Research – Colonial Photography

In the creative process of my work I started thinking about portraiture as a medium and how my images fit into this genre. 2014 and 2015 has seen an increase in the arts covering social and cultural history and the practice of portraiture has been integrated in some important historical events, which have impacted the world and relate to the concept behind my project. The ITV drama Indian Summers investigated a the imperial rule of India and the issues surrounding colonialism and cultural domination. Photography and portraiture was employed by the Imperial Government to create surveys of the Indian culture to observe the environment and the native inhabitants. Using photography as a form of power was a significant part of the colonial rule and portraiture was used as a process of identification and observation. The power of the gaze is a concept widely discussed in photography, with Barthes originally describing the relationship between the photographer and subject as the operator and target. This exploitative, aggressive terminology relates to the objective style of portraiture embraced by the colonial rule. The photographer can have an incredibly powerful stance over the subject and this is generally reflected in the early cultural photography where it appears as though the photographer is very much the outsider. Aside from colonial photography this stance can also be loosely recognised in the work of Walker Evan and Robert Frank in their investigations of America. Abigail Solomon Godeau addressed this outsider stance and explained that this notion of portraiture is incredibly exploitative and often results in a misunderstanding of the subject because the photographer themselves don’t understand.

The purpose of the colonial portraiture was to collect and document evidence of physical attributes to learn more about the people of the Indian culture. The practice of photography to document biological attributes, known as eugenics, has been used in many different contexts, including the classification and identification of criminals, with some sociologists claiming to see repeating characteristics in the physical attributes of criminals. As sociology developed and the human race accepted that cultural differences are just variations in the lifestyles and environments of each part of the world, the practice of photographic cataloging reduced. It was only being used for governmental reasons deemed to be necessary in society such as photographing ¬†individuals who have been arrested and the requirement of photographic identification in the form of a passport and driving license. However with the development of digital technology we are seeing a new form of observation and documentation, but this time it is all humans that are being investigated by computer technology. It has become common practice for technology to track and record an online user’s activity on the Internet with the view of creating a profile of information which is used to tailor their search results, target them for particular advertising and even look out for suspect terrorist activity by security organisations.

It has been said that the Internet is the largest free public archive in existence, with social media forming the vast majority of all the information. There have been many instances in which this information has been harvested and exploited by commercial companies in order to target certain individuals to try and sell their products. One key aspect of free social media that many users perhaps don’t realise is that they are the product, the terms of conditions of many social media platforms specify that the information the user shares on social media is technically their property, the only difference between whether the company can offer this information out to third parties, is if the user makes their profile private. Although many see the tailoring of searches, and advertising convenient, it means that humans themselves have encouraged technology to begin a continual documentary process where a representation of the individual is formed of their online information. This is comparative to that of the colonial photographers documenting the physical attributes of a foreign culture. Physical attributes and the information on social media represents the superficial, outward representation of an individual, the true representation comes from knowing and interacting with that individual; something that doesn’t happen in either practice. By encouraging and developing computer technology, we are actually introducing a new form of cultural cataloging, where no one is safe.

Photographer Jason Scott Tilley’s photographic project ‘People of India’ worked against the notion of colonial photography by looking at the people and characters in India and photographing them having known who they are as a person, rather than the process of objective cataloguing seen earlier in the history of India. In his project, he followed the footsteps of his father in attempting to document the Indian culture with an insider stance, producing a celebration of culture and representing the difficulties that certain individuals face. Tilley avoided producing what many characterise as ‘victim photography’ avoiding a dominate stance and not showing pity towards the subjects that he photographed. This was a compassionate statement about the colonial photography in history, aiming to introduce a new form of documentary photography where the subject was respected and empowered. Jason Scott Tilley’s negotiation of his concept was specific to his own personal values and his family history and therefore would have affected the outcome that he produced. In relation to my own project, although I am affected by the notion of harvesting information, it happens to a wide variety of people, and the effects of which are yet to be fully recognised. For this reason I can’t aim to produce a new form of this digital cataloguing, because society and technology isn’t at a point of progression and there is no closure on this very current issue. Therefore I decided that my project should make a very challenging statement, to question each individual’s place in the developing digital culture and question as to whether they are happy with the future of portraiture I am suggesting.

There are similarities between the practice of cataloguing I am investigating today and the colonial photography seen previously in history. There are also similarities in the stance of myself and other photographers that have investigated similar subject matter, in that it is a concept which affects us and we feel the need to make a statement about it. However there are some very big differences which makes the approach to our subject matter very different. I do not benefit from hindsight and historical closure as the concept I am investigating is very current, in addition to this the subjects I have chosen to use are not directly linked to me, meaning I do not have the benefit of an insider stance as I don’t know, nor have I met any of them. Although these appear to be restrictions, it means that I have chosen to take a very specific approach to my project, one that makes quite a controversial statement. Instead of providing an alternative to a past event, I am investigating and describing the possible effects of a very current event.

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