Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ethics: Sontag and Azoulay

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag begins our excerpt from Regarding the Pain of Others by describing two widespread ideas about photography, which she believes are "formulated in [her] own essays on photography."  (Sontag, 104)

"The first idea is that public attention is steered by the attentions of the media- which means, most decisively, images.  When there are photographs, a war becomes real... The second idea," she writes, "is that in a world saturated, no, hyper-saturated with himages, those that should matter have a diminishing effect: we become callous."  (Sontag, 105)

She challenges the idea that she set forth in the first essay in On photography in 1977, which is "while an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been had one never seen the photographs, after repeated exposure it also becomes less real."  (Sontag, 105)  Claiming she was sure of this idea when she wrote the essay initially, she now says she is not so sure.  The context of where an image is seen, and how it is used, drastically affects its effect.  She points out television as a perhaps problematic way to view images.  In this format, the images are shown quickly to a viewer who is expected to be entertained, and as such, the images fall into a category of passive entertainment and are not presented in such a way as to invite a "reflective engagement" or "intensity of awareness."  (Sontag, 106)

Even a museum, she argues, is no longer simply a place to reflect on what one is seeing, but it is also moving more and more towards being a place of entertainment.  Sontag writes, "so far as photographs with the most solemn or heartrending subject matter are art- and this is what they become when they hang on walls, whatever the disclaimers- they partake of the fate of all wall-hung or floor-supported art displayed in public spaces.  That is, they are stations along a- usually accompanied- stroll.  A museum or gallery visit is a social institution, riddled with distractions, in the course of which art is seen and commented on."  (Sontag, 121)

This raises a few questions.  If photographs do not receive enough time or awareness to be effectively viewed on television, online, or in newspapers, and museums are becoming social institutions aimed primarily at entertainment, where would one show photographs meant to affect social change?  Books?  Zines?  Alternative art spaces?  Projected on buildings?  In peoples' mailboxes?  Sontag writes that books are effective, but even they will be closed at some point, and the strong emotions the photographs may have inspired will be transient.

Sontag also raises the question of how the media influences what we perceive to be real, referencing the diagnosis of Andre Glucksmann after a trip to Sarajevo: "the war would be won or lost not by anything that happened in the Sarajevo, or indeed in Bosnia, but by what happened in the media."  (Sontag, 110)  In regard to the ways in which we absorb images, she pointed out that, "according to a highly influential analysis, we live in a 'society of spectacle.'" (Sontag, 109)  And who is this spectacle for?  Sontag writes, "to speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breath-taking provincialism.  It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment- that mature style of viewing which is a prime acquisition of 'the modern,' and a prerequisite for dismantling traditional forms of party-based politics that offer real disagreement and debate."  (Sontag, 110)  To paraphrase, she then writes that it is absurd to think of the world only as the privileged portion where people have the choice to engage with, or not, images of pain and violence, just as it is ridiculous to think that it is impossible to respond to the sufferings of others from the viewpoint of knowing nothing about war firsthand. 

Sontag writes, "some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved," which I found quite poignant.  If our society is trained to be cynically detached from images or knowledge of suffering, how could a photograph possibly be an effective call to action?

Towards the end of chapter 7, Sontag claims that the concerned photographer had to put themselves in as much risk as the people they were interested in photographing in order to make their images.  Additionally, she claimed that victims often did want their plight to be documented through photographs- an idea that Azoulay will discuss to in more detail- and therefore willingly engaged with the photographer, whether or not they knew exactly how and where their images would be shown or seen.  I heard James Nachtwey speak once at the MFA Boston, and someone asked him how he negotiated such intimate, raw, difficult situations with his subjects, often without the use of language.  He echoed this sentiment put forth by Sontag- that the people he was photographing saw him as an ally, as being on their side, and willingly engaged with him in the hope that the documentation of their suffering would lead to some sort of relief or help.  Even without language, they engaged in intimate exchanges with him, allowing their suffering to be photographed completely and without withholding.

I wonder what these people would think if they imagined their photograph would go no further than an art gallery wall, like the work of Luc Delahaye?  I image that then the photographer and the subject would engage in a very different kind of dance, if they danced at all.  Surely their participation is based on the assumption that photographs can lead to social change and are not merely aesthetic objects.  Otherwise, it is doubtful they would engage on the level that they do. 

