Sunday, November 6, 2011

Photography and Power

The idea of the photographic archive is interesting to me because it something I take so completely for granted now.  This week’s readings drew attention to the fact that the systems we currently have in place for archiving images, and for obtaining legal information about people from images, did not always exist.  This seems like a rather obvious sentiment once you begin to think about the relatively short history of photography, but my experience of the world is one in which photography and identification are so intrinsically linked that I haven’t given much thought to the way this system and idea came into being. 

I have previously thought a lot about how photography was used as an anthropological tool to study humans and how this was exceptionally problematic in defining ideas of “the other.”  Throughout the readings I often thought of the Midway at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and how anthropologists put people from other cultures on display, inviting Chicagoans to come and observe these “other” and “foreign” people.  

The assumption that you can obtain information about races, intellect, criminal tendencies, social class, or any other aspect of humanity from a visual image is problematic.  The discussion in this week's readings about the many attempts that were made to use photography to either capture or read this information instantly made me think of early daguerreotypes made to illustrate "a negro type," which in turn made me think of contemporary artists who engage within this tradition, such as Carrie Mae Weems.  Below are images from her series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, which is owned by the Harvard Art Museum.  The text of this piece is:

You Became a Scientific Profile / A Negroid Type / An Anthropological Debate / & A Photographic Subject, 1995-1996

In this work, Weems copied Daguerreotypes in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard and used them in her own work in a drastically different context.  Interestingly, the Peabody was not at all pleased with how she was using them, as she didn't get permission, and asked her to quit making this series, though they agreed she could keep any work already made.  The fact that the Harvard Art Museum acquired these four pieces is ironic to me, with one museum at Harvard ordering an end to production and the other buying the product.  But this is just how the story was told to me.  Regardless, Weems' work is clearly engaged in a dialogue with the early practice of using photography from a position of power to try to capture, explain, and further typify an entire race or group of people.  I would argue that Myra Greene's work engages in this dialogue as well.  The readings addressed both ears and eyes as major signifiers of things such as intellect and ability to have pity or empathy.  To what extent can we read or judge character by purely physical characteristics?  I believe Myra is asking these questions with her work "Character Recognition."

Alan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive” was fascinating to me because it illustrated the ways in which photography was used (and perhaps misused) as an archiving tool as a system of archiving things that are impossible to archive visually.

The article about Fiona Tan's project Correction was interesting for many reasons.  Throughout all of the readings, the fallacy of objective photography came up continually.  Just as there is no process by which we can deduce mathematical information or character analysis from images, there is also no such thing as an objective photograph.  Whether in the 1800s or today, photographs "transmit to those who view them the principles and prejudices of those who make them." (Joel Snyder).  Therefore, attempting to pull scientific or ethnographic information from still photographs is inherently problematic because the images were informed by the prejudices of the maker.  The information "learned" from the photographs is also heavily dependent upon social norms and ideology and relies heavily on what the viewer wants to see.  It is, in no way, a scientific or judgement-free way to obtain information.  

The broader link between photography and power or as Foucault would argue, between seeing and power, is both fascinating and also a bit terrifying if you think about it too long.  The custom of having an image on identification documents is so standard that we hardly question it now unless there is a problem with the particular photograph or a discrepancy between the way the person looked at the time of the photograph and the time of presenting the resulting document to an official.  Additionally, we are accustomed to the custom of fingerprinting, which is also a relatively new way of identifying people within an archive. 

This week's themes also called to mind the work of Taryn Simon, specifically her project The Innocents.  The statement for The Innocents begins with this sentence:

"The Innocents documents the stories of individuals who served time in prison for violent crimes they did not commit. At issue is the question of photography's function as a credible eyewitness and arbiter of justice."

I wish I could conclude by saying that we have moved beyond the idea of the photograph as a document of the real, as something that contains an accurate assessment of character, intelligence, innocence, etc., but unfortunately I think these ideas are still heavily entrenched in our culture. 

Sekula writes:

“Bertillon” survives in the operations of the national security state, in the condition of intensive and extensive surveillance that characterizes both everyday life and the geopolitical sphere.  “Galton” lives in the renewed authority of biological determinism, founded in the increased hegemony of the political Right in Western democracies.”  (Sekula, p. 376)

Photography still holds great power, and as such, is very easy prey to an abuse of that power.  This is a struggle for any photographer whose work is political or identity-based.  I certainly think about it a lot with my work.

But, more broadly, outside of the context of photographers and "fine art" photography, the idea of the photograph containing proof or a truth about someone is perhaps more present than we are consciously aware of, and has roots in a very particular history, as Sekula describes.  It is interesting, then, as the readings point out, that many histories of photography completely omit police or anthropological uses of the medium, as they heavily shaped the way that photographs function in society, arguably more than early photographs made for aesthetic or art concerns. 


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