Why Does Photography Exist?

This is an absolutely huge question to ask, because photography does not exist as one simple, uncomplicated practice. The camera and photography operates in many different contexts, including but limited to medicine, law and fashion. Photography is used to take images of crime scenes and these are relied upon  as evidence in order to determine what crime was committed and who is responsible. In fashion, photography is used to display the product in use and to make it as appealing to the viewer as possible. Eadward Muybridge used photography in a scientific context to prove that when a horse gallops, there is a moment when all four feet leave the ground.

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For my research project, I will be focusing on photography in a social context, examining the role of the practice for the everyday individual. But first I need to establish why the practice of photography actually exists in the first place, before it was absorbed into other disciplines and daily rituals. Andre Bazin, writing in 1990 has established an argument reasoning the existence of photography in ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. Bazin identifies the the humans as a species are constantly focused on the preservation of life, particularly in the Ancient Egyptian Era. The predominate attempt at the preservation of life is to produce a representation of it, in order to avoid what Bazin calls ‘a second spiritual death’ (Bazin 1990: 6). This second spiritual death involves the creation of a lasting representation, so despite the physical body of the subject disappearing from the Earth, there is still a recognisable visual representation that remains as evidence that the subject has lived. This is where the practice of photography is relevant, because aside from the other art forms such as painting, sculpture and sketching, photography provides a highly realistic representation. According to Andre Bazin however, photography remains separate from the other art forms, because there is no visible evidence of the human in the creation of the image. In art you can see the brush strokes of the artist, in sculpture you can see whether the artist has shaped the material, but in photography the machine is solely responsible for the process. Bazin states the photography benefits from this absence of man, which means it can be considered as an objective practice.

With the help of Andre Bazin, I have been able to establish a reasoning as to why the practice of photography exists, however when reading ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, I have identified some problematic areas. Most specifically Bazin identifying photography as an objective practice; this statement has some truth when considering photography in areas such as medicine or law, where the practice is heavily regulated and standardised in order to produce consistent, reliable visual material. However in a social context, there are no rules or regulations surrounding the practice of photography, the owner of the camera is relatively free to photograph what they want. There are ethical concerns surrounding photographing certain material, however the individual can choose whether or not to abide by these moral suggestions. The notion that a photograph tells the truth has partially framed the practice of social photography, because photography has been used to document the life and family of the individual. The viewers of these images believe the content, because it appears to be telling them a simple, uncomplicated message (for example, this person was standing in front of this monument) however the person producing the image still made decisions when framing the scene.

Despite this blog post appearing to ask an unanswerable question, using Andre Bazin’s ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ has enabled me to explore why photography actually exists. Bazin’s concept of the second spiritual death is actually really interesting and certainly could explain the phenomenon of selfies, however the images made by the users on Instagram are not always of the self. Therefore there must be a reason behind this deviation of content, or perhaps I should be considering the representation of the self in a more abstract way.

 

References:

Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. Film Quarterly 13 (4) 4-9

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Dalia Kahamissy: The Missing

Dalia Khamissy studied at a fine art university in Lebanon however she was always more interested in the area of documentary photography having been exposed to the country’s civil war for the majority of her life. Khamissy had experience both in the field and behind the desk becoming a photo editor for AP which in turn consumed a lot of her available time as the events of war became ever more prominent. After leaving this position and spending eight months without a camera Khamissy had time to focus on the content she really wanted to produce. As an individual living in an area of conflict she noticed that there is no sense of privacy, when a story is deemed in the public interest, photojournalists equip themselves with the ‘authority’ to enter homes and take images to visually represent the events of war. However some of these photographers could not have known what living through the war was actually like, instead of being able to empathise they could only sympathise. The war made Khamissy feel destroyed and abandoned and she began to explore this concept in photography, finally starting the photographic project ‘The Missing’ which explored the controversial kidnappings of people never to return. ‘The Missing’ was a collaborative project working with the mothers of those who had been taken; while the fathers continued to go to work everyday the women would search for their loved ones. However Khamissy insists that the project shouldn’t be interpreted as depicting the mothers, it is telling the story of those who are missing.

The concept of truth is a key factor is this situation; Khamissy describes that the history of the civil war is not taught in schools as those in power may have been influential in the horrors that happened. The narrative of the civil war has not been decided yet however it is told and passed down in families; this relates to David Campbell’s idea of history where the event needs to be narrated to provide evidence of what happened. The youth of Lebanon today have been informed many different versions of the civil war story and these come together to clash; instead of being collective and investing themselves in one main narrative. Truth therefore becomes fragmented and it is highly possible for groups of people to be misrepresented, regardless of what they have actually done.

Along with truth comes the power of authority, we are familiar with the image triad where the power is split between the subject, photographer and viewer but have we ever considered a fourth influence in this dynamic? The authority of those in power of both distributing and restricting the right to freedom of speech have a major factor on the narratives which are seen by the population. In 2012 the Chinese government tightened restrictions on internet access which was believed to be an attempt on vanquishing freedom of speech. Truth and power are both factors in the process of photography however there is another element which directly affects our ability to tell a subject’s story; this element is safety. As explored in the previous post about Wasmour Mansour’s Single Saudi Women, it is important to make the subject feel safe and comfortable in the knowledge that you as a photographer will represent them correctly. However when have we ever considered the physical safety of the subject that we are photographing? Living in an established democratic society where freedom of speech is given it is easy to forget that in some countries, a subject may be persecuted for allowing a photographer to tell their story.

It is clear that the imperative idea from this interview is to prioritise the subject, Khamissy states that we must feel ‘privileged’ to tell the story of a subject and not entitled. The image maker should also focus on examining the story from the subject without bringing in their own personal perceptions in order to create an image informed by truthful context. Finally we should consider how photography means responsibility not only in terms of the subject’s representation but also their status of safety, could you shoulder the knowledge knowing that your photograph could have lead the subject’s death?

All quotations and ideas were taken from the Phonar interview made by Jonathan Worth, to listen to this interview follow the link below:

https://archive.org/details/DaliaKhamissy281013