••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Comment
It was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard I think, who prophesised that the art of photography would be short lived, for once we all had our portraits taken and in the process made to look like everyone else he thought, there would be no further need for photography to exist – an interesting idea but not one of Kierkegaard’s most insightful ones. No, it has to be said that photography in all its forms is still very much a part of modern living and we are daily exposed to the power of the photographic image for many different reasons, some better than others, advertising being a prime example of the less good.
I suppose that Kierkegaard wasn’t alone at that time in not foreseeing the rise of the socially manipulative or even the more sinister use of the photographic image. It is clear that journalistic photographs can and have wielded awesome power over society. But what of the motives of the photographers who take these powerful societal shaking photographs? We do know that a single photograph can have more profound effect on public opinion than a million words could ever do. Think Napalm and Vietnam, think tanks and Tiananmen Square, think courageous priest waving a white handkerchief over stricken bodies on Bloody Sunday in Derry – images that were powerful enough to influence government policies. Was the motive of the photographers who took such iconic pictures to show a photographic truth or perhaps was a conscious or unconscious bias behind each of them affecting the objective truthfulness of the images? Whether history precedes or follows the publication of the iconic photograph is open to conjecture. Kierkegaard actually had something to say about this too as he explored the difference between subjective and objective truths.
According to the National Geographic Magazine, photographers should use their cameras as tools of exploration, passports to inner sanctums, instruments for change’. If these things are true then there is a heavy burden of responsibility that photojournalists should be aware of when using their camera. The idea of photojournalists having a passport to our inner sanctums is an intriguing but a somewhat disturbing idea don’t you think.
It is a fact that we humans have an innate ability to subconsciously read an image as text. After all, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were a perfect example of a written means of communication using symbols instead of letters. As it is, our subconscious mind appears to not have the power of reason or logic over the message that is being received subconsciously, that is, the images that enter our inner sanctums or subconscious minds are decoded using the rules an conventions we have learnt and the meaning of the message is accepted as true - without question…scary stuff! Many photographers and the organisations they work for are aware of this unguarded back door into our minds and shamelessly exploit it for their own ends. In the absence of regulation, we might question who determines and oversees the morality of such photography?
||It is possible to get an insight into the beliefs and values that a photographer holds - the thinking eye behind so to speak, at the other end of the lens that determines whether the images being photographed are truly representative or not. Not all photography is opportunistic and many of the images we receive are in fact staged being carefully constructed in line with the photographer’s beliefs, values and of course intended purpose.
Thus, we are always open and vulnerable to having the biases, beliefs and values of the photographer deeply implanted, without our consent I should add, into subconscious minds. The power of the photograph lies not with the image itself but with the personal and social interpretation of the image.
A good example of this photographer bias, is a photograph that is regularly portrayed in the magazine that I receive as part of my subscription fee to a health and safety organisation. The location of the photographs may change but the hidden message it surreptitiously slips into our subconscious endures and what a message it is. Let me explain what I mean.
The photograph is of a construction project and is used to depict good management and worker communications. It shows a group of people out on a construction site. They are wearing safety hard hats and hi-visibility vests. They are usually holding up in front of them an A3 size technical drawing. One of the group is wearing a formal shirt sometime with and sometimes without a tie. He (for it always a slim male in his mid-thirties), is using a raised arm and an index finger to point something out, presumably something linked to the technical drawing being held up. Others in the group are clearly manual workers, usually dressed less formally in an open necked work shirt. The manual workers are looking in the direction that man in the formal shirt is pointing. A seemingly innocuous enough photograph isn’t it? But, let’s decode it to get the true meaning of the image.
The man in the formal shirt is clearly in charge of the work. His shirt is clean, he looks smart and cool and every bit the part of management. He has a taken a technical drawing out onto the construction site from his clean office environment and his showing the manual workers what he requires them to do. The manual workers are subordinate and are passive to the situation i.e. receiving rather than giving information. The manual workers are thus portrayed as being incapable of interpreting the technical drawing for themselves and therefore it needs the manager to save the day. The photograph is intended to exemplify the supposed simplistic relationship between those that plan and those that actually carry out the work. This is an important dichotomy when talking about such things as class distinctions which, by the way, still exist today in British society as entrenched and rigid and as ever they were in the Victorian times.
Now, the important thing here is that the photographer sincerely believes that construction sites are places where the relationship between those who plan and those who carry out the work is a hierarchical one. The photograph, on a subliminal level, legitimises and perpetuates the myth that class distinctions, which are in reality about privilege, opportunity and power, equates to the natural order of things. Know your place, is the order of the day. Don’t involve yourself in politics or class struggle, leave the former to your betters and the latter to the communist who are after all traitors. In Marxian terms the photographer has a bourgeois view of how a capitalist society is structured.
The truth is that on most construction sites management may think that they are in control of time, costs and quality, but in the long run it is the manual workers that actually dictate all three. They can work quicker or slowly; they can waste materials; they can produce shoddy work. Whether they give a good job or a poor job is therefore discretionary and there is nothing the site management can do about it until it is too late. This is a social phenomenon that students of the sociology of work will be familiar with - that is, the illusory nature of the relationship between the white-collar manager and blue- collar manual worker.
So, what may be intended by the photographer as a simple portrayal of a management process is by default an agent of the social status quo that societies based on capitalist economic system must have. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that in capitalist society there’s simply not room for everyone to be at the top. Once again let me remind you of the rules of the social contract in case you have forgotten: know your place, don’t get ideas above your station, accept things as they are, keep working and paying your taxes, and don’t ever dare question how they are spent. Do this and work hard and one day you might possibly be able to drop the kids off at school in a 10-year-old BMW, you could even have a gas barbeque in a garden that is the size of a postage stamp as soon as the temperature rises above 15c. You could own a Bulldog named Churchill or Tyson; whose fighting qualities you feel reflect your own pugnacious character. You can go bare chested when the temperature rises above 10c and show off those old blurry union flag tattoos on your calf and bicep with pride. With these material things citizen, you too can be a part of the great British capitalist dream.
There is little chance for a working-class consciousness to develop when it is being continually displaced by working-class aspirations, our media make sure of that. I don’t think a day goes by without a photograph one of the royal family or their hangers on making the front page of at least one of the daily newspapers. Come on people, get real, for having an unnatural interest in the lives of princes and princesses in 2019 is as ridiculous a notion as still believing in fairy godmothers who can turn pumpkins and mice into a coach and horses with a wave of a wand.
George Orwell said that his inspiration for the novel ‘Animal Farm’, came from watching a young farm-boy leading a shire horse out into a field where it would spend the rest of the day in pulling a heavy plough. Even though the Shire horse has the physical power to easily resist the boy and stay in the stable he was unaware of it. Instead he allowed himself to be taken to the field in an endless cycle of work rewarded with bare subsistence food and stable lodgings until the day came when he would be too old or sick to pull the plough…well, I’m sure you know what happens then don’t you?
It is said that the Tory party in the UK exists for the sole purpose of attaining and maintaining power -that’s power over you and me! Don’t know about you but I am getting a bit fed up pulling that plough every day.
© Guy Edwards June 2019