What is at stake?



Let’s face it, the tedium of seeing the sheer endless stream of photographs on Tumblr, images that might or might not be properly attributed, is just depressing. We might be all photographers now, but does that mean that we all have to be mindless consumers as well? Of course, our late-capitalist culture is based on just that, on people turning into consumers without questioning what is going on. But what do we actually gain from applying that model to photography? (more)

Another angle to approach this problem would be to acknowledge that while we’re all photographers now, only very few of us will see their photographs on the walls of galleries or museums, very few will make a book that sells a single copy, very few will produce a photograph that “goes viral” on the internet. In fact, very few of us will be remembered as photographers in one hundred years. There are selection processes in place already, selection processes aimed at serving their purposes. Gallerists want to make money, museum curators want to stage shows that attract many visitors while bolstering their art-historical credentials, and people will just be people, buying books they like, for whatever reason. And then there are connections, and there is luck (the only real equalizer left in this world).

Thus it would seem natural, in fact it would seem more urgent than ever to move beyond the rituals of writing about our oh-so-democratic art form, to instead (yes, instead) find ways how we can make sense of what we are photographing. To be more precise: To make sense of that flow of images, to extract those that potentially have lasting value, while putting aside that don’t. That activity of selection on the surface appears to be “undemocratic” or “elitist.” But populist sentiments won’t get us beyond the state we’re in right now: One image after the other, one “Oh wow!” or “OMG!” after another, an endless, shallow steady trickle of imagery, with each image having an expiration date of less than a day - however long (or actually short) our attention spans have become as we feverishly check our Facebook and/or Twitter feeds, trying not to miss the latest blip on our collective radar screens.

Seriously: Enough!

We need a strategy, a new strategy!

We need a new way to approach the avalanche of photographs!

We need to start making sense of all of this!

We need to realize that whatever we want to call this activity - selecting, editing, curating - it needs to be at a core of something that will take us - and photography itself - to a new level, a level beyond the shallow, mindless consumption of photographs that the representation of the medium on the internet has turned into!

Photography deserves better!

We are not forced to adopt any of the mechanisms that were in place in the past to do that (even though it might serve as well to look at them, to extract whatever worth they might carry). We are not forced to adopt whatever mechanisms gallerists, museum curators, or photo editors use. We are free to discover our own, a mechanism that might steal shamelessly all that is good about, let’s say, “mirrors and windows” while discarding those elements unmasked as primitive by postmodernism, a mechanism that might then steal equally shamelessly from postmodernism, while realizing that postmodernism has run its course, in part proven to be a dead end by the very internet we now have to tame.

Whatever it is, we need a strategy, a new strategy to deal with the deluge of photography. In all likelihood, this strategy will probably contain more than one mechanism. I don not think we can expect for one method, one approach to work. I know we have come to embrace simple solutions and ideas in our lives. But photography is not simple, so we cannot deal with it in a simple way.

Actually we have, so far, dealt with it in the simplest way on the internet, and it’s time we got a little smarter, to dig us out of the mess we got ourselves in.

How to proceed? I don’t want to pretend I have the answer. There is no such thing as the answer. Instead, I want to propose one answer, one approach to evaluating photographing, because that is what we have to do: We have to evaluate photography, make a decision about what deserves to be seen more widely and, crucially, what does not deserve to be seen more widely.

One of the criteria I often employ when looking at photography is to ask: What is at stake here? What is at stake for the photographer, what is at stake for the viewer?

Before I proceed I need to point out that asking about what is at stake is not a good approach to all types of photography. The photography we see in a news context operates under different rules than the one we see in the fine-art context. In the following, I will only focus on the fine-art context. This is not because I think it’s better or more relevant than other contexts (OK, it beats fashion photography by a mile, but that’s just me). It’s simply because for the most part this is the context I operate in.

As it turns out, asking what is at stake can be quite a sobering experience. To realize there is nothing at stake for either the maker or the viewer peels quite a bit of the paint off a photograph.

Let’s take photographs taken from Google Street View as an example. If you sit in your office, quite comfortably so, “driving around,” let’s say, poor neighbourhoods on your computer screen, it’s pretty obvious there is nothing at stake for you, at least not initially. You will have to make an effort, of some sorts, to introduce something being at stake.

In much the same way, there is nothing at stake for the viewers of your appropriated imagery of poor neighbourhoods, in particular since those viewers will probably from the same comfortable middle class you’re from (after all these years of artists appropriating, there’s nothing at stake doing that, either). At the end, your project about poor neighbourhoods, culled from Google Street View, might be a wonderful exercise for yourself and your viewers to tell yourself/yourselves how much you care. But the reality is that finding images everybody expects to see anyway contains no trace of something being at stake.

A different way to phrase this would be to say that the only people for whom something is at stake are the people in your photographs, the people that roam the streets of their poor or unfortunate neighbourhoods, trying to get by.

Make no mistake, we cannot and should not judge every photograph based on the idea that there needs to be something at stake. How would we evaluate still lifes, say? But it might seem fair to say that when an artist claims to make a statement about poverty, say, or when an artist attempts to find a new way to document one of the ills in the word, then we should be allowed to ask that question: What’s at stake here?

What’s at stake here?

Does the artist risk something with this work?

When, for example, some photography essentially is little more than a feel-good exercise, showing us what we want to see, giving us a chance to feel good (just like, in the cinematic context, Spielberg’s hagiographic Lincoln), then there is nothing at stake. I call part of this photography “art-editorial photography”: Fine-art photography that illustrates well-known and widely-accepted concepts and ideas.

There are many ways how something could be at stake: You photograph something that makes you really uncomfortable. You challenge your assumptions to produce photographs. You photographs something to show that it is not what everybody thinks it is. The list goes on and on and on.

For the viewer, if there was something at stake for the artist, there is a good chance there might be something at stake for them as well. The end result will be an exchange, where both the photographer and the artist will end up as different people. It’s not always straightforward to describe or quantify this, and I do not intend to give prescriptions for how to do so. But everybody knows what that means if there’s something at stake. Everybody knows what it means not to be or feel completely safe.

Make no mistake, this does not mean that art should always make us feel uncomfortable. It does mean, though, that art should not leave us unaffected. Art needs to move is! If you don’t want to be moved, if you want to be comfortable, then don’t deal with art! And let me be clear: By “moved” I don’t mean moved to tears over something you expected to see that way after all. I mean genuinely moved, moved in ways that are beyond your control.

To ask what is at stake is by no means the only strategy one can use to make sense of the flood of photographs. There are many more. But I’ve recently come to appreciate asking what is at stake. Just like Occam’s Razor, it cuts through a lot of stuff easily.

Image: A photograph I took the other day during a snow storm. It’s a moderately interesting photograph, but obviously there is nothing at stake for anyone in it. I ran the risk of getting slightly wet. The photograph is moderately decorative. It’s certainly not interesting art.