Ping Pong with Michael Itkoff, Round 2



In a new installment of my ongoing series of “ping-pong chats” with Michael Itkoff, we’re talking about whether or how photography can initiate change, and the role multimedia might play.

Michael Itkoff: I just re-read this article in Words Without Pictures called ‘Why Photography Now?’ in which Harold Fletcher, A.L. Steiner and Leslie Hewitt discuss the “importance of photographic practice at a moment of political unrest and urgency”. I’m wondering about your feelings regarding photography and the possibilities for change inherent to the process of depiction.

Since its inception Daylight has oriented itself in the space between image and effect believing that photographs can teach us about the world, catalyze debate and, potentially, help to reform the world as we know it. We have chosen the documentary mode as the locus from which to explore the world but others believe that documentary itself is a ‘cultural intervention aimed at restructuring the order of discourse, appropriating dissent, and re-securing the threatened bond of social consent.” (John Tagg, The Burden of Representation 1988)

I feel we have emerged from this critique on the documentary with fresh possibilities for harnessing the medium and also that more and more people are interested in learning through visual story telling.

So, Dr. Colberg, What do you think? Can photography save the world?

Jörg Colberg: Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of doctor. But joking aside, I really want to say “yes, photography can save the world,” but the reality seems vastly more complicated. I think it depends very much on what topic we’re talking about, how a photographer is approaching it, and to what extent the viewers are willing to engage with what they are being presented. And to make matters even more complicated I think these three aspects are interconnected.

I could be mistaken, but most debates about this topic seem to be focusing too exclusive on one or maybe two of these aspects, ignoring the remaining one - which usually tends to be whether the viewers are actually willing (or able) to think about what they are shown. Someone who, for whatever reason, is unable to think about what s/he is shown will not participate in any kind of effort to change things. And we need to be very careful here, it’s usually not callousness that makes people unable/unwilling to look. Very few people are actually indifferent towards the suffering of others, for example. But there are many mechanisms at work that might prevent some work from achieving its goals, and of course, these mechanisms vary strongly depend on what subject matter we’re talking about.

I’ve recently seen someone describe some types of photography as “famine porn” (I thought I’d quickly Google this term to find the source, only to find a deluge of web pages that use that term), and of course there is “war porn” or “disaster porn” or “ruin porn.” On the surface each and every one of these terms is deeply offensive: For example, how can one label photographs of starving children in Africa as “famine porn”? But once you start to think about it, the use of such terms points to something, namely that the photography itself - and not what it actually shows - is seen as “lurid or sensational material” (this definition from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language).

For photography to be able to result in some change (I wish this word hadn’t become so besmirched by its recent political use) one needs to be very aware of whatever it is that might make people view certain types of photography as “porn.” As I said, I don’t think people using this term means that they don’t care; I think it means that they resist being manipulated. And it’s important to know that someone’s desire to induce change in people might strike some of the audience as a blatant manipulation. In particular, what this means is that the photography has to be able to work with its audience. You can’t present photography that works along the lines of photography from, say, the early 1970s and expect that an audience in this year 2010 will react to it just like an audience back then would have reacted to it.

To get back to Daylight, I’m curious whether anything I’ve just written resonates with you, or how it might be related to what you do with the magazine. Maybe you disagree completely?

MI: These are certainly issues Taj and I think about in terms of how we are positioning ourselves with Daylight. I will try to return to that but first I would like to try and tease out some interesting points you raised.

Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others takes a long look at photography’s relationship with our ability to empathize and, among other things, discusses the psychological burn-out that comes with overexposure to images of war and tragedy.¬† This is relevant in light of the critique (mentioned above) of the ‘find-a-bum school of concerned photography’ (Allan Sekula) which presupposes a power dynamic in which a powerless other is further subjugated by the lens. Considering the recent coverage of the Haitian earthquake I think these are still quite potent and important ideas to consider when considering the efficacy of images to tell stories and catalyze action.

Photography itself is concerned with various degrees of explicitness as an indexical light drawing of reality containing a certain amount of information. From this perspective what is shown or not shown becomes the crux of the issue with the danger of selective information leading to misinformation - aka propaganda/manipulation. I further agree with you that context effects meaning profoundly and our knowledge of a certain historical context will morph along with our understanding of the world. The work of Sarah Charlesworth and Hans Peter-Feldmann comes to mind here.

