argument that time and completeness of immersion will inevitably provide veracity to vision, a fuller-formed sense of their subjects and sensitive photographs.

Helicopter photojournalists are criticized for landing, snapping and taking off again without connecting with their subjects or understanding much about their actual lives. Cole, in his piece on McCurry, argues for moving beyond stereotypical visions of peoples and cultures to depict the contemporary and complicated realities of subjects, an argument that implies a prolonged engagement to reach those understandings. Almost every piece of criticism I have read on Darcy Padilla's ultra-long term "Family Love" documentary project mentions she spent "18 years photographing her subject" as if simply by virtue of the enormity of the time invested the project built value. Wolukau-Wanambwa points to Dana Lixenberg's "Imperial Courts" as an example of "good" outsider photography. She spent over 20 years photographing the community of a housing estate in South L.A.

The longer we work with our subjects, however, the closer we become to them. It can be argued that by doing so we know our subjects better by seeing and photographing the fuller spectrum of their lives, but it can equally be argued that extended time makes us a participant in their lives creating a more subjective vision of our subjects. As photographers we become a central subject in the production of the work and in the photographs themselves as time elongates. In essence, we demand a documentary or journalistic - and even artistic – perspective that by its nature places photographers in a more intimate and, therefore, subjective position, and in one way to conceptualize the conversation, the closer we stand to our subject and the longer we stand there, the less we see.

Having a prolonged engagement with a subject begs questions about the abilities of photography to lie and its potential limitations in making manifest photographer-subject relationships: can a multi-dimensional person and their reality really be represented in photography? Can "connection" with our subjects be established through formal language decisions, such as shallow depth of field, soft lighting, taking a slightly lower perspective looking upwards towards the person we're photographing and asking the subject to relax their face for a moment? Can we tell the difference between a photograph made in an "intimate style" and one made as part of investing twenty years shooting the same community?

Wolukau-Wanambwa shows both the reality of and difficulty of these questions by making the somewhat shocking demand to Hoek that he include with his project some sort of explanatory text to help Wolukau-Wanambwa judge how the images represent their subject:
The provenance of these pictures; the very reason for their having been made at all; the manner of their making; the nature of the "collaborative" relationship with the photographer; the necessity that Westerners see Masai tribesmen according to Hoek's "new way"— none of these crucial but unstated questions—are deemed worthy of an answer. 
Wolukau-Wanambwa underscores here a doubt in the capacity of images to transmit basic information about photographer-subject relationships by expressing his need to have a text through which to critique that relationship in this photographic work, as he does later in his post with a critique of the work of Viviane Sassan framed through a quote from her on her work.

Blended Narratives

Many writers on photography have pointed to its autobiographical component. We've long believed that photography cannot be truly objective, that the camera doesn't take the picture, someone does. Framing, subject selection, focus and a multitude of other decisions create a sliding scale of subjective representations of reality, from the heavy presence of the hand of the photographer in someone like Daisuke Yokota to Walker Evans' "documentary style."

What does it mean to point the subjective lens towards other people as subject? If the photograph both reflects the photographer and is taken of someone else, where does "subjective vision" end and the "subject" begin?

They don't. That is to say, photographs run multiple narratives simultaneously, they are both autobiography and biography at the same time. The way we create photographs reflects who we are as much as who we point our lens at at the same time, even in the most hardcore photojournalism and documentary work. What's more, the viewer of a photograph also brings their own story to the image, completing the triad of competing narrative framings of the photograph.

Cole writes in his piece on McCurry, "Art is always difficult, but it is especially difficult when it comes to telling other people’s stories. And it is ferociously difficult when those others are tangled up in your history and you are tangled up in theirs." I would argue our stories as photographers and also as viewers/critics are always "tangled up in theirs" because the medium we work with creates an object in which multiple narrative claims are placed on the same visual information concurrently.

This is the alchemy of many critical arguments on photography: conflicts of narrative control over a single static space where multiple narratives exist together at the same time.

Filtered Sight 

If you look at the candy aisle in the grocery store, what do you see? Well, it depends on who you are. A dentist sees future business, a marketer sees packaging decisions and a whiny kid and his parents see a battle zone. I, personally, see only candy corn.

All sight is filtered through life experience, interests, desire, needs and a whole lot more. We create an understanding consciously and unconsciously that fits our ideology within a specific temporal and spatial context and within a larger cultural ideology. How we see things reflects who we are, what we have experienced and where and when and with whom we see it. Pure sight does not exist or, as Ernst Gombrich put it, "The innocent eye is a myth." This applies as we make photographs, but equally as we look at those photographs and critique the photographs of others.

The elements of the image are unchanging; it is the readings of it that evolve based on the changing context of its viewing. Part of the duty of the critic is to navigate this inherent disjunction between creation and viewing contexts, to acknowledge what it is that we project onto older work today and to analyze photography in relation to the context it was made for, while also seeking to understand its relevance and meaning today.

As it applies to the photography of others, we are all today perfect moralists of the 20th century and understand how the ethical lines should have been drawn. And eventually all of us today, in the future, will look like stodgy reactionaries as we evolve socially. Today's progressive is tomorrow's conservative.

Looking again at Cole's piece, he rips McCurry for playing into tired stereotypes of a romantic India. There's a whole lotta truth to what he writes as we look at the full span of McCurry's thirty year career today. But while McCurry may have just edited his book India, much of the work inside – and his vision – was created in the 20th century. Cole, in his critique, applies 21st century ethics to 20th century work. In addition, he views from an art critical perspective work created to sell copies of a humanistic and romantic magazine.

Is that fair to McCurry? I would argue that it's not, because while what Cole writes I almost completely agree with, he neglects the larger framework of the conversation by failing to acknowledge his privilege of viewing the photographs from the higher moral ground and evolved ethical context that the passing of time has carried him to and he attacks work that was created for one viewing context with ideas developed in another.

Index and Icon

What - or whom - are we arguing about exactly when we discuss the subject in a photograph? An object, as Hoek suggests in his piece, or a person? The person or a representation of that person? A truth or abstraction about whom that person is?

While there are many ways to approach those types of questions, Charles Peirce's trichotomy of signs, especially in this case the ideas of the index and the icon, is an interesting way that allows me to make a couple points. As for terms, index is the idea that a photograph has a one-to-one physical relationship with the world it represents. Icons are images or forms that carry a reduced schematic of what they represent, such as in the case of our conversation here about photographing subjects, a stick figure to represent a person.

Peirce, in his formulation of the trichotomy of signs, used photography as an example to illustrate the index, writing that "they are in certain respects exactly like the objects that they represent." Critic Rosalind Krauss cemented the use of "the index" in photography criticism with her 1977 book Notes on the Index. Spend half a day in a grad school critique and someone will mention indexicality.

An increasing number of practitioners, critics and everyday people, however, have shifted towards interacting with photographs as icons as we increasingly distance ourselves from the idea that the photograph relates one-to-one with reality. There has been an erosion of confidence in the truth-value of photographs beginning at least as early as the long-standing debate about the authenticity of Robert Capa's Death of a Loyalist Soldier and other World War II images. This loss of confidence was compounded with the arrival of the digital manipulation era. We see photography increasingly as we do a painting or printmaking print, an object that draws both from reality and the artist's participation in making it. This understanding of the gap between reality and photograph has pushed the idea of the index to the brink of irrelevance, and towards the idea of the photograph as icon.

At the same time, digital photography has become the new pictographic language. Through it we have adopted a set of iconic forms that we use to communicate to each other across instant platforms. On Instagram and Facebook we post informal sketches that repeat the same gestures, poses, typologies, framings, backgrounds and more. We scroll through vast amounts of this repeated visual material and the mind begins to do what it must to process so much raw information – increasingly we don't see the photograph, but rather the basic patterns of reduced information of iconic shorthand.

As we have lost faith in the indexicality of photographs, then, we have increasingly understood their distance from reality in ways that resemble Peirce's idea of the icon and we have also begun to use photography as an informal everyday language of icons. The process of this shift of the common idea of the photograph from index to icon, the incompleteness of the process and the various places we stand along the spectrum in accepting that process is one way to understand what causes heat in critiques about photographing others. There are a range of differing understandings among critics and photographers of what a photograph of a person actually is, what it can say, its capacity to hold truth-value and how to read it.

Last Words

There's a great Ron Jude quote that's worth pulling in. He talks about the space between what photographs promise to deliver and what is actually communicated. It is inside this gap that we argue the conflicts surrounding photographing other people amidst the limitations of the medium to represent the complexities of other people with a crude machine.