Week 1

Week 1 started late and whizzed by in a blur. Distant already. What did I learn?

First, that I lack systematic knowledge and a critical apparatus – vocabulary, grammar, syntax. Without those it is difficult to say something cogent and worthwhile about a body of work or even about just one image. I’ve been around photography for quite a while and I may know some of the words, but that’s not enough. An important part of doing this course is to learn both the language and the thinking behind it.

Second, that I haven’t appreciated the degree to which photography is a global phenomenon in all kinds of ways – and how those ways change all the time. It was global 70 years ago when pushed out as the face of Life magazine and the American century. Now it is global in a completely different way because of the internet.

Third, that a great deal of the optimism in one of the week’s set readings – Marvin Heiferman’s Photography Changes Everything of 2012 – is already looking rather misplaced. It reads like an Obama-era text, another page of what David Bate calls “the great humanist project” following on in spirit from Edward Steichen’s famous photography exhibition of 1955: The Family of Man. The global common ground of projects like this is always open to the charge that as David Bate puts it “Pluralism is reduced to a unity”, that real differences are glossed over in favour of a sickly uniformity, and all with a hefty dose of Western cultural assumptions that many will not warm to. Less than a decade after Heiferman wrote, “the great humanist project” is taking hits and we are being brutally exposed to real differences now.

I would agree that images have the power to bring about change – Vietnam 1972, Tiananmen Square 1989 – but that can depend on context and on how their power is used.  The tsunami of imaging unleashed by modern digital media and 24/7 news cycles can normalize injustice or atrocity by simple repetition and fatigue. “In these last decades, ‘concerned photography’ has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (Susan Sontag in On Photography).

In addition, it is alarmingly clear from social media scandals involving big data and political campaigns that the image’s power to change has been quickly suborned to some very undesirable and dangerous ends. There is nothing new in this, of course. Photography was being hitched to eugenics and social Darwinism well over a century ago. What is new today is the huge scale, speed and sophistication with which this happens – and the sophistication with which the manipulation is concealed. This is the power of the network. We have moved far beyond the stand-alone photographer with his tripod and lovingly crafted negative – beyond and into the world of the node, the device and the network. What they have in common isn’t humanity. It’s data.

So if Heiferman’s book were written today what might it be called? Perhaps it might be called The Network Changes Everything.

Bate, David (2016). Photography: the key concepts. 2nd edn. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Heiferman, Marvin (2012). Photography changes everything. New York: Aperture.

Sontag, Susan (1977). On photography. London: Penguin Books.