You raise an interesting point that photography needs to work ‘with its audience’. With the ‘death of the author’ and postmodern de-centering there is no doubt that a viewer will bring to bear his/her experience, knowledge and will to decipher or make meaning from an image. Therefore in the same way that solid reportage should avoid overt agenda and angling, photographs and text that argue too forcefully for one thing can lean towards agitprop.

Reading back through what I have written it seems like there is a field of landmines to navigate (as image maker and publisher) in order to effectively convey information without falling into a didactic polemic. In general, I feel that divisiveness is not the key to action although strong sentiment can be effective in mobilizing sentiment. Chris Jordan’s recent work (focusing on albatross carcasses) presents a pretty clear-cut (and damning) illustration of the effects of pollution. The pictures speak louder than any soap-box essay. Much of the solution-focused writing appearing in Orion is also worthy of mention here.

One of the things that Taj and I are doing with Daylight is providing a curated selection of portfolios oriented around a specific idea. In our research we sift through a lot of photographs, articles, research etc. in order to present a well-rounded and nuanced picture of a subject. Our most recent issue, which focuses on Afghanistan, is an attempt to amalgamate multiple truths of life on the ground in order to complement media coverage of the region. By collecting stories and images from photographers all over the world - Afghanistan included - the anonymous landscape of war begins to come into focus. We are trying to re-introduce a human element into what has become an extended conflict. Many people do get burned out with constant news of war and sensationalist coverage serves only to peak temporary interest and drive up ratings without engendering a substantial relationship with the country or its people. Check out this multimedia teaser for an idea of what we are trying to do.

In 2004 we worked with Fred Ritchen of Pixel Press to create a touring exhibition of photographs by Iraqi civilians. The images were initially published in Daylight’s Iraq issue and the exhibit was shown at the Center for Photography in Woodstock, the Council on Foreign Relations, NYU, Michigan U. and numerous other venues. Images from the project are in the permanent collection of George Eastman House and proceeds from the exhibition helped one of the central contributors (a ‘Fixer’) along with his family find political asylum abroad. Participating in the war in this small way has been immensely fulfilling and we hope to be able to continue to work within the rich zone between image and effect.

Marlene Dumas said “one person is alone, two people is a couple and three people is politics”. In some way I think its hard to avoid a certain reciprocity between our actions and the rest of the world especially when it comes to information sharing such as photography. There are certainly those image-makers and publishers who remain very close to, and dependent upon, the status quo of late capitalism with a direct relationship to commercial concerns (ie. fashion, advertising). Most others do have some sort of stake in the world and try to envision a new societal paradigm in some small way.

Although I do not want to politicize your intent with Conscientious I am legitimately interested: where along the axis would you place your concerns?

JC: I usually describe Conscientious as a website dedicated to contemporary fine-art photography, which means that that’s what it’s mostly about. What it doesn’t mean, though, is that I will not talk about issues that lie outside of what you might imagine “contemporary fine-art photography” is about. I don’t think that contemporary fine-art photography is unrelated to or detached from issues that you might naively not associate with it. When people ask me how I decide what photography to talk about or to feature on the blog, I usually say whatever photography I find interesting. And if “interesting” sounds vague then that’s because it is vague.

In particular, I do not look at contemporary photography to get a break from any of the terrible things we see in the news. Some photography might indeed be completely unrelated to anything currently happening, but something else might be directly related, as a commentary of sorts, and yet other photography might take a subject matter and politicize it. The real criterion, which lies behind the “is it interesting?”, is whether the photography challenges me, changes me, whether it transforms me.

Needless to say, if some photography transforms me (in whatever way) it might also do that with some of the readers of the blog. In that sense, there clearly is some sort of political component to the blog. But I’m not interested in defining it, because I feel it would needlessly narrow down the options for me.