In the beginning of chapter 8, Sontag writes, "to designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell's flames."  (Sontag, 114)  This idea is integral to our readings, and more broadly, to the ethics of photography in general.  Can a photograph really function as a call to action?  Is it enough to raise awareness, or must something more tangible be done?  Who is implicated in the viewing of photographs, and how?  Are we ultimately powerless to affect the suffering depicted, or just choosing to disengage?  Sontag claims that in many ways, these images function not as a request to remember or react to a specific event, but rather to not forget what human beings are, and have always been, capable of.

Though I understand Sontag's argument in regards to Jeff Wall's Dead Troops Talk, I still find it surprising in regard to all of her other writing that she would so avidly defend this piece.  While it does not show actual suffering, it certainly references a very grim reality, and in a way as to let the viewer disengage from the ethical dilemma images of war or suffering typically present. 

Susan Meiselas

In April of 2010, I went to visit David Hilliard at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he was teaching as an artist in residence (and had a show on display), and while I was there, we went to an exhibition by Susan Meiselas, where Susan was present and giving a tour of her exhibition and artist talk.  I found seeing her work in person incredibly moving, partially because it was laid out in many sections as it would have been in a magazine or some other print media, such as a poster or newspaper meant to be distributed quickly.  Hearing Susan speak also added another very intense, personal dimension to viewing her work.  I got the sense that she was photographing with the primary concern of affecting social change, not of being viewed as an artist.  In Kurdistan, she actually seemed to be moving away from directly documenting conflict, but rather working with photographs and archives of a particular place to tell its store more fully.

Installation shot from Susan Meiselas: In History

This last photograph was especially intense to see in person, and she spoke about her own ethical struggles in regards to what to photograph, how to photograph it, and how to exhibit it.  

On a total side note (though it relates to how viewers engage with works in exhibitions), she also had her project Carnival Strippers on display.  They were in a separate room which was completely dark except for the photographs, and there was audio playing, stories from the strippers themselves that Meiselas had recorded.  The curator from ICP was leading the tour at this point, and she said that because only men had been allowed into the tents where Meiselas originally took the photos, they wanted only the men to go in first to fully experience the show.  David and I looked at each other a little confused as to how we should procede, and then he said to me, "Well, do you wanna go in with me?  Between the two of us, we probably add up to a man."  So we did.  It was me and David and about 20 older, conservative-looking white guys looking at photographs of strippers, and David and I talked over dinner about how it was a magical moment, and our favorite part of seeing the show together.

More info about the Meiselas exhibition can be seen here.  

Ariella Azoulay

There is so much to say about Azoulay I almost don't know where to begin, so I'll begin with my diagram differentiating her from Fried.  It seems a little ridiculous to even compare the two.  Aside from the fact that they have both written about photography, they live in completely different worlds. My gut reaction is to identify completely with Azoulay, but of course it is impossible to completely dismiss the purely aesthetic approach to photography (Fried) because all photographs, social or otherwise, function visually within the same world (in some ways). 

Though this is not an intellectual point, perhaps, I like Azoulay's writing style.  She talks about interesting things in a way that is engaging and accessible, as if the issues she is writing about pertain to real people, as opposed to Fried, who is so self-referential and absorbed in academia/theory that you wonder if he ever has to function in the real world. 

Azoulay introduces the idea of "phantom pictures" or "planted pictures," meaning pictures that are placed in our brains by stories, by the culture, or by societal expectations.  This is an interesting concept- she begins by describing an image her mother described to her of Arabs going into the ocean with their clothes on, an image she held in her mind for many years, despite never having actually seen it in real life.  This is an interesting concept as it pertains to issues of culture.  I would assume that most of us carry around phantom pictures in our brain that are not actually based in actual experience or fact, but that have been told or fed to us by someone or something else. 

One of the most significant areas in which Azoulay differs from Fried is in her understanding of how a photograph is made, the amount of control and authorship the subject has, and the way it is subsequently viewed.  Her discussion of photography is also not centered around the art world exclusively, but rather within a broader, real world context.  She writes, "my interest in photography didn't end with photographs taken by artists or professional photographers.  In photography- and this is evident in every single photo- there is something that extends beyond the photographer's action, and no photographer, even the most gifted, can claim ownership of what appears in the photograph."  (Azoulay, 11)

The idea that the subject has as much control in the making of a photograph as the photographer shifts the power dynamic from the ways in which photography is often talked about.  Generally, the photographer is assumed to be in the position of power.  Azoulay seems very aware of the power dynamic inherent in pointing a camera at someone, and I am not meaning to suggest that she is arguing that the power has been equalized.  However, she speaks about the act of photographing as something that is inherently more complicated and multi-faceted than what Fried claims it to be.  She mentions many times that the subjects have a choice in how the choose to present themselves to the camera.  They can choose what emotion to show, or perhaps more accurately, they can choose whether or not to show the emotion they are experiencing, and their input is essential to the photograph.  The photographer cannot do it without some give and take and relationship to the person being photographed, which sounds so obvious, but it is an aspect of picture-making that is often forgotten, with all of the ownership being given to the photographer and their supposed skill or greatness.

