Auto-ethnography and Self Reflexivity

The following blog post is a summary of the ideas explored in the lecture: Auto-ethnography and Self Reflexivity.

The scientific paradigm is that the world is completely measurable, by studying and measuring all elements, we can eventually understand the world. Science itself is cultureless, however it is a cultural belief and the scientific notion of fact is incorporated into culture. Science constructs knowledge as fact and non-fact (a version of true and false), in previous sessions we have identified that the media constructs different versions of reality and academic knowledge is equally as constructed. There is a production method behind the knowledge produced and there is a format in which this knowledge comes, including essays, articles, journals and photographs. Knowledge is incredibly social and also incredibly political, it is always already colonial from the periods of research where people didn’t acknowledge themselves as researchers. The discourse of academia decided who gets to research who and othered the subjects being researched. However there can be no objectivity, when it is a case of people studying people, it is not possible to take an objective stance similar to the stance taken in scientific experiments. The researcher has to consider their own position in accordance to the research and what they will be researching.

Edward Said quoted Gramski when he proposed that the starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness, beginning to acknowledge and then know the self. However this is a complicated notion when you consider that there is a constant rebranding of the self, representing post-modernity, there is no one definitive version of an individual self. But becoming aware of the elements that constitute who you are as other people see you is the first step. What do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you see gender, race, sexuality – or do you see what academia historically constructed as the researcher (white, old, middle class and male) or that is, nothing at all, because you represent the prescribed norm.

Reflexivity can be divided into three approaches: confession, positionality and praxis. Confession refers to a reflective process in which the researcher considers how the self impacts on the research process, this can be completed through reflexive notes such as a research diary. However this method can be problematic because it evokes the assumption that the researcher is then free from all bias, giving the power back to them. Positionality involves considering how the self is constructed through culture, history and society – not just in the present but considering how it has been constructed through time and space; how the self is a product of discourses that have been pulled together. Positionality does not align with individualism, because that implies that everyone has experience different circumstances, when in fact positionality would argue we have been shaped by the same or similar discourses. Praxis refers to theory as practice, where the research takes place as lived embodiment of the research.

Auto-ethnography can be defined by looking at the term autobiography and dissecting the parts that make it. Auto means self, bio means life and graphy means writing, therefore autobiography comes together to mean self-life-writing. Likewise auto-ethnography can be split into auto that means self, ethno that means culture and graphy that means writing. This comes together to define auto-ethnography as self-culture-writing. Ethnography refers to engaging with a specific culture over an extended period of time collecting multi sensory data, therefore auto-ethnography replicates this process but turns the data collection inward to consider the self. Auto-ethnography can be considered to be problematic when considering the statement by Descarte in 1637 ‘I think therefore I am’, this was the foundation for Western academia and it prioritises rational thought over embodiment. In addition to this there are discussions around auto-ethnography and authenticity, as it assumes the speaking person is the authentic version, when the reality is we have multiple versions of self. Auto-ethnography could be seen as another form of truth claim, when it could be impossible to really know the internal workings of our subjectivity. Privilege is also an important concept, those concerned with representation are generally considered as being in some form of privilege, that is because they don’t have to worry about the basic elements of survival.

Auto-ethnography is a really interesting approach to research, I feel that it could take my project in a really interesting direction. Previously I was concerned with how I would choose subjects to research on Instagram, whether to just choose celebrity accounts and analyse them or whether to try and find representative accounts of the everyday Instagram user. However using the term ‘everyday’ repeatedly to describe a non-celebrity was creating this notion that the user didn’t really matter as much as a celebrity user, that they wouldn’t be as important or interesting because they aren’t well known. When in fact I find the activity of non-celebrities really interesting because they wouldn’t be used to the idea of curating and constructing a version of identity with their best interests in mind. In addition to this, there is no way of knowing whether the celebrity accounts are actually run by the celebrity in question or whether a communications team is responsible for the posts, for example the singer Adele is banned from freely posting on Twitter and instead her tweets have to go through several members of management in order to be approved. This is because previously Adele has tweeted when she was under the influence of alcohol and could have deconstructed her good reputation, which is ultimately what encourages her fan-base to buy her music. Because I didn’t want to exclusively research celebrities I was posed with a choice of how to choose subjects that don’t identify as celebrities, this would be extremely difficult as it is hard to identify exactly who everyone is from their Instagram. Some accounts are descriptive but some are very bare and I didn’t want to appear to prioritise those who described themselves in text more as this excludes those abstract accounts, which could be extremely interesting. In addition to this, I had no idea what sample size to choose and whether I should be aiming for a representative sample, or just trying to choose users from one country. It was incredibly overwhelming and there didn’t appear to be a right answer, it was after this lecture on auto-ethnography that I realised I could choose myself as a subject and complete a highly detailed analysis of how I use Instagram.