My main concern is really to see what artists do with images, and, again, that’s vague and can mean a lot of things. You could probably take someone like Thomas Ruff as a perfect example here. Some of his work clearly is “just” designed to produce images (take the “Substrat” images). Some of the work clearly is very political, even though it is also about images and how we view images (take the “Night” images that he produced as a response to seeing such images during the First Gulf War). And then there is a lot in between, where there clearly is a political or cultural aspect, be it the “jpegs” or the “Nudes”.

I don’t know whether what I just said answers your question very well. I personally would change the Marlene Dumas quote (if I may) to “one person is alone, two people is a couple and three people might be politics.” This means that for me, there are many bodies of work that while they look like fine art they clearly have a political aspect to them, even if the artist is not necessarily stressing it. What attracts me to contemporary photography is that it has this openness, and it doesn’t work in any other way than explicitly including the viewer.

Let me maybe talk about one of the examples you just brought up, Chris Jordan’s albatross carcasses. I’m not so sure these photographs really work the way people might think they do. It’s very obvious that they show something that is just terrible (I don’t want to call myself an animal rights activist - since I’m not all that active in that area - but I do not eat meat for that reason, and I do donate money to animal-rights groups on a pretty regular basis), and they’re clearly done with the best of intentions. But what kinds of questions do these photographs ask? I don’t mean to say that the work is bad or that we shouldn’t see it - quite on the contrary. But I also don’t think we can expect the people who saw these photos to change… well, what could they change anyway?

I don’t mean to single out Chris’ work - a lot of other photography faces the same kinds of challenges, I think. And for me, that’s really the crux of photojournalism and/or documentary photography these days: We have been exposed to a lot of injustices in the world, and we are aware of many things that we really need to change, but a lot of change is not forthcoming. We can either give up, or we can try again; and I do think we must try again.

What is to be gained from spending a lot of time with “postmodern” philosophers or with Susan Sontag’s writings I don’t know. I’m quite skeptical about theorizing, but then that’s my personal preferences.

So what I’m wondering now - after this longish answer (non-answer?) is to what extent the “explicitly including the viewer” overlaps with the re-introduction of the human element that you were talking about earlier…

MI: I think you have described very well the crucial issue: whether the photography challenges me, changes me, whether it transforms me. What concerns me is not so much that a group of photographs is overtly political in intent but whether it in fact has the potential to move me or the viewer. This relationship, between the artist and the viewer need not be tied to specific subjects (like Luc Tuymans for example) but can deal with vision itself, narrativity, even elements of fantasy.

To return to the Dumas quote the idea that “three people is politics” is crucial. Relationships are political by default, as much as it can be infuriating, everyone effects everyone else and there is no real way to avoid this. In the same way I would argue that expressly apolitical work that is itself taking a stance through its non-participation. Those that did not vote in the last election took the political road of inaction. I think it is really inescapable and in an age of globalism each and every minute decision has the potential to snowball.

Jordan’s albatross work is a helpful example because it may illuminate some differences in our perspectives. Awareness of an issue is necessary if change has any real hope of happening. These photographs clearly illustrate a byproduct of our wasteful reliance on petroleum based plastics most of which is designed to be disposed of in the first place (ie. packaging). The disjunction of viewing baby animal (cute factor) carcasses (disgust factor) with the plastic clearly the source of their death may be a concise way of inspiring a feeling of anger.¬† You could easily rebut and say this sort of manipulation is also used in propaganda and, to some degree, in the photographic depiction of tragedy and I would have to agree. However I do see a need for a sort of counter-propaganda¬† produced by freethinking journalists, artists and photographers.

To speak broadly the two other crucial questions raised by Jordan’s work (and much other documentary material) is: What is wrong with this picture? More importantly, as you said, what could we change anyway? I share your feeling that we must try to change the world but uninformed action will be more easily subsumed by such entrenched mechanisms of injustice. We need Jordan’s pictures, as evidence, and as a reason to stop buying and producing all this crap. And that leads me to my fundamental believe in personal agency and in empowerment. I am as jaded as the next person but still have a fundamental faith in the ability of people to make the right decisions, provided they have been given the information needed to make informed choices.

I share your distrust of over-theorizing but have found it comforting to buttress my own political feelings and beliefs with histories of thought. It is my curiosity about these ideas, my desire to participate in the ongoing ideological struggle against the many forms of oppression, coupled with my faith in an empowered humanity that, ultimately, gives me hope. It is a shared conversation after all, and not one that we started.

