We have this bear.
He’s actually a class-bear who lives in a Year 2 classroom, but he does like to get out and get involved. During the London 2012 Paralympics the bear went to the wheelchair basketball at Greenwich. He met a member of the South African paralympic team and had a very enjoyable day. That is, until he met the Met.
Outside the arena there is a line to signify the Prime Meridian – zero degrees longitude. As the bear has spent some time trying to help his children learn about time, this was a great photo opportunity for the little guy. The bear sat on the meridian. I photographed the bear.
Glancing around, it became apparent that a few sports fans (bear fans?) were photographing me, photographing the bear. Within seconds a flash crowd of Japanese tourists were photographing the people photographing me, while I tried to photograph the bear. The pathway to the arena became completely blocked and this attracted even more people to see what the fuss was all about.
At that point the Metropolitan Police arrived and arrested the bear.
The point of this (true) story is the proliferation of photographs in our everyday lives and the interpretation we place on the photographs we see, and indeed take ourselves.
Nearly 40 year ago Sontag (1977) published the series of essays ‘On Photography’ (Sontag 1977). The essays start, as do so many things, in Plato’s cave. Humanity, for Sontag, is still captivated by the mere images of the truth. But the advent of photography has greatly increased the quantity of images clamouring for our attention on the cave walls. In some ways the walls themselves are enlarged as photography changes the terms on confinement in the cave. Photography teaches us a new visual code, it teaches us what is worth looking at and, very, very importantly, what we have a right to observe.
Sontag writes that the convenience of modern photography has created an overabundance of visual material; “just about everything has been photographed” This has altered our expectations of what we have the right to view, want to view, or should view. Photographs have increased our access to knowledge and experiences of history and faraway places, but the images may replace direct experience and limit reality.
Photography and photographs, along with film-making have fundamentally altered our relationship to places that we have never been to. Not only do we expect to be able to see, but see in high definition and in extreme close-up. Is what we see, the same as experiencing the reality ourselves? Sontag was writing long before the digital and social media revolution that has seen us able, and more than willing, to share images of our everyday lives, often with complete strangers.
“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that seems like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” (1977:4)
Photography is, she argues, treacherous, as it provides most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past. Photographs are less interpretations of the past, as miniatures of the world that anyone can make. As such photographs have a credibility in the minds of people that goes far beyond the written word. We believe images of far off places – we believe images of the past.
“Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph.”
Sontag, of course, realises that this presumption of truth in photographs should be judged with caution. She cites the example of the Farm Security Administration project in the 1930’s to share the plight of sharecroppers. The team of highly talented photographers took dozens of photographs of their subjects until they thought they’d achieved the precise look that supported their own notions of poverty and dignity.
(Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, 1936)
The camera doesn’t lie, we’re told. Neither does it tell the whole truth.
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal shows how controversial the truth can be in the hands of a photographer. It has been suggested a number of times that this (second) raising of the US flag on the island of Iwo Jima at the end of WWII was set up as a propaganda piece.
Lange and Rosenthal present interpretations of the world, which as photographs are given a credence that other forms of information do not have. In a sense they have no more objective truth that my earlier assertion that the bear was arrested by the police.
Sontag argues that the growth of photography has been in tandem with the growth in tourism. The massive growth of phototaking is concomitant with the mass transit of people around the world for pleasure. Sontag suggests that the very activity of picture taking is soothing and assuages the feeling of disorientation felt when visiting different cultures.
Photography doesn’t just provide a ‘truth’ of tourism, proof that it actually happened, but provides a form of stability for the picture taker. It also provides ‘protection’ from the alien culture that the photographer finds himself in. Not only is the experience made more real by the camera, the camera becomes a shield, a filter, a cipher through which to interpret the world.
This process, of tourism photography, perhaps reaches a logical conclusion with the work of Murad Osmann, (http://imgur.com/a/HlXzY). Osmann presents a series of photographs, taken as instagrams where he, the photographer, is pulled around tourist attractions around the world by the subject of the photograph, his girlfriend. Every photo repeats the same pattern, with only the location and clothing changing from shot to shot.
These photographs provide the ‘proof’ of the event, but the photographer is shielded, not only by the camera, but by the subject herself. At the same time the photos create a sense of ‘insistence’, the onward march of the photos modeling the process of tourism itself. Ultimately the goal of the process seems not to actually go anywhere, but to be able to demonstrate that one has actually been there. The photo of the event has preeminence over the event itself. This is clearly shown in Osmann’s sequence of shots, but can be equally seen in photos of tourists standing beside signs showing where they are, or indeed images of British police arresting small bears.