Azoulay presents the idea of a civil political space and suggests that "the people using photography- photographers, spectators, and photographed people- imagine every day."  (Azoulay, 12)  In this space, photography does not function merely as a "producer of pictures," but rather as a more complicated social and political medium that can function outside of the ruling power, playing by its own, equalizing rules.

Azoulay makes a critical point about the viewing of photographs of suffering, or pain, which is in conversation with Sontag's writings and in direct opposition to Fried's interpretation of photography.  She writes, "when and where the subject of the photograph is a person who has suffered some form of injury, a viewing of the photograph that reconstructs the photographic situation and allows a reading of the injury inflicted on others becomes a civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation."  (Azoulay, 14)

Much of her article focuses on issues of citizenship, specifically on the disparities between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians, who are governed by the same ruling power but with different rights and privileges (or lack thereof).  She argues that photography becomes a political tool for creating an alternately imagined political sphere by approaching all people in an equal manner. 

Azoulay writes, "when I started scrutinizing photographs in a serious, systematic way, I understood that terms such as 'occupation' or 'Green Line' or 'Palestinian State' that I had been in the habit of using are part of the discursive structures of the regime and support it, even if one formulated her position toward them in just the opposite way than the one intended by the regime.  These terms threaten to circumscribe one's field of vision and, perhaps worse, the boundaries of one's imagination, as well.  They threaten to seal the photographs within a protective shield that will turn the photographed people into evidence that something 'was there.'"  (Azoulay, 16)  In this regard, there is a disconnect in the viewer's mind between the moment they are looking at the photograph and the moment it was taken.  It feels like something that simply is, or something that is in the past, not as something that currently begs for action.  Azoulay argues that photographs demand to be watched, not simply looked at.  They need to be seen not as something that has been, but as something that is still actively happening.  This idea relates to Sontag's statement "to designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell's flames."  Azoulay argues it is not enough to look at something that is, or that has been, but instead we must actively engage with photographs with a sense of moral ethics and civil responsibility, especially when they are of struggle, suffering, or pain. 

In regard to her book specifically, Azoulay writes "The Civil Contract of Photography is an attempt to anchor spectatorship in civic duty toward the photographed persons who haven't stopped being 'there,' toward dispossessed citizens who, in turn, enable the rethinking of the concept and practice of citizenship."  (Azoulay, 16-17)

Azoulay goes into detail in regard to the "very complex fabric of relations" that is photographing.  The following paragraph relates directly to my mention of James Nachtwey above and of the assumption on behalf of the subjects that some good will potentially come from posing for a photograph.  This sentiment is also critical to Azoulay's arguments.

"the photographed subjects of numerous photographs participate actively in the photographic act and view both this act and the photographer facing them as a framework that offers an alternative- weak though it may be- to the institutional structures that have abandoned and injured them, that continue to shirk responsibility toward these subjects and refuse to compensate them for damages.  The consent of most photographed subjects to have their picture taken, or indeed their own initiation of a photographic act, even when suffering in extremely difficult circumstances, presumes the existence of a civil space in which photographers, photographed subjects, and spectators share a recognition that what they are witnessing is intolerable."  (Azoulay, 18)

Iconic and over-discussed as it may be, this makes me think of FSA photography, specifically "Migrant Mother."  In the past couple of weeks I have led two print viewings at MoCP centering around the series of photographs that would lead to the iconic image now known as "Migrant Mother," and for this reason I have been thinking and talking about it a lot recently.  Though there are all kinds of ethical issues at play with the creation of the FSA photographs, surely, on some level, both Lange and the woman depicted engaged in a similar kind of relationship as described by Azoulay above.  I doubt the subject would have posed for such an image if she imagined it would be aestheticized as an art object, and I doubt that Lange conceived it as such.  From everything I have read about her, it seems she was an incredibly socially engaged and passionate photographer who believed in the power of photography to bring about social change.

