Liberating the Liberator

They say photography liberated painting from the need to be representational, freeing it of the task to show things as they are. Less than two centuries from the birth of photography, we need to consider whether photography needs to be liberated from itself. What photography excels at, its phenomenal ability to record the visible, is perhaps its Achilles heel. Not for doing it badly, as many practitioners do it phenomenally well, but because of the weight that bears down upon its shoulders. The burden of trust, rather than the erosion of it, lies at the centre of the drama, for drama is what it is. If the world is a stage then the photographer is the scribe, the choreographer, and sometimes the script writer, but rarely the one directing the play.

Bird in stormy sky 1998

Ironically, it is the entity that is blamed for the demise of truthful photography, the digital sleight of hand, which is perhaps the true liberator. What photography did for painting, the computer has done for photography. Not by replacing it, but by removing the mask. Photography, like any other medium, is what its proponent makes it to be. Its fidelity makes it neither more honest nor more ethical. Those attributes continue to reside with the author, both the one with the camera and the other author, the one who sits at the editorial table. The photographer selects the frame, the editor selects the frame within which this inner frame exists. The selection of the image, the cropping, the juxtaposition with text or graphic or advert or headline, the sequencing, the timing and the hierarchy within the news pyramid, makes the photographic image the putty with which the truth is massaged. Its unintended veracity, the very tool, which others in the news-chain exploit with abandon.

So where does the photographer position herself? Having mastered the craft of capturing that gentle light, of preserving that ephemeral moment, of observing, and recording for posterity that half glance, the momentary contact, the fiery embrace, the brutal encounter, the hesitant falter, is she to resign herself to the higher beings in the pecking order who determine the language in which her photographs speak? Is she so powerless in the value chain, that the strength and mastery with which she directs her image, is eventually futile against the power structures of boardrooms, shareholder AGMs, mergers, and pursuit of advertising revenue? Is it so very naive to pursue a story that the owner will veto? Rare is the government that does not champion human rights in its rhetoric while actively suppressing it in its practice. Rarer still, a mainstream media entity that does not speak up for journalistic values in its blurb while prioritising the bottom line in its actions. The originality demanded of us today needs the freshness of our vision but relies upon the strategies of intervention that allow us to speak, where others have been silenced.

The mechanisms are not always so heroic, and the results are not always so obvious, it might be more effective to find another door than to be banging on the doorknob. An idea that creeps into a viewer’s consciousness and disturbs her on restless nights, might well have more impact than a spine-chilling moment captured permanently on celluloid or chip. But it is not anarchy we seek. Neither is listing in a rudderless flotilla a likely mechanism for providing direction. Chance may provide a welcome solace, but is poor at providing guidance. A clarity of vision, a well-worked strategy, and tactical prowess are still important tools of the trade. The battleground needs to be chosen with care, the prevailing winds heeded. Losing the battle but winning the war, might not be as grand at the surface, but may well provide more sustainable returns.

Getting bogged down by definitions is seldom useful. Whether we are categorised as documentary photographers or fine artists, might matter to the fashionable gallery, but is unlikely to influence the casual viewer. If our work is to have an impact then it must engage with our audience at a level that goes beyond price tags, and marketing hype, or even stylistic preferences. The posturing and rhetoric that photographers often submit themselves to, accompanies a cult culture, which is dependent far more on the image of the author than the image itself. It is understandable in terms of building careers or courting ‘success’, but the medium of photography surely has higher aspirations. The power of the medium, its remarkable diversity and let’s not forget, its perceived veracity, places photography on a very special pedestal. One that would be squandered if it had such limited ambition.

While the media landscape has dramatically changed, and social media dominates so much of our consciousness, the still and moving image continue to have an impact far greater than our other great tool of communication, the written word. So what do we do with this tool in our hands? Should we, would we, could we, take on this changed topography? Is our visual language versatile enough to adapt to this new space we find ourselves in? Would the Din Dayals and Eugene Smiths of today, be content to produce the powerful images they are known for, or would they have stretched the medium further, exploring new vocabularies for expression?

While personal data is being mined in multiple ways, general knowledge is no longer so rare. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, presenting publicly available information can no longer be the sole objective of the media practitioner or the artist. For our work to still have meaning in an image-saturated world, it must engage viscerally, challenge our perceptions, tug at our heartstrings. It must constantly, incessantly and irrepressibly question the status quo.

This new vocabulary will be informed by new tools and technology but must use them as stepping-stones and not be bound by them. The politics of engagement will determine the visual forms our art will take, stretching the boundaries at every step. When multiple truths are told by multiple storytellers, the demagogues, the advertisers, the activists and the evangelists, will still take turns at the pipe, selecting the tune that they expect the notes of photography to faithfully render, hoping that their audience, like the pied piper’s children, will follow. It is up to the photographers with an independent mind, to sift through the spin and the well-crafted press release and buck this trend and create visual challenges through their narrative. It is only then that photography will find wings and take flight.

Shahidul Alam
Dhaka
2nd October 2017

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