 

 

In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography) – Martha Rosler

When reading Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations in Rosler’s book Decoys and Disruptions I identified that there were other essays that could be beneficial to me so I made a point of reading further Although this is a shorter essay I still believed that there would be some beneficial points made in relation to my research paper. My notes and evaluation can be seen below:

  • The Bowery (New York) – site where ‘victim photography’ has been photographed a lot by documentary photographers
  • Come to represent social consciousness in imagery
  • Photo-documentary – liberalist, progressive
  • There was sensationalist in journalism counteracted by Lewis Hine who produced images to appeal against social wrongs
  • Docu-culture of moralism – with arguments for reform
  • Drive for reform has been overtaken by exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics, trophy hunting, careerism
  • Cultural expressions of liberalism still exists in documentary
  • Mainstream documentary – in magazines sometimes in newspapers, becomes more expensive when moved into art/galleries
  • Documentary takes information from group of powerless people to a group of powerful people
  • Liberal documentary – poverty and oppression comes hand in hand with natural disasters, documentary doesn’t blame anyone it works to provoke a response
  • We can now oppress the spectacle of suffering – for this reason there has been a sexualisation of the image to still provoke fascination
  • Documentary plays to the strengths of the photographer, they shows us environments we wouldn’t expect to see
  • Documentary can be perhaps distorted by the nature of advertisement – perhaps working to attract people rather than to make an informed comment
  • ‘Authentic’ photographs and staged ones
  • Are photographic images made on the backs of exploitation? (reference to Migrant Mother)
  • Lange ‘she thought that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me’ – she didn’t benefit directly from the image but others like her did
  • In documentary images there are two moments: immediate/instrumental (created and held as testimonial) and conventional aesthetical-historical (less definable by boundaries, aware of context)
  • Second option – with a refusal for a concrete meaning, can be more dangerous when taken in a ‘straight’ context
  • Should we work against the ideology of aesthetic rightness – mutability of it
  • A powerful conveyed meaning in an image that is adept aesthetically, is effective
  • New genre of victimhood exploitation, the visual representation of victimisation made by someone else’s camera
  • Credibility of the image as an explicit trace that has been slowly destructed – there is an attack on the concept of objectivity
  • Garry Winogrand ‘images can yield any narrative’ – all meaning in photography, applies only to what resides in the ‘four walls’ of the framing edges (a personally mediated representation)
  • How can we define the extent and boundaries of the world in a photograph
  • There is a limit of scope, and society has frailties and imperfections
  • Martha Rosler – The Bowery (photo-text work) comments on the limitations of meaning, the photographs are powerful to indicate a comprehensive meaning and words can represent a whole culture/subculture through associations
  • Some images commenting on society can ‘work’
  • Higher status of galleries may increase a gap between art-based documentary and reportage contexts – perhaps a form of radical documentary is needed

Evaluation:

As expected this essay provided me with an interesting perspective on documentary photography, this ideology can be applied to photojournalism, just with a bit of caution. The key idea in this essay in my view was Rosler posing the limitation to the single photograph, asking how a photographer can encomapss the whole world in one frame. This is a concept I wish to address in my research paper in relation to the opposition between analogue and digital. Where analogue photojournalism was very much about the singular ‘iconic’ image, the digital image has the potential to create a different form of narrative. Ritchin addresses that photography and moving image have become close in nature and practice so perhaps the future of photojournalism lies with another medium. Rosler also focuses on the subject of the image and how photojournalism could possibly benefit them referencing Dorothea Lange’s image Migrant Mother. She didn’t benefit directly from the image however others in her position did but should Lange have felt a responsibility towards her subject, is this image exploitation? Responsibility in association to representation is a key part of photojournalism and I plan to address this in my research paper, stressing the urgency to move away from what Rosler states in this essay as ‘victim photography’. Having read Rosler’s work I can use her ideology to support my own in this matter. Overall it has been extremely beneficial to research further essays from Rosler as it has provided me with perspectives on different elements of photojournalism, all of which I can use in my research paper and independent blog posts.

 

Reference: Rosler, M. (2004b) ‘In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography).’ in Decoys and Disruptions: selected writing, 1975-2001. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press

Camera Lucida – Roland Barthes

Although I already had prior knowledge of Barthes, it was apparent in my research that I needed to research his writing more thoroughly as the photographic history texts I had been reading referenced him heavily. To make sure I had an accurate and comprehensive understanding of his ideas I set myself the task of reading Camera Lucida and drawing out points that would be relevant to my symposium. My notes and evaluation can be seen below:

  • Could we say that photography is unclassifiable?
  • The photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially
  • Sunya – the void (Buddhism)
  • A single photograph is never distinguished from it’s meaning, it is impossible to perceive a photograph without it’s signifier
  • A photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see
  • The operator is photographer, the spectator is the viewer and the viewer is the target
  • Two experiences that of the observed subject and that of the subject observing
  • Photography can be disturbance to the citizen and the person being photographed (passive victim)
  • Subjectivity in photography
  • Photography is every-day adventure
  • A spectator is interested in photography for sentimental reasons
  • Two different effects of a photograph – studium (a general, average effect with commitment) punctum (breaks the studium effect, pierces the viewer and draws an emotional response)
  • To recognise the studium is to appreciate the photographer’s intentions
  • We class ‘good’ photographs as ones that speak and induce us
  • Analysis does not come into the punctum effect – punctum is usually a detail
  • Does punctum have more power of expansion?
  • “The studium is ultimately always coded”
  • Punctum has a certain latency
  • Punctum is an addition
  • In order to ‘find’ a person depicted, is photography enough to the effect
  • Can you really recognise someone from a photograph?
  • Photography’s referent is not necessarily the content within the photograph
  • The presence of a thing is never metaphoric but the meaning behind it could be
  • Photograph – image revealed by the action of light
  • Because it’s a photograph, it evidence that the subject was there and was depicted (certificate of presence)
  • The photograph is violent because it fills the sight by force
  • The photograph is ‘flat death’
  • Photograph can’t concieve duration
  • Stigmatum is the new punctum, with time as the intensifier
  • Is photography a shared hallucination ‘it is not there’, ‘but it has indeed been’
  • Photography could be mad or tame, time is photographic ecstasy
  • Two ways of the photograph – to subject to the code of perfect illusions or to confront it in the wakening of intractable reality

Evaluation:

Although my subject is the current state of photojournalism it was really important to research older texts such as Camera Lucida because the historic practice of photojournalism has shaped and influenced the current state. It has been described that digital photography has been trapped in the shell of the analogue practice therefore it’s necessary for me to understand the history in order to compare and comment on how the practice could continue. A vast amount of Barthes’ ideology is relevant today however I am mindful that I am adapting it to apply to the current age of image-making, his discussions are not based around the digital image. One concept I am particularly interested in using in my research paper is the two responses to the image: studium or punctum. I believe that this discussion is still heavily relevant today and will continue to be relevant for as long as the still image is still produced. We can relate the punctum concept to the imagery writers such as Fred Ritchin have defined as iconic imagery, photographs that have provoked a large response because of their challenging or controversial content. However we can also see this effect in the age of the digital image with practitioners such as Marcus Bleasdale and his work Rape of A Nation, in addition to this the current winners of the World Press Photo have produced provoking imagery. It can be thought that the purpose of photojournalism is to produce punctum images, photographs that will provoke a response from the audience and make them attempt to help the subjects depicted. In contrast the studium response from the image would perhaps be more suited to imagery from an art context, where the audience can view and appreciate the technique as opposed to being ‘pierced’ by the content. The different environment will affect the interpretation from the photograph and this is a concept I plan to address in my research paper. For example work from Broomberg and Chanarin comments on photojournalism but shouldn’t be perceived as photojournalism or interpreted in the way.

Aside from image response, Barthes also addresses the triangular dynamic between the photographer, subject and viewer. It is in this instance that we are reminded he was writing in a time when representation was still a very one-sided process, collaborative representation wasn’t really being seen as it is now. In modules like Picbod and Phonar we as photographers are learning that the subject’s role in their own representation is really important and helps to avoid their misrepresentation or exploitation. Barthes’ target, operator and spectator dynamic is outdated and perhaps something which I should comment on in a negative manner in my research paper. Representation and responsibility is interlinked and the photojournalist should aim to represent the subject in the most accurate and empathetic way possible. In addition to this the term ‘subject’ has been replaced by some practitioners like Sarah Davidmann who refers to the people in her photographs as ‘participants’ because they have an active role in the representation. Ritchin wrote that it is important to progress and stop using archaic terminology to describe the world despite it being familiar to us, this is a concept I can address in association to Barthes’ outdated photographer/subject/audience dynamic and stress the importance of the photographer taking the responsibility of portraying their subject with empathy and accuracy.

There are many other interesting points raised in Camera Lucida however the ideology I have addressed above is that which I believe will be most effective in my research paper in association to the concepts I wish to discuss.I approached this text with an expectation that some of the writing wouldn’t be relevant to the digital age because of the period in which it was written and I have been careful not to associate it heavily with digital photography as Barthes would only have been writing in reference to analogue. However I have identified one instance in where the ideology is still extremely relevant and addressed another concept which can now be perceived as outdated, however they are both beneficial. Overall this book has been extremely beneficial to research and has provided me with some historical ideology to contrast and compliment current writers such as Ritchin and Mayes. In addition it has developed my knowledge of photographic history and as a result I am equipped with a more comprehensive overview of photojournalism.

 

Reference: Barthes, R. (1982) Camera Lucida. London: Cape