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  • Damien Williams

Positions and Practice Week 1: Unity and Change

Red Jackson fighting with a gang member © Gordon Parks 1948

"In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages." (Berger, J., (1972:129). Ways of seeing).

Do you think the power and influence of the photograph is overstated?

I feel that there is too much power abdicated to imagery. It is not surprising that we do this. Our default primary sense and the way the world is constructed is biased towards vision and visual representation. I am writing this entry and the CRJ is a written document, if proof was required. The influence that images have is therefore indisputable. We abuse this influence by flooding the world with images that are constructed on a simple if not phatic level of sophistication. Advertising is a bigger issue than social media in my opinion. Social media is just the place where we see the cheap and merely descriptive use of photography filtered into it’s most basic form. Where the production of, and now, the distribution of images has been democratised the planning and quality and depth in the production of a narrative and the craft of sequencing and layering an image or body of work is reducing as a percentage of the images produced.

If so, does this devalue the true extent of the role of the photography in bringing about change or is the power of photography as advocacy in fact understated?

The value is increased as society is more accepting of absorbing their information through images. The level of literacy amongst the general populous is what appears to be diminishing, with media outlets able to take advantage of this by producing narratives of lesser sophistication or lower quality imagery. In this way the power of photography as advocacy is both understated and increasing in power. With lower levels of literacy and expectation comes a lower suspension of disbelief. Literacy has to be taught in order for the public to fully understand how it is being used. When photography is used for ‘good’, to bring about social change, the construction of the message has to be ‘subtle and sublime’ or ‘shocking and ridiculous’ in nature. Increasingly the latter forms the usual path taken because of the veritable ‘sea’ of images we consume now. Almost as profligate as the air that we breathe. This hands a certain power to the artist when crafting subtle images especially in series, to encourage the viewer to stop and think. Quite often the subtle and sublime is missed and/or overlooked for the simply shocking. This, in turn, leads to escalation in order to be noticed. Noticed is often confused for articulate.

Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded examines what and how we are being 'sold' themes and prejudices subtly and subliminally in everyday marketing. This is potentially so dangerous as marketing is aspirational in nature. As John Berger discusses in Ways of Seeing

"In the cities in which we live, all of us see hundreds of pub|icity images every day of our lives. No other kind of image confronts us so frequently... One may remember or forget these messages but briefly one takes them in, and for a moment they stimulate the imagination by way of either memory or expectation. The publicity image belongs to the moment." (1972:129)

What photographs or bodies of work come to mind when you think of those that have inspired unity and change?

Photojournalism is the primary source of change. Even that comes with the problems of authorship and manipulation of how images interpreted by the agency that prints the work.

In 1948 Gordon Park pitched a story about the gang warfare that was plaguing Harlem to the editor at Life magazine. This was the first done by a Black photographer. However, for editorial purposes the hundreds of images were culled to a few that focussed on the part of the story that sold rather than the narrative Parks had constructed with subtly and guile. Even dodging and burning, cropping and sequencing to form a new narrative.

"Mr. Parks hoped that the photo essay, by drawing attention to a serious social problem, might encourage programs to help endangered youth. But the range of images he took for the article, in contrast to those that made it into the magazine, suggest that his conception of the project differed considerably from his editors’. While Mr. Parks would become an important and influential staff photographer at Life, “Harlem Gang Leader” was his pilot project. Thus, as Mr. Lord wrote, “the decisions made in producing the photo-essay were most likely exclusively those of editors and staff at Life.” (Berger, M., :2015)

Park's Aim for the photo essay was to inform and unify by showing the full range of human life in Harlem. Instead this was marginalised for a more sensationalist agenda.

The News coverage of conflict and war is also a very controversial use of the medium. Photographers of the ilk of Don McCullin, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Capa, all had uneasy relationships with the sharers, context and exhibiting of their work. That is another discussion.

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