The Civil Contract of Photography by Areilla Azioulay is discussed in The New Yorker by Sarah Sentilles, and having read the article I know I must buy the book. It contradicts so much that I’ve been learning here and elsewhere about photographing people in awful situations, and the arguments reported seem deeply compelling and convincing. I am reminded of something I learned a little while ago and had forgotten perhaps; the motivations/intentions of the photographer are integral to the meaning of an image, and often those may only be revealed as potential viewers’ perceptions have evolved, or more simply as time passes.
We are told that we as citizens do not yet know how to read photographs and the article ends by giving us an analogy to further explain this. It’s an uncompromising position to take but perhaps a necessary one. “I thought of a friend whose son was diagnosed with a fatal disease. When he was dying, people would say to her, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” She would respond, “Yes, you can imagine it. You just don’t want to.” (I suppose the problem comes about in trusting people to learn to be more responsible viewers and that may well be an overambitious goal.)
One of the most striking examples in support of the arguments reported is how photographs of slaves intended to prove their sub-humanity instead “document the inhumanity of the owners”.
The article also explores the indexality of images and introduced an essay by Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson (also worth reading), saying, “Yes, photographs show what was there, Pinney argues, but what was there can be much more than what the photographer wanted the viewer to see”, and “”Margin of excess,” Pinney calls it. “Subversive code”. As a result, he argues, rather than being guarantees of certainty or proof, photographs are volatile, fertile, open, and available to uses that the photographer may not have intended.””
When I first started looking at Self & Other, I watched a talk given by John Tagg at Yale titled, “Knocking around between money, sex, and boredom”: Walker Evans in Havana and New York. Evan’s sense of entitlement is discussed at length but we must not forget that intention is everything and it is likely to be revealed in time.
I have long been worried that when I visit Northern France with Just Shelter I am so eager to avoid documenting in an exploitative way, that I am simply abstracting what I see to such a point that is becomes meaningless and pointless, except to a handful of people. Maybe I should stop worrying so much. I like the sound of this book very much. It appears to cut through dogma and is definitely one to get. I’ll report back once I’ve read it.