November