Study Hangout 19/11/2017

Today I attended a study hangout with Anne, Bryn and Michael. We talked about very in depth subjects surrounding the ethics of photography including authentication of photographs as documents, subjectivity in photography related to the myth of objectivity, the death of the author and manipulation of the message. We related these in depth subjects with photography artists; the most prominent of these artists being Sebastião Salgado, closely followed by Don McCullin and then Martin Parr. Michael introduced us to the work of Simon Norfolk briefly who I aim to look at more closely as his work at first glance looked very interesting. I was not sure why our conversation was so theoretical but it may have been something to do with 75% of us having commenced work on the critical review or having just submitted it!

Balloon Vendor in Kabul - 2001 - From the Series: "Forensic Traces of War" © Simon Norfolk
Balloon Vendor in Kabul – 2001 – From the Series: “Forensic Traces of War” © Simon Norfolk

My opinions on the listed subjects were that it is very difficult to authenticate documents like photographs 100% as the viewer can usually interpret the evidence of photography being an indexical medium differently. This is even if supporting documents like text or (to a lesser degree) geotagging are included. I felt objectivity is a myth yet it is still possible to shoot in an objective style. Ultimately all photography is subjective (as even objective photography has its own aesthetic) but I would suggest some photography is more subjective than others. Relating to the death of the author, my stance was that this is true nowadays much more with the proliferation of images and ways of sharing them. Now it is not about who took the photograph but what the photograph depicts. The message of any photograph can be manipulated by means of supporting documents and other context like the photographer’s oeuvre.

We talked about the contrast in transparency of message between Salgado and McCullin where McCullin was very decisive in why he took photographs of war while Salgado’s reasoning seems more layered and less clear. We touched upon how my own critical review was going and I divulged that maybe the topic I’d chosen was proving to be too broad and therefore lacking direction. Finding relevant quotes and supporting work or photographs to back up my particular argument seemed like a way of tackling this.

Two Levels to Subjectivity?

Perhaps I have been confusing for the same thing what I perceive as the two ways a photograph can be subjective…

  • the method the subject is approached with
  • how the subject is photographed
I’ll start with the way the subject is approached. For a long time up until recently, I have simply photographed the first thing that has captured my attention. If I liked the resultant photograph I have kept that subject or type of subject in my mind for later reference. In retrospect this type of shooting does seem fairly mindless, although not if I was to produce a visual diary. A visual diary is one idea that has sprung to mind when looking back at my original approach. Another idea is basically the opposite in my mind where I have started to develop a preconceived plan of what I would like to photograph and how. This lends itself to landscape photography in particular I feel (where the photography is much more deliberate) although I have had a feeling that it could be applied to documentary too. These kind of approaches (maps or other systematic forays into the world around us with a camera) are usually biased in some way but peculiarly for me are less biased than wandering around photographing the first thing we see with a camera. I would feel this is the case because of the way our minds work (subconsciously) where with simply wandering there is always a start point and our minds are inevitably affected by aesthetic tastes as we walk around. By approaching the way the subject is photographed in a more biased way beforehand this is less true in my experience as your hand is forced somewhat, so to speak, as to what type of photographs you take. As a consequence the photographs result in being less biased and more room is left for the photographer to be subjective. This is both in the manner you see fit to instigate the photographing process and then the actual photographing process.
This leads me onto the next level of subjectivity – how the subject is photographed. For me this is the more obvious of the two. It includes photography’s history with objectivity (essentially the opposite to subjectivity) where the photograph is taken as literally as possible and how photographers and indeed viewers started to move away from this concept. This was due to the realisation that however the photograph was taken, it would invariably be subjective because it is after all an interpretation of a given scene from which the photographer has selected a framing. Subjectivity consists of any clue or marking that points to the photograph being taken by that individual. Some examples include intentional subject movement, use of shallow depth of field, low camera angles, tight framing and intimate lighting. It is possible to cancel out a lot of these subjective cues through objective, repetitive framing from a central, level viewpoint with inanimate lighting. However, the frame still remains chosen by the photographer and could be seen as an indication of a collective frame of mind by a movement of photographers instead. Therefore on the one hand there are the individual photographers who work subjectively (from which various subjective groups have been formed) to another subjective group of photographers; namely those who photograph objectively.
From these assertions I could observe four alternative ways in which I could potentially move forwards with my photography. These consisted of:
  • producing an (subjective) visual diary with a subjective way of photographing
  • producing an (subjective) visual diary with the viewpoint of the objective way of photographing
  • producing a more systematic (and therefore objective) methodology for producing work with a subjective way of photographing
  • producing a more systematic (and therefore objective) methodology for producing work with the viewpoint of the objective way of photographing
Instead of ‘just’ photographing the first thing I saw, I could produce a more objective methodology, possibly where I made an effort to start more systematically photographing a project or a place. As well as this I could start to produce a visual diary. However, whether I chose to photograph these with objective tendencies or subjectively is another matter (one that is entirely subjective!).