Whose Responsibility?

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During my recent stay in Budapest, I participated in the third Work in Context Symposium at MOME. Its theme was responsibility. My contribution ended up coalescing around a number of things that had been on my mind for a while but that up until then I hadn’t connected. The following essay is based on my talk.

If you think about photography and the way it might be talked about, discussions typically fall into one out of two possible models. I don’t mean to imply that occasionally there might not be more nuance. But more often than not, things boil down to what in effect are two very simplistic ways to treat photographs and their makers.

The first model is the artistic-genius model. In this model, the photographer is an artist and s/he is a genius. As a brief aside, I should note that the artistic-genius model is not confined to photography and that is is incredibly problematic for all kinds of reasons. There now is more and more writing around the topic. If you’re curious, maybe start with Cody Delistraty’s article.

In the world of photography, the artistic-genius model is often used as follows: “I, the maker of these pictures can do whatever I want, because it’s art”. Most commonly, you see this expressed more or less literally when, for example, a photojournalist decides to do something that violates her or his profession’s rules (here’s a recent — very cringey — example).

There obviously is something to be said for an artist violating the ordinary rules of a culture, to possibly have that culture explore its own blind spots, ideas, or themes that it would rather not look at.

I don’t think, though, that that’s what the people who use the “artist/art” defense typically have in mind. Instead, they use a very simplistic idea of what art might be to try to construct a defense around their practice. That art itself does follow rules and ideas and that art can and should be criticized rigourously typically is excluded from discussions where “oh, it’s art” is brought up.

We might also note that even though artists can violate rules, that doesn’t necessarily mean that artists occupy a position outside of all ethical or other considerations. To begin with, all artists operate following the tradition of their medium (or possibly against it). But given that art often challenges a society, it can only do so by acknowledging the society’s larger sets of rules in some fashion. An artist who is completely untethered from that would be unable to do so. Thus why should artists be exempt from ethical considerations?

Obviously, you might argue that the artist and their work need to be seen separately. If we ignore the fact that this approach is mostly commonly invoked when some ethical dilemma pops up — more often than not, it’s used to defend transgressive (usually male) artists, strictly speaking the work cannot have emerged from the vacuum it is supposed to be now considered in. It would seem to me that to insist on a strict separation of artist and their work is just as naive an approach as to say that the artist is identical with the work.

There is a flip side to the artistic genius as well. In our neoliberal world, artists have taken on the roles previously enjoyed (if that’s the word) by court jesters. They are a part of our world, and they are acknowledged for that. They might say or show — you can just imagine the pearl clutching, parts of it is usually performative — outrageous things. Most importantly, they are financially supported by those in power: the rich.

But that’s where it all ends. Art today doesn’t really have any power left. Its role is to adorn the lives of the rich, to allow them to flaunt their societal finesse. The German art critic Wolfgang Ulrich wrote a very good book about this, which, alas, has not yet been translated into English: Siegerkunst.

The second model is the photographer model. In this model, the person who took the picture or pictures under consideration is 100% and exclusively responsible for what they depict. I’m sure that you have seen this model in action, too. It is widely used when people get upset over a picture taken by a photojournalist. How could they take the picture instead of intervening or of magically doing something that would have prevented what is being depicted in the picture? How dare they!

There’s no need to dive further into this model. It’s extremely obvious how naive and misguided such an approach to photography is. And yet it is frequently used.

If you look at these two models, they have one thing in common, and that’s the important aspect here. Both models absolve the viewer of any responsibility whatsoever. If there’s a picture that somehow triggers a larger public debate and if there is a problem, it’s the photographer’s fault. If they can sell themselves as an artistic genius then, well, they get out of jail for free. If they can’t then they’re fucked. They — and only they — are to blame for what is on view in the picture.

As societies, we have created a mechanism that shields us from having to face the consequences of our actions, however indirect these actions might be. When made to face a photograph of these consequences, we can offload the problem onto the picture, and this always means: onto the photographers.

From my somewhat polemic description in the above, you can probably see easily why all of this is a huge problem. In effect, as societies, we have created a mechanism that shields us from having to face the consequences of our actions, however indirect these actions might be. When made to face a photograph of these consequences, we can offload the problem onto the picture, and this always means: onto the photographers.

Obviously, there are cases where this approach makes sense. Plenty of photographers are to blame for what’s on view in their pictures. But if the default for any discussion around photography is one where everything is always the photographer’s fault, then it’s easy for photographers to play the artist-genius or victim card (the most recent version of the latter is by claiming “cancel culture”).

