Ideology in Photography

Is it unethical to photograph a fourteen year old child without permission?

What if the child in question has just been shot dead by the police and you are reporting the incident to raise attention about atrocities carried out by those who should be upholding the law?

In this instance, is the photographer back on the side of the angels?

The photograph in question was taken by Swedish photographer Paul Hansen and was of a young girl called Fabienne, a Haitian who was killed by the police after being discovered looting a store. Stealing two plastic chairs and some artwork after the earthquake that shook Haiti cost Fabienne her life. The photographer won Hansen the Swedish Picture of the Year Award for 2011.

Another photographer, Nathan Weber then stood back and took a wider, contextual shot. The wider shot shows that the dead child was being photographers by a pack of at least eight photographers (plus Weber), accompanied by what looks like a guide. The first, sympathetic image, disappears under what appears to be a photo safari for the photographers!

The second image leads us to question our assumptions about the first. What at first appears to be an expose of the horrific scene unfolding in in Haiti, turns quickly into second-hand voyeurism . As the images were reblogged around the world, the context of the conflict in Haiti were completed submerged in a totally spurious discussion about the colour of the murdered girl and the newsworthiness of the photograph given her colour.

While this might be an extreme example, it points to an aspect of photography that is often overlooked; photography is ideological.

To take a simple definition, ideology is a (more or less) consistent set of beliefs about an aspect of the world – often politics and/or economics. In this sense one could argue that a photographer’s style within the subject creates a personal ideology, but it is usually viewed to mean a shared view. When a number of people share the same world view, they share an ideology.

Photographs are taken, and exist, within a shared view of the world.

When the photographer raises a camera, the photograph, is not simply framed by the rules of composition, but a whole set of rules created by the culture and beliefs of the photographer. In the case of Fabienne, the two photographs show two very different ideological aspects of the same scene.

It is entirely possible that the second photographer, Weber, was unaware of contradictory impact of his shot, but this is where ideology is most effective.

Consider the example of a five foot, eleven inches, stick thin fashion model. For a feminist, this is an example of exploitative misogyny aimed at selling, not only fashion, but an entirely unrealistic image of what people should look like. It is, however, an image that many accept without question. Objection or acceptance, both responses are shaped by ideology, but it is those who object that are labelled as ‘peddling’ an ideological agenda.

Those that take the fashion photographs, consider themselves at worst to be doing a harmless job, but many are happy to go that bit further to make the models look even taller and slimmer, ever further from the reality of normal life.

I would contend that the dominant ideology acts by defining the very terms of the debate, and as such any ‘common sense’ explanations of, in this case, the meaning of photographs, have to picked apart to try to analyse where our beliefs about what we see come from.

As Gramsci pointed out, this ideological ‘common sense’ forms a hegemonic structure whereby we accept the ruling set of ideas as just, even if we are directly suffering as a consequence of those ideas. Hegemony is the ways those in power use their power to control public perception to ensure they will stay in power. In terms of art of photography, those that  have the power and wealth, not only tell us what is worthy or valid, but make us believe that they are right.

We are not encouraged to ask why the photograph was taken. Or ask who benefits from the photograph. We’re not even supposed to wonder if there was an agenda. So much of ideology works on the hegemonic level, an unconscious level of acceptance that permeates throughout society.

So, when we pick up the camera, we really should be asking the reason why.

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