A few weeks ago, I listened as a photographer described his work. It had something to do with the financial markets and how they operated, specifically how there was an ever accelerating trend towards financial transactions to be done by computers, while, at the same time, the equally accelerating trend towards embracing neoliberal policies was essentially gutting the kind of society large parts of us (those who are older than, say, 30) have been taking for granted. It essentially was that Sisyphean task, attempting to talk about something that does not exist in a tangible form, but that holds immense power, using pictures.
I was struck by a question the photographer was asked by another audience member. The person asked whether the photographer was also interested in providing answers or solutions to the problems he was pointing at. I remember my reaction being quite visceral. It took all my effort not to start laughing. As if it wasn’t hard enough to photograph computer trading and the effect of a complete loss of job security for people, there was the idea that the photographer might be in a position to offer solutions to problems that even some experts in the field, such as economists, are having a hard time with! And this then had me start to think about what we have come to expect both from photographs and from their makers.
As important as photographs might be for us, at the end of the day they’re just pictures. They used to have some form of paper support, whether as prints or as pictures in a book or newspaper, and some of them are still in that position. But for the most part, they now exist in the same form as those financial transactions that run through the supercomputers of banks. They’re bit and bytes, made visible temporarily.
Given how much power over the human imagination photographs have been having, there is something totemistic about them. We laugh or dismiss what we call “primitive” attempts by seemingly less sophisticated cultures to deal with our cosmos, with life and death. Yet when we encounter photographs, we essentially embrace the same primitivism, staring at a piece of paper or a pattern temporarily formed on a computer screen as if we were faced with what is depicted therein. It’s remarkable.
We attribute to those pictures all kinds of things, such as the supposed power to change something. Photographs, we are told when we’re not telling it ourselves, change this or that, whatever this or that might actually be. In reality, such claims hardly ever hold up to even halfhearted scrutiny, whether it’s photographs ending war or whatever else.
Calling photographs totemistic is just another way of saying that we have come to tie enormous expectations to photographs, and by extension their makers, expectations that they simply cannot fulfill. A photographer won’t be able to portray the ills of neoliberal capitalism and provide all the solutions on the side as well. A war photographer won’t be able to bring us those pictures we profess we need to see and stop that same war as well. It’s just not going to happen.
Photographs really are just pictures. Not more and not less. It is not their task to change anything. It might be ours, and whatever might us make or contribute to change can in part be contained in a photograph. But that’s about as far as it goes. Yet, we constantly demand that photographs do more. Whatever important event happens, we are not content unless there exists an iconic photograph that can serve as, let’s say, the event’s ambassador. That iconic photograph then stands for the event, essentially simplifying the complexity of something down to a simple picture. What do we gain from such a behaviour other than simplifying what probably is quite complex down to something so utterly simple and simplistic, a picture?
In much the same way, the makers of photographs also often attribute a lot more to their photographs than either what is actually contained in the pictures or what those pictures will be able to do. Talk to any MFA student or any war photojournalist to be confronted with often outright absurd expectations of the power of photographs.
The reality is that photography can only fulfill its proper role if we, the audience, accept our part. Instead of proclaiming that photographs change this or that, it’s a much better approach to accept that photographs only have power if we allow them to. The power we attribute to photographs is not contained in the photographs, nor does it come magically along with the photographs. Instead, it is us giving photographs power, often considerable amounts. We see in photographs more than what they actually convey.
When we voice our exasperation over photographs not doing what we expect them to be doing, we’d be much better off scolding ourselves over having unrealistic or absurd expectations. And the same is true when we confront photographers over something their pictures supposedly do (or don’t do). Large parts of photography are still being produced around the idea that there is a picture, which gets seen by a viewer, and that picture then magically makes the viewer do something. Most of the time, that simply doesn’t happen.
Just to give you one example, we’ve all seen the horrible pictures coming out of Guantanamo Bay. Guess what, the facility is still open.
Digital technologies have revolutionized the ways of image making, yet our own thinking hasn’t moved much beyond where we were in the 19th Century. The real revolution in photography will happen when our thinking catches up to what photographs do, and to how we try to make them do things. Seen this way, all those debates about, let’s say, staged photography are really just side shows. Whether a photograph is staged or not really doesn’t matter as long as we don’t understand the expectations that drive our often visceral reactions.
Lastly, I will profess that maybe the main reason why I’m mostly interested in what you could call art photography is because it’s the area closest to not only working with viewer expectations, but also being aware of them. Say whatever you will about the arts, but when it comes to photography, many of its practitioners really are at the forefront of the medium, investigating ideas of truth in photography and exploring what the medium can really do once expectations tied to it are acknowledged.
(French: Dialectique des attentes)