But those cases aren’t the ones that get wide play. The cases that get wide play center on the large crises we’re facing. Often, they’re photojournalistic images. In many cases, an ensuing discussion around the photography (which sadly enough is often encouraged by the photojournalism crowd that still has to shed its adherence to sheer bravado) deflect the viewers’ responsibilities for what is on view.

So instead of, for example, talking about the European Union’s failures to address their migrant crisis, instead people discuss a picture of a dead Kurdish toddler on a beach and wonder whether the picture will change anything. Well, no, because excessive talk about the picture alone doesn’t address the core issue: the glaring lack of empathy and compassion that’s driving the European Union (and that means: vast parts of its citizenry).

In the above, I have focused on discussions around photography on purpose. While I do believe that in photoland we’re in desperate need of smarter and intellectually more rigourous and vigourous discussions around photography, as photographers to automatically take on all responsibility for photographs and, crucially, to let viewers — society — pretend that they have no role in what happens when photographs are shown is a very, very bad idea.

In other words, discussions around responsibility in photography have to involve the responsibilities of the audience. First of all, photographers are members of the societies and cultures they live in. Being a photographer does not mean that somehow magically, that connection gets severed. Even if as a photographer you don’t see it that way, you always are a maker and a viewer, and as a viewer you are a member of some group or society.

The very media that use photography have been of no help. When in doubt, they’ll happily offload their own responsibilities onto the photographer. To give just one example, I stopped counting how often the New York Times ended up exclusively blaming a photographer for material they published (essentially throwing them under the bus) — as if the newspaper didn’t employ photo editors and other editors and had a huge role in all of this.

Another problem embedded in all of the above is the way we see and treat photographs. Somehow, we have turned them into these strange cultural artifacts that have magical power. I don’t think that we treat any other cultural artifact that way. When you look at how photographs are being discussed, it’s almost as if they had a consciousness of their own — at least that’s what I take away from many discussions. But they don’t.

In fact, I personally don’t even believe that a photograph means anything until it is seen by someone. And a photograph might ultimately be completely irrelevant in the sense that it matters infinitely more that it was shared than that it was made or what it looks like.

Given that we live in the day and age of fake news, and given that the tech crowd has now brought us what they call “artificial intelligence”, we might as well get to a better understanding of how photographs do what they do quickly.

The fact that many people believe in what they want to believe in — instead of “the facts” — is now widely understood. And yet, we still discuss photographs as if people would study form and content and then come to the logical conclusions that those “facts” lead them to. But that’s not how most photographs are being treated and understood.

As members of photoland, we’re unlikely to be able to change the societies we’re embedded in, especially if, as I’ve argued many times before, we keep insisting on remaining in the bubble we’re in. With the above, I intended to demonstrate that we actually have a lot to gain from a deeper engagement with our societies.

To begin with, we are members of them, whether we like it or not. But we also are currently stuck with a very simplistic approach when these societies look at our photographs. That approach doesn’t serve us well, and it also doesn’t serve our societies well at all.

If we want our photographs to have an effect, we will have to find ways to get past the way they are currently being treated and discussed. This means rejecting the usually simplistic ways photographs are being discussed. It also means rejecting sole responsibility for what they show.

If we want our photographs to have an effect, we will have to find ways to get past the way they are currently being treated and discussed. This means rejecting the usually simplistic ways photographs are being discussed. It also means rejecting sole responsibility for what they show.

But this approach cuts both ways. Photographers also seriously need to reconsider the use of phrases such as “I’m an artist” or “I’m a storyteller” (the latter almost always includes the implied but unspoken adjective “privileged”). Placing yourself outside of the society you operate in ultimately won’t do much for you. Insisting on the preciousness of your pictures won’t help, either.

If photographers want to get a better deal as far as their own responsibility is concerned, if, in other words, they want their societies to accept their own and usually far larger share of responsibility of what’s on view in pictures, then that means erasing many of the barriers that historically have been set up between those who take the pictures and those who view them. Those barriers have long stopped making sense anyway.

Most crucially, though, photographers need to have the guts to expect responsibility from their societies. What this could look like isn’t clear to me. This probably might require a number of new approaches that transcend traditional models (galleries/museums, fancy art books).

I know one thing, though. If — and this is just some random example — you make photographs around refugees or migrants and you then exhibit those pictures in a museum or fancy art gallery, or you make an expensive art book that people outside your bubble won’t buy, then that’s not going to change a thing, regardless of how much curators or critics talk this up.

Thus, the above not only concerns photographers but everyone who is active in photoland. In a world that is overwhelmed with a stunning number of problems (climate change, inequality, fascism, genocidal wars, and more), a world where photographs are the main currency of communication the professional world of professional photography has become oddly mute and irrelevant.

We need to do better.