Reflecting on my experience of Week 1, focused on the role of photography in the contemporary world, the notion of photography as a ‘global’ phenomenon, the capacity of photography to inspire change, I should definitely say that I am inspired, challenged and encouraged to think about questions I haven’t thought about before. The reading I have finally got the time to undertake proves to be highly stimulating. I really enjoy Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’, which has already been featured in the previous post. Another exciting volume that I have found is the Aperture Magazine Anthology, which is full of truly amazing writing. More of those will be featured here.
Being aware of the battles at the time of photography’s very early days, I was not aware of the fact that the French government decided to make this invention available to the whole of mankind, which seems to be a very noble thing to do. More and more, it becomes apparent to me that photography is an extremely complex medium and needs a whole spectrum of art historical tools, including semiotics, to be able to read the cultural codes and fully ‘understand’ a photograph as a work of art. ‘A Photograph has multiple meanings’ (Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’, p. 23). This encourages one to make the next step to explore the relationship between the photographs and the text and I will be posting more on this soon. In order to preserve some material emerged through an MA discussion on-line, I would very much like to quote my post in the MA forum in its entirety here.
‘In answering the question about the most important challenge that the global nature of photography poses for both images makers and consumers of photography, I would be compelled to discuss the challenge of navigation. Navigation among the millions of images we are bombarded with every day, the ability to find the right audience for photographer and use the appropriate channels (on-line social media, exhibitions, books, blogs, lectures and presentations) to make sure the message is transmitted and decoded on the other end. There are lots of barriers that exists for the audience to see one’s work despite the today’s global connectivity. For instance, today, I am enjoying a little moment of glory because one of my landscapes from a recent journey in Nepal got to ‘Explore’ on Flickr – a front page, which uses a special algorithm to select images based on their ‘interestingness: The performance of this algorithm allowed over 6000 people to view my image today, which is quite rare in regular circumstances.
I am big optimist and think that the power of photography as a tool for advocacy is understated and images can inspire and influence people transgressing cultural and national boundaries. How many people have seen the work by Yann Arthus Bertrand, which was for instance exhibited during a United Nations conference on sustainable development, known as Rio+20, where I have also taken part. How many people have been moved by his book, ‘The Earth. View from Above’ (1999) and were inspired to explore environmental conservation?
There are open questions here too. The exact level of impact remains unknown and I have asked this difficult question personally to Yann Arthus Bertrand, Edward Burtinsky, Jimmy Nelson if they somehow have received any feedback on the extent people actually change their behaviour after seeing their beautiful photographs. How many of them start driving less, support conservation groups, recycle more or avoid packaging altogether, switch to renewable energy and so on? I have of course always added something about how much I and everyone else admires their work and so on. The answers have been quite surprising, the celebrated photographers with very strong environmental beliefs do not actually know if their work has made any significant impact in the real world. This might mean that new research might be needed to assess such impact.
Continuing on the subject of barriers, challenges and selection filters, a significant aspect in the present world of photography is curation, in other words the power to select and exhibit work at a major museum, gallery or publish in a magazine or an album. I am still finding it difficult to understand how the supermarket shelf depicted by Gursky could fetch 5mln at an auction, but yes, here is another obstacle. An artist himself (unless you are Damien Hirst) cannot really offer any images to an auction house, which makes things even worse. The book publishers, lets face it, request somewhere in the range of £30000 towards a publication of a solo album of your work, which acts as another barrier or filter, they also look at your work from the point of view of what ‘will sell’. On the other hand, an image, which might not even be one’s best, having been selected, could produce an overwhelming response, and the audience reacts to it because it has been prompted: here is a great work of art, which must be good because it has been selected.
Despite the challenges outlined above, I really do think that photography can inspire change and be a positive driver. One example that comes to mind is the photography by James Balog, who conducted research on glaciers and ice in Greenland and Antarctica to collect empirical evidence beyond any doubt that the climate is indeed changing.
In this regard the ties to global corporations could provide an interesting food for thought. The stories we are told and the images we are shown are carefully selected by the newspaper and journal editors. We are very privileged in this country, because we have the Guardian with its splendid environmental section, but many newspapers do not cover the issues of climate change or environmental conservation, disappearance of the bees or urban biodiversity.
The global nature of photography, to my mind, works in two opposing directions simultaneously: diversification and homogenisation. We are privileged to be able to study and enjoy the huge cultural and biological diversity that exists on earth, creating images of communities and ecosystems that are forever changing. At the same time even in distant mountain villages in Nepal everybody has a mobile phone these days so for example, the genre of ‘selfie’ becomes ever more present. I recently tackled the ‘selfie’ theme and the way the public uses photography now in a recent series made in Singapore: https://www.flickr.com/photos/environmentalartist/albums/72157680501049506/page3 (Links to an external site.)
And indeed there are universal ideas and concepts that transgress different cultures, the obvious ones of love and family, happiness and the joy of communication, the sadness of the loss and the beauty of a sunny day. There are more subtle differences of course, because in certain languages, there are many words for different types of snow and in some distinguish only very few colours (black, yellow and red for example) and in some even the notion of a ‘picture’ could be lacking.’