To return a bit to images, by explicitly allowing the viewer a certain agency of interpretation I think an artist is respecting the ability of the viewer to participate in the dialogue. Ultimately it is about sharing ideas, perspectives, world views and art is an amazing way to experience reality and engender conversation. I do want to stress that I am very open to work created outside of a particular ideological struggle but even seemingly harmless eye-candy can share in this struggle. Pippilotti Rist said recently in an article about her video work “using moving images as much as possible for purely philosophical and poetical reasons and goals can work as a shield or exorcism of the over-image-reproduced world.” That is, like the counter-propaganda I raised earlier.

I think Jordan’s work is a good example but perhaps there are some other artists that more subtly challenge and inspire you? Perhaps even in an arena outside of the expressly political?

JC: The one thing that often concerns me about photography, especially photography like Jordan’s, is that ultimately, it ends up preaching to the choir. We both know very well what the work is about and why it’s important. But for this work to truly result in some actual change people who do not know about any of this have to not only see the images, but they also have to draw the right conclusions from it. If we talk about change, that is the audience we need to worry about, and of course this whole topic ties in with how to get the images to reach that audience.

This is, of course, where the internet - and websites like Daylight’s - enter, because at least potentially via the internet you can reach a lot of people that you’d never reach in any other way. I can’t see this kind of photography disconnected from how it might transmit its message, and this is true for a lot of photography.

I agree about Jordan’s photography being evidence, but I think photography that wants to change something cannot rely on being evidence any longer. Not in this day and age, especially with so many people fundamentally mistrusting photography, not just because it can get manipulated easily, but also because so much photography is being used to sell us stuff. When you say “The disjunction of viewing baby animal (cute factor) carcasses (disgust factor) with the plastic clearly the source of their death may be a concise way of inspiring a feeling of anger” I’d say that that only works if people realize that it’s their plastic, not other people’s plastic. Will people be able to make that connection? I’m not so sure.

“Artists that more subtly challenge and inspire” me… There are a lot. In the context of what we’ve been talking about here for example Richard Renaldi’s Touching Strangers. I could literally fill pages and pages with things that come to my mind when thinking about this work. It shows so many things, that range from simple human interactions up to how this society is constructed. Cara Phillips’ Singular Beauty, addressing the most extreme form of our obsession with beauty, again bringing up all kinds of issues.

Dana Lixenberg’s The Last Days of Shismaref is a probably more overtly political example. Or take the photography produced by Heather McClintock and David Wright in Africa. Especially concerning the very big issues - global warming, poverty, war - despite a long history of photojournalism very little has actually been achieved, hasn’t it? Let’s face it, war photography has not made war less likely, poverty is still wide-spread, etc. And maybe we should just stop pretending or, let’s say, hoping that photography can save the world. The grander the goal, the harder it is to achieve and the easier it becomes to feel profoundly helpless (or to end up being very cynical).

When I see someone like David save up money to go to Africa, work there locally and take photographs, photographs that are then being shown here, in art galleries, asking people to donate to the cause David was working on - that I find very inspiring.

Let me throw that question right back at you then: Which artists inspire you (and why)?

MI: It might be easy for some viewers to deny implication but the ‘evidence’ of Jordan’s photographs is beyond refute. Collectively we are all responsible, for the baby albatrosses and for each other. In any case I certainly agree with your point about speaking to the choir and that it is important to break out of our photography world niche.

In terms of artists that have been inspiring me lately I have listed a number above but here is a short additional list:

Mark Steinmetz, Greater Atlanta, fantastically poetic ruminations on a place, evocative but defies easy interpretation

A.L. Steiner, I had the pleasure of seeing a small performance at NYU a few weeks ago. She read a manifesto of sorts as a video of still images played in the background. Steiner is angry but playful, inspiring but not dogmatic. Check out WAGE

Roy Arden, Arden originally blew me away with his epic crowd-sourced photo project The World as Will and Representation. Now his blog is worth a look.

Joe Sacco, a bit of a departure, Sacco has made a career of long-form non-fiction graphic novels. This type of creative, visually immersive reportage is entertaining and educational.