This series of image engages an interesting dialogue between aesthetics and social content, however, as Lange took many photographs of the same woman, but only one became iconic, arguably because of its intense emotion and symbolism coupled with a simultaneous lack of specificity in regard to the woman's circumstances, which the other exposures had.  Even the original title to the photograph was changed to make it more of an icon.  The original title is quite long and very descriptive, locating this woman very solidly in her own circumstance.  "Migrant Mother" shows suffering and strife, but with a point of subjective entry into the photograph.  We, as viewers, are not looking at one particular woman, or mother, and her unique circumstance, but rather, through careful manipulation of both composition and subject, we are invited to engage with suffering symbolically, to place ourselves into the position of struggle while simultaneously keeping our distance.
This discourse calls to mind Azoulay's point about victims wanting their suffering to be photographed, but they want it to be considered unique and specific, not as a portrait of suffering or a symbol of suffering, which so often happens with imagery of war or suffering.  Interestingly, Sontag argues for this kind of interchangeability of photographs of suffering as I mentioned above, suggesting that their function is not to remind us of specific events but to remind us of the human potential to cause harm and do injustice.

I was fascinated by Azoulay's story about the Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype The Branded Hand of Captain Jonathan Walker, which Azoulay describes as one of the "earliest examples of the political use of photography."  Walker was fined and imprisoned for attempting to smuggle slaves out of the state northward, and he received the branding of "SS," for slave stealer, on his hand.  This act was meant to shame him, but instead, he went to the studio of Southworth and Hawes and requested a daguerreotype, which he "proceeded to distribute as a protest against the court ruling."  Through this act, he was challenging the content of the court ruling, the meaning of the punishment, and the community authorized to reinterpret the court ruling.  (Azoulay, 22)

Azoulay writes, "the daguerreotype had the power to publish the disgrace meant to exclude Walker from the public and, through this very act of publication, to overturn the disgrace."  (Azoulay, 22)

Though the circumstances are wildly different, this makes me think of Catherine Opie's pervert pictures, in which she reclaimed a word intended by society to make her feel shame, and wore it proudly, carved into her skin for all to see.  I love especially that in the photograph of her with her son, with all of it's references to the Madonna and child, you can still see the scar on her chest that spells "pervert," especially when looking at the print in person.

It also makes me think of Mapplethorpe's photos or work by Lorna Simpson or Carrie Mae Weems.  There is infinite political power in the act of re-claiming, and photography as a medium has the unique ability to fix this reclamation, and if so desired, to distribute it widely, for all to see.

Interestingly, as the story was told to me, Weems copied daguerreotypes from the collection at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University and used them to make this work.  When the Peabody found out what she was doing, they were upset, and while they didn't ask her to destroy the work that already existed, they did ask her to stop making work from their source material.  Meanwhile, the Harvard Art Museum (which is totally separate from the Peabody) acquired the version shown above and championed these photographs as powerful art.  Funny, that.  They are quite beautiful and powerful in person.

Going back to the Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype, Azoulay wrote, "the daguerreotype had the power to publish the disgrace meant to exclude Walker from the public and, through this very act of publication, to overturn the disgrace." (Azoulay, 22)  Through the act of photographing and publicizing something meant to invoke shame, Walker turned his punishment into a subversive political act.

Returning to the specific discussion of citizenship Azoulay puts forth in her book, she writes of the Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians as being unequally and unjustly governed by the ruling power.  However, she writes, "those governed are equally not governed within this space of photography, where no sovereign power exists."  (Azoulay, 25)

She continues: "citizenship should be indifferent to the ties- from kinship through class or nation- that seek to link part of the governed to one another and exclude others.  Free from the nationalist perspective, or any other essentialist conception of the collective of governed individuals, citizenship comes to resemble the photographic relation.  Photographs bear traces of a plurality of political relations that might be actualized by the act of watching, transforming and disseminating what is seen into claims that demand action."  (Azoulay, 26)

This last sentence is especially poignant.  It is probably no longer necessary to contrast Azoulay and Fried, but in this regard, they have monumentally different opinions.  I can't imagine Fried thinking of a photograph as a claim that demands action.  Azoulay again brings up issues of consent as critical to picture-making.  Arguably, the photographs Fried references involved some consent when there were images of people, but both the subject matter and the way in which the photographs were made (say, Jeff Wall's work) require a very different kind of consent than the kind Azoulay is referencing.

Towards the end of her introduction, Azoulay references future chapters.  While this may not be a central focus of the specific writing we read, I was interested in her idea about rape being a societal catastrophe that has no visibility in the public discourse.  Rape is generally not pictured or photographed, and Azoulay raises the question of whether this lack of visibility is responsible, in part, to its continuation.  Do we, as a society, need to see images in order to know it is real, as Sontag argued in regard to war?

