Photography After Capitalism

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One of the problems with capitalism is that inevitably, we have to deal with it from the inside, from being thoroughly embedded in it. As denizens of photoland, we can also say the same about photography: we often don’t or can’t see its many fault lines, given that we tend to look at the world as either something that is photographable or that has already been photographed. As a consequence, looking at photography, capitalism, and the relationships between them is difficult to understand in more ways than just one.

It is no secret that I have had an interest in the topic for a long time. My approach is old-fashioned in the sense that I see photographs as manifestations of capitalism (and other ideologies): I look for how they express whatever is embedded in them, reading their codes in ways that follow the tradition of Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes, while mostly ignoring more photo-specific details. For example, in Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, I argued that focusing on the photographic artifacts in the work of Annie Liebovitz, Gregory Crewdson, and Andreas Gursky is completely besides the point I was actually interested in.

But there are different ways to approach the larger subject matter, and these include expressly taking the way photographs are being made into consideration. This also includes the fact that larger parts of photography cannot really be considered in a classical sense any longer.

What is called computational photography focuses on the fact that photographs are no longer made only by the person pressing the shutter button (whether a physical one or some area on a smart-phone screen). Instead, photographs are increasingly being interpolated if not outright invented by computer algorithms that a) correct for known deficiencies of photographic equipment and b) work towards what the programming team has deemed to be the desired outcome by a target audience (I don’t agree with parts of this recent article about the latest iPhones, but it gives you a good idea of some of the topics that are being discussed).

Ben Burbridge‘s Photography After Capitalism is a recent book that looks into a larger number of such topics, with a focus on the relationship between photography and labour itself. After all, someone will have to press that shutter button (or take that screenshot) and potentially move through some space. That is a form of labour. Photographs don’t make themselves, and there are repercussions from this very fact.

What’s more, those at the other side of a camera are also part of the equation, even if this aspect is one that usually is being completely ignored by photoland. The topic came up in my conversation with Rob Hornstra who recently started to give subjects whose picture he sold to collectors a portion of the proceeds (see the interview for details). As Burbridge details in a chapter about this very idea — involving subjects in the financial aspects of picture making, selling, and/or distributing, things can get considerably more complex than in the cases discussed by Hornstra.

Possibly the most extreme case is the one of Renzo Martens whose Enjoy Poverty caused a huge stir a little over a decade ago. I got so intrigued by Burbridge’s discussion that I looked for more information about the project and its reception. I found Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens‘ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, a collection of reviews, articles, and interviews made around the project. With its 370 pages, there is much to chew on.

I don’t think I have been this engrossed in a book of criticism in a long time. If you are even only remotely interested in the photojournalistic industry taking pictures in a place like Africa, for sure you will want to read the book.

Enjoy Poverty encapsulates a huge number of aspects of photography under and as a tool of capitalism, with possible ways out potentially only being provided by the most breathtaking cynicism that, however, doesn’t even work.

In a nutshell, Martens went to Congo to help local photographers make money by teaching them to take the kinds of pictures outside photojournalists sell for a lot of money. The idea didn’t work, because nobody wanted to buy the pictures: stuck in poverty and misery, there’s no way out; and of course, some white guy coming to help just adds another layer of complication.

The beauty of Photography After Capitalism is that even where Burbridge’s examples are maybe not quite as interesting as the author wants to make us believe (for example, Mishka Henner’s rather pedestrian screenshots of oil fields are hardly as insightful as they are being made out), there still is considerable insight into either what is at stake or (and this part interests me personally more) how photographs can be connected to larger issues.

One of the problems writers and critics face who are trying to understand the effects caused by recent changes in the technological landscape of photography is the following. Often, things change so rapidly that the moment a book makes it into print, an example already is at least somewhat outdated or has been superseded by something more recent. The strength of Burbridge’s writing is that it typically spans a wider range (both in scope and time), meaning that the focus always is on the undercurrent and not so much on what currently floats on top.

Whether talking about snapshots or appropriation, Burbridge deftly ties together a number of recent and older photographers/artists. As a consequence, readers learn more about artists that are already part of (for a lack of a better word) the canon and very recent ones that might operate in seemingly very different ways. This approach not only yields in a lot of depth and insight, it also ensures that Photography After Capitalism is likely to be relevant in a day and age when, say, Instagram has become what Tumblr or Flickr are now. Unlike a lot of other books (especially those written about photography and social media), I suspect that this book will age very well.

In his final chapter, Burbridge notes that “[a]rt can be an important site for politics, but only if we remain attentive to the politics of art.” This statement sits at the core of parts of what I have focused on for a while. Given how deeply embedded photography is in capitalism, in effect there cannot be a photography without politics: even as capitalism attempts to convince us it has nothing to do with politics, the reality is the complete opposite.

Obviously, a lot of photolandians would rather not have so much to do with politics or think about capitalism. Doesn’t photography (or art) provide a refuge, where dealing with things larger than petty concerns provides solace? Well, sure. That is a valid and often valuable way of thinking.

However, Photography After Capitalism demonstrates its futility. In the day and age of computational photography, it is impossible to avoid looking into the politics of labour in the world of photography, regardless of whether it concerns those far away who mine the materials cameras rely on, those far away who moderate our content on social media (whether we actually want that or not), those who develop the algorithms that make our pictures look the way they look, those we see in front of our cameras, and, of course, ourselves, the usually unpaid labourers of our own work.

This doesn’t mean that we all now need to make work around these topics. But at the very least, we owe it to ourselves to become more aware of the undercurrents I spoke of earlier.

Ben Burbridge: Photography After Capitalism, 256 pages, Goldsmiths Press, 2020

Anthony Downey (ed.): Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens‘ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, Sternberg Press, 2019