Jon Edwards, Edwards photographs of rural life are earnest but vital.

Zoe Strauss’ landscapes and portraits do not evidence the glossy but vapid beauty we have become accustomed to seeing in advertising and fashion magazines. In fact it is the elegant grittiness of this work, a celebration of Strauss’ engagement with things as they are, that serves as the visual anchor

Jacqueline Hassink, Hassink’s project ‘Table of Power’ is a witty inside view of corporate power structures.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, this artistic duo, former editor’s of Colors Magazine are working loosely within the documentary mode in fascinating ways. We have published them on the back cover of Issue #5: Global Commodities and the inside cover of Issue #8: Afghanistan.

Jehad Nga lends his compelling chiaroscuro style to powerful effect.

This is an abbreviated list but these artists are engaging with the world in an innovative and enlightening way. They are working with specific issues from a number of different perspectives. Political intent is less overt in some projects but, I would argue, each one evidences a concern with, and investment in, the world.

In Jehad Nga’s case we had the pleasure of working with him to produce a multimedia podcast. Our multimedia program has been one of our most deliberate attempts to increase access to content. For two years we have been producing podcasts that are free to view and instantly accessible. I believe this format is going to gain in importance as more and more photographers begin to use sound and video as part of their working process. The intimacy of hearing a photographer’s voice while looking at the images is truly special and recalls the slideshows of old. In this way the ascendancy of the static image is again being challenged by the increased flexibility digital production, manipulation and viewing technology. Amongst many other topics this is being addressed by a symposium at SFMOMA: Is Photography Over? I have not had a moment to read through the panel responses yet but it is an interesting topic to explore, perhaps next time…

For now one last question, what are your feelings about multimedia and the impact of the internet on photography?

JC: Multimedia used in conjunction with the internet has tremendous promise for me, in particular since it potentially allows non-linear story telling: You can easily imagine many stories where you don’t have to construct a chain of events going from A to B to C to D and then to some conclusion. Photographers rejoice: The dictatorship of sequencing might be over (at least for some projects)! But joking aside, this is something I’m tremendously interested in.

That said, I do feel that most current attempts to add multimedia to photography result in what we used to call television before the age of the internet. It’s like watching a Ken Burns documentary: There’s some music, maybe some voice, and then you get to see one image after the other. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But you don’t need internet for that.

Or phrased in another way, if the viewer’s sole way of interacting with a multimedia piece is to be able to press “play”, “stop”, or “pause”, then that might be a lost opportunity. And a lot of multimedia pieces I’ve seen strike me as, well, bad and boring TV.

Needless to say, I’m being a bit provocative here, but I sometimes feel like someone sitting in the passenger seat of a brand-new snazzy Porsche that is being driven down the Mass Turnpike in first gear. I’d really love seeing some people put the thing into third or fourth gear and press down on that gas pedal.

I was actually going to ask you about whether you can see ways to create multimedia that will move away a bit from the restraining the viewer to a very passive role. Hearing the photographer’s voice is a great first step, but how can the viewer be engaged? How can one let the viewer decide where to go, what to do, what to see? Assuming, of course, that this is of interest for you…

MI: Absolutely, Joerg, this is one of the things we would like to actively explore. We have been quite happy with our quality of multimedia production but are still building up momentum with the program. As you know, Daylight is a non-profit organization and our resources are pretty severely limited. We have been actively applying for grants that would allow us to bring the level of innovation up a notch but, for now, we are content to be providing this original creative content to our readers for free.

The potentials for experimental narrative are certainly an exciting aspect of the digital media revolution. I am confident that the widespread adoption of mobile computing devices (iPhone, iPad) will increase intuitive user interfaces and allow a viewer to do far more than stop/play/pause. However I am wary of the snipping of narrative into short, digestible, skim-able segments as a result of the inevitable hyperlinking. It is brilliant to be able to *tap* a screen and find more information but I wonder how soon before we lean back towards more long-form storytelling.

Here is the participatory multimedia project Journey to the End of Coal I was trying to find earlier. Pretty interesting stuff….

(image by NASA, “remix” by Michael)