This question called to mind Jonathon Torgovnik's project Intended Consequences, in which he photographed women in Rwanda who had been raped with the children that resulted.  Do we need to see it to believe it is happening?  Are these photos also a call to action?  Or do we merely aestheticize them?

Below is a description of the project:

With photographs and interviews by Jonathan Torgovnik, the book and exhibition "Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape" is a collection of personal accounts of thirty female survivors of the Rwandan genocide that took place 15 years ago.

Subjected to sexual violence by members of the Hutu militia groups, these women all bore children as a result, and many were exposed to HIV and are now shunned by their communities. A constant reminder of horrors they endured, the interviews allow the women to tell their story&mdashmany never shared until now—of the troubles they face raising "a child of the militia." 

Not only is it a chance for the women to finally speak out, but the topic is unfortunately relevant once again due to the recent use of rape as a weapon in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Briefly, I think it is appalling that Azoulay would be denied tenure for her political beliefs.  I am sure we will talk about this in class. 

Gillian Laub

It was interesting to read the excerpt from The Civil Contract of Photography by Azoulay and then read her piece for Gillian Laub's book Testimony, as many of her points in the latter were also articulated in the former.  In many ways, the takes her theoretical claims about the function of photography and applies them to the specific ways that Laub's photographs function.  Illustrating her thoughts on the photographer/subject/viewer dynamic, Azoulay writes "what is at stake in Laub's photographs is not the spectator's acquaintance with the photographed person but rather the manner in which the spectator can get to know the photographed figure, a manner mediated by the encounter between the figure and the photographer."

Again, she references the control and autonomy of the subject: "Despite this lack of acquaintance, the people photographed address Laub- and the viewer- in one way or another, sitting in front of the camera, baring themselves before our gaze.  Knitting the visual details into a story allows the spectator to fulfill her role in the encounter with the subject, to revive the signs burnt into the frame so that they can testify to the living encounter between the photographer, the photographed people, and the camera."

Azoulay argues that Laub is interested in the moment when "differences between human beings transcend the distinctions of class, identity, and belonging," claiming that her work touches on issues of national and racial otherness, but is not reducible to either.

She returns to the idea of photography as a call to action with her last story about the boy who faced Laub, willingly allowing his photograph to be made, while having a good time with another, different family.  Azoulay suggests, "perhaps for him, through the photograph, through the moment at which he becomes a photographed person, he grants the mixing of families a semblance of something real, something that might happen again, that might continue on into the future."

Even in challenging times, there remains an optimism in the power of photography to affect social change.  Without this hope, so many of the photographs we have come to know would likely not have been made.  From the side of the photographer, this carries with it both a huge privilege and a huge responsibility, especially in Azoulay's view of the way photography functions in a very broad, political, human context.

I will end with a photo that Gillian Laub took of me when I was 17.  Newsweek was writing a story about young trans people, and somehow or other they found me to write about.  They sent Gillian to my apartment to photograph me and I remember the experience vividly, though at the time I had no idea who she was.  I was 17- actually, maybe 18- and was living in my first apartment away from home and in my first year as a photo major at MassArt.  I was crazy about photography but I am not sure I even knew who Diane Arbus was yet, actually.  Anyway, Gillian came to my house with a crew and lights and made a portrait.  She gave me one of the polaroids from the test shoot, and I taped it to the outside of my locker at MassArt, where I saw it every day for years.  That little polaroid traveled with me from locker to locker, and once I graduated I taped it to my shelf in the somewhat makeshift darkroom I built in my apartment, which I loved and used diligently for 4 years before coming to Columbia.  The photograph was taped inside the little shelf that held my photo paper (in the right of the photo below), which sat right next to my enlarger (this photo was taken by my friend Eddy Pula in May of 2011, right before I sent my darkroom- enlarger and six foot sink and all- to its new home with a photographer friend of mine in Brooklyn and packed the rest of my life for Chi-town). 

Photo by Eddy Pula

Without realizing it, that little polaroid photograph became burned into my mind.

Very recently- say, maybe two months ago- I got a message from Gillian on facebook.  I had friended her because of my interest in, and admiration for, her work, and she recognized my face and my name and e-mailed me to see if it was me she had photographed.  Once we connected and I told her that it was me, she scanned this photo and e-mailed it to me.  It was pretty magical to reconnect with her after 8 years, to realize that I had once been photographed by Gillian Laub, and I'm shocked she remembered my face all of that time.  It was kind of amazing to see this after all these years, and to all of a sudden realize how integral that little polaroid had been in my life while I was becoming a photographer.

So here is the photo she took:

Photo by Gillian Laub

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