What do we give back?

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In a post on his Instagram account, Brad Feuerhelm wrote about a book by Robert Bergman, noting that (I’m paraphrasing) he was torn about the work. I own a copy of the book, and I know exactly what Brad is talking about. Photographically, the work is very alluring; yet there is the problem that many of the people portrayed in the book are not only underprivileged, the circumstances of their lives also show very prominently. Obviously, as Brad and others note in the comments there are many other photographers who have made their careers out of taking the same kinds of pictures. Brad extracted the comments and included them in a (free) Patreon post that you can access here.

If you’ve read this site for a while, you probably know that I’m very sympathetic to talking about the ethics of photography. Even as you might not realize this when you buy a camera or a smartphone, the history of the medium comes attached to your device. The moment you take a picture, you’re tied to that history — whether you want it or not. There currently are more and more discussions around the many problems of photography’s history, discussions that have spread so far that they now have generated their own backlash (a backlash that’s curiously similar to how members of the conservative and especially far-right side of the political spectrum engage with such discussions).

Even as I think that we should be talking about specific bodies of work, there is something unsatisfactory about many of such discussions on social media. Ignoring trolling and bad-faith arguments, by their own nature, such discussions inevitably result in often dozens and dozens of subthreads that are very difficult, if not outright impossible to follow. There is a lot of energy present (which is great), but that energy then dissipates into every possible direction, leaving behind… well, what? You wouldn’t have the same problem if you simply had people in the same room and initiated a group discussion. Obviously, social-media companies live off that: making sure there’s a lot of energy (“engagement”); at the same time, there is no business incentive to allow people to channel the energy into something more productive.

Somewhere in the comments, Brad wrote something that resonated with me very much, because I have spent a lot of time thinking and occasionally writing about it. He wrote “I do believe photography often takes more than it gives back to humanity, and we then ask questions about what that relationship exerts on the world at large.” I personally would phrase this even more strongly: I absolutely believe that photography takes more than it gives back to humanity.

While I am very supportive of discussions of the merits of individual bodies of work and their possible (or very real) problems, addressing this very question — what does photography give back to humanity? — ought to be discussed as well. In many ways, the question sits on top of whether some body of work is problematic or not: after all, you need criteria with which you can evaluate what is going on.

At the same time, every photographer can — and I would argue: should — ask themselves that question before going out into the world to take pictures. You go out to take your pictures — what exactly do you give back?

You hunt your pictures (or even your subjects — this language is being used) — what about the hunted?

This is a question that every photographer can engage with on their own. Unlike in the case of ethics, there is no larger discussion to connect to. I think that the problem with discussions around ethics in the world of photography stems from the fact that many people have never thought about this aspect: if there is no larger goal or if that larger goal is very amorphous, how can you consider any of the aspects that go into the taking of photographs?

When I taught at an MFA program, I often asked my student questions what they actually wanted to achieve with their work or where they envisioned seeing it. Usually, I was baffled by the fact that the white-cube gallery and photobook were the only outlets that were considered. It’s not that I think those two options aren’t valid — they clearly are. But when they are the only options for the vast majority of photographers, then we should not be surprised that photography has arrived in exactly the position it is in now.

Large numbers of people take photographs on a daily basis with their smartphones. Interest in photography is huge. In fact, photography arguably is the main currency of the current internet. Yet art photographers or other professional photographers have a hard time getting all these people interested in their work. For example, the people who buy photobooks are mostly a small group of wealthy collectors and other photographers.

If you think about it, that’s a really baffling situation: essentially, all those people who are so interested in photography don’t think that art or professional photographers produce something that’s interesting. Even as the number of people reading literature appears to be in decline, many more people buy and read novels than photobooks. In the larger cultural consciousness, photography is everywhere — yet most of its professionals simply don’t exist. That’s crazy.

I do think that this is an entirely self inflicted wound. For too long, photographers have been too eager to make work for other photographers without considering other audiences. Instead, the question of what is being given back to the world has been turned into how to get access to the world of art.

One sad aspect of this is that the question whether photography can be art was essentially resolved once Duchamp put an inverted urinal on a pedestal. If readymades can be art (for what it’s worth, I don’t have a problem with that) then obviously anything can be art. The case for photography as art should have been closed in 1917.

And yet a little over 100 years later, too many photographers are still attempting to define themselves as artists at the expense of getting their own work out into the world, or maybe I should say: the real world. It’s not even that I have a problem with photography made in and for the academy. That’s fine. But if as I noted above, if the end goal of photography is either the white cube or the photobook (that maybe sells a few hundred copies), then the real promise of photography remains unfulfilled.

All too often, the idea of art is used as a smoke screen to avoid dealing with the consequences of one’s work. OK, fine, call your photography art and have it cater to that tiny niche crowd that you might reach, while consoling yourself with the idea that there is some greater good you’re working towards. I’m perfectly fine with that. But the moment you point your camera at, let’s say, an underprivileged person, to make a beautiful portrait (that you then hope to sell to rich people), there’s no escaping the fact that just talking about art simply doesn’t cut it.

Contrary to what many people seem to believe the idea of art is not the equivalent of a “get out of jail” card that magically absolves whatever you might be doing. If your art comes at the expense of other people — for example in the form of their dignity being diminished, then you might have created art; but there still remains the fact that it comes at other people’s expense. I really don’t think that you can just brush that aside: the justification of diminishing someone’s dignity so that art can be made often merely is an expression of privilege.

What is more, there exists plenty of art that actually engages with the larger world, even as it has a foot in the world of art. Consequently, the idea that art is only done for its own sake reduces art to only a part of itself, and it ignores the larger potential of what art can do. Contrary to what many photographers seem to believe, something can be more than one thing: a piece of art and a part of a larger societal or cultural or political context. To give one relatively recent example, some of the founding members of Pussy Riot went to jail because of that.

Another world is possible. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Poland’s Archive of Public Protests. If you ask any of those photographers what they’re giving back to the world, you’ll get a very clear and passionate answer.

This is not to say that all photographers should become overtly political and distribute free newspapers (even though I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more). But in a day and age where a global pandemic is being prolonged in part by people insisting only on their own freedoms (at the expense of everybody else’s), I think it should have become obvious what is at stake if we all individually insist on focusing only on our own private worlds and goals.

Circling back to the many discussions about problematic or abusive bodies of work, if there is no connection to the larger world other than the idea that it simply is a repository from which to take pictures, then we ought not be surprised if many of the discussions remain what they often are: academic exercises that do not actually result in any meaningful change.

As members of this hermetically sealed world of photography we have to realize what’s at stake and break it open. Otherwise, we’ll never learn how to take better pictures, pictures that tell us something that we don’t know; we’ll never learn how to move past tiresome and hurtful photographic tropes; and we’ll never move beyond exhibitions and photobooks that are only seen by our friends and family.

All of that, I would argue, starts with a very simple question: what do I give back to the world that I take my pictures from?

If you enjoyed the piece and want to support my work, you can. I maintain a Patreon page that at the time of this writing centers on photobooks. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will expand the scope of what I cover there.

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