Four contested cracks of photography
A critical conversation on documentary photography practices
Through a critical conversation, we try to unpack potential failures, controversies and scarcities in our practice. At the heart of defining these cracks is the notion of tactful photography, photography as a tactic.
The photographer as a mediator (archivist, narrator, fortune teller, instigator, inflictor, dramaturge, encoder)
Photos as fragments of time
Amidst the urgency of capturing moments by citizen journalists and mainstream photojournalists, a narrative is often missed. How about we restore this narrative by coining a context to captured moments, a context that not only explicates the depths of a particular moment, but that also proposes a political configuration? How about photos functioning as a forward-looking archive; a memory that we did not yet have.
What are examples of incomplete narratives?
Do we feel sometimes that our photographs’ function solely as a documentation of the past?
What are ways in which we can a. think, b. present an arguable narrative through our photographs?
How do the activists amongst us step out of their comfort zone to act as mediators, to mediate their activism? Do you see yourself as a mediator? Or do you see yourself as solely implicated by virtue of being a front liner or in the midst of it all?
Do we feel photographs are shaping our collective memory?
People who are consciously constructing a digital archive on Flickr and other platforms, are they thinking of different functions of this archive beyond it availing the photos and representing one’s body of work as a photographer?
Do we think of the construction of narratives through the personal?
The evolution of Tahrir and the growing rift between the revolutionaries and couch party. There is definitely the aspect of going out of Tahrir altogether like Kazeboun. But how about demystifying Tahrir itself, unpacking how Tahrir is growingly un-gentrified and hence fell out of the collective stream of consciousness? Who is Tahrir?
Photos as conscious artworks
Susan Sontag argues about imperatives of taste and conscience as dictating documentary photography, which even though seeks to relay a certain veracity, is still haunted by the desires of artistry. This is challenged by the accessibility of photography as an activity, a byproduct of industrialization, which made it less the artistry of the riff-raff and more of an act with a social use. But how do we grapple with the pressure of art-consciousness in a documentation process?
Are we conscious of the artistic value of the photographs we make?
How do we evaluate this artistic input? How do we negotiate with it?
Are we alert to how imagery will be consumed while constructing photographs?
(Artistry as aesthetics):
Is aestheticizing a photograph part of its mediation, a tactic to mediate its consumption?
Does aestheticizing a photograph incarcerate it in the politics of taste, which have their own class connotation?
(Artistry as a function):
Do we think consciously of the function of the photograph while we construct it or avail it? Do we ask questions on whether and how it will instigate thought? Or whether and how it offers alternative possibilities to understanding the world?
Iconic photography has managed to grab the discourse and somewhat hegemonize it, stirring controversies and exposing stereotypes. There are traits of artistry deployed in these iconic photographs (or an element of rarity if they are exceptional captures at difficult moments of violence). Do we actively think about these functions when we’re shooting, hence unleashing an ambition to turn all our photographs into iconography?
Photos as sensationalist relics
For long, visual anthropologists have grappled with the ills of “socially-responsible” photography, which is concerned with representing sour realities by dramatizing and often sensationalizing subjects. Does a photographer have to produce literal representation of suffering, injustice at the risk of sensationalizing subjects? Are there more critical avenues for visual representation?
Is dramatizing a photo or sensationalizing it or exaggerating it is an act of mediation?
How do we understand the notion of sensationalizing/exaggerating when we position ourselves as capturers? Sontag speaks of appropriation of the “things” we capture, a power relation of some sort. Do we think of these power dynamics when we capture photos? Does this submit the object/subjects of our photographs to our own subjectivities and manipulation?
What are more critical alternatives to sensationalization?
How do we handle death and reactions to death especially from close ones? Experiences of covering Maspero can be debated
Photos as “miniature realities”
Walter Benjamin speaks of the “optical unconscious” when explaining how photography makes available to the eye a field otherwise inaccessible. In this context, he promotes visual literacy as an important evolutionary and complementary feature to photography, whereby image consumption is alert to what a photo tells us about reality that we can’t see with our bare eyes. But is the photographer that conscious of image consumption when constructing a frame? Should she be conscious by feeding into this visual literacy and acting as an instigator? Or she is a mere reproducer of a miniature reality?
What are the frontiers between documentation and mediation in our photographic practice?
What do we think about the state of visual literacy in Egypt? How do people read photographs especially in the media?
There are multiple failures in the way mainstream media deal and present photography, which can be partially described as oblivion to visual literacy. Lacks of context, lack of narrative, lack of captions, lack of logic and subordination to the text are all aspects of this oblivion. Do we see this?
Susan Sontag: On Photography
Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction