Photography and Place


General Photography

We must not overburden photography with something it cannot do - providing us with an accurate portrayal of anything. Instead, we must acknowledge the maker’s hand, and we should talk about its role - and our reactions.

I wasn’t really going to delve into the issue, not even with my very short post last week about the recent kerfuffle around the portrayal of Appalachia. But Colin Pantall just published some thoughts about it (scroll down, past the images of sick people). He asks “Who wants to know what Appalachia really looks like? Especially when that ‘really looks like’ is up for negotiation in the first place.” There we are, right at the source of the problem. (more)

I agree with Colin’s conclusions. I think we need to realize that what we’re really talking about here is a not a problem of photography. It’s a problem of us not understanding what photography does, how photography works.

If we wanted to know what a place looked like we would need an infinity of photographs, taken from all possible angles, excluding nothing, seeing everything at the same time. This is, at least at the time of this writing, an absurd idea. The closest we have to this kind of god-like vision is the Google Street View car with its many eyes, that photograph a particular location in a completely disinterested fashion, looking at everything around it.

The moment one starts to exclude something from the all-encompassing view your portrayal of some place will not be faithful any longer in the strictest sense. This is photography’s greatest flaw. This is what makes photography such a fantastic art form. As Colin notes, what we value in a photographer when we enjoy her or his work to a large extent is based on the process of selection, on the artist’s ability and willingness to make decisions, to prefer one thing over another, in fact over all the other ones in that particular moment.

In that sense, no photographic treatment of any place will ever be truthful. Too much will be excluded, and our brains would never be able to even process the infinity of images and information a truthful portrayal would provide.

Photography is exclusion. Looking at photography must be done with an awareness of that fact.

There is more. Even if we assumed that it was possible to get that infinity of photographs of a place, two people would probably still come to very different conclusions. Just imagine someone living in the place and someone visiting. And that would be just the most obvious difference one could think of. As I’ve already argued elsewhere our perceptions of photography are very much based on what we bring to the table, our personal, cultural, political biases.

So the simplest defense CNN could have used for their Appalachia edit would have been: Who says that this is not Appalachia? How do you know the real Appalachia? Your Appalachia is as biased as ours. And they would have had a point.

Both CNN’s and Stacy Kranitz’s views of Appalachia are biased (to be more precise, CNN did a biased edit of a biased body of work). That’s photography. There is no way around it. To ask for a truthful portrayal of Appalachia is to ask for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That said, CNN and Kranitz operate in different spheres. Kranitz is a visual artist. CNN is a news organization.

Once we enter the realm of the news we are in tricky territory - and it is absolutely no surprise that so many debates about photography happen right here, in the context of news. As I’ve argued in the context of manipulation and photography, the main problem is that news organizations like to pretend that there can be such a thing as unbiased photography. In a nutshell, news organizations are behaving like a politician or talk-radio host who already has been married three times but who is still preaching about the sacredness of family values. That just doesn’t fly - people aren’t stupid.

Photography of a place will inevitably be biased. To pretend that’s not the case is a very bad idea. Instead, the solution has to start with acknowledging that. In the CNN case, they should have very openly stated that the images they’re showing are their edit of the photographer’s work. On top of that, they should have provided a statement about their edit: “This selection of images reflects…” As a result there would have been a hook for a debate. Photography of a place will be biased, but we need to talk about the biases - all of them (the photographer’s and ours) because that is where we can learn something.

Any set of photographs, regardless of which context it operates in, derives its value not from pointing out that here, this is the way things are, but from the questions it asks, the commotions it produces inside us that make us learn something. We have no way of getting around our biases, but photographs can help us identify them - so we can hope to mold them, to change them, to maybe even remove some. Note that I’m using the word “bias” in a neutral sense here.

When we say that some photo project does not portray a place accurately, more often that not it indicates that the photographs simply do not gel with our biases: We do not want to see a place portrayed in that light. For the Appalachia debate, it seems very obvious to me that the criticism of CNN’s edit originated from that direction. And that’s fine, even though we still need to have a debate about that, having in mind that there never will be a resolution.

There are other photography debates where there are different biases at play, and where things might focus on something very different. I mentioned the case of Africa. The history of photography essentially starts out with an incredibly lopsided view of Africa, displaying biases that clearly are not acceptable any longer (colonialism, racism, etc.). When we talk about photography done in Africa, we need to be aware of those historic biases as well as our own contemporary ones. We need to talk about how/whether they are intertwined, especially since historical biases have left their traces in our own cultural heritage. We will never get to that unbiased view of Africa, either, but given the vastly larger number of biases (plus our often shocking lack of actual information about the continent), we should work very hard on understanding what is going on when we look at photography taken in Africa. For great and incredibly informative writing about this subject matter see John Edwin Mason’s blog.

It is important to realize that in different contexts, the outcome of our debates might be different. In a news context the idea clearly should be to have us a bit more informed. Despite all the possible biases, that is how we should judge news contents (this is why the debates about the CNN presentation for the most part were successful). In an art context, the general idea usually cannot be described that easily. You can move photographs from one context to another, but you have to be careful with the new “rules”.

When it comes to photography and place, the photographs really are only the beginning. We do need to talk about the biases that might be present in any body of work claiming to portray a place. But we also need to include our own biases in the discussion. We must not overburden photography with something it cannot do - providing us with an accurate portrayal of anything. Instead, we must acknowledge the maker’s hand, and we should talk about its role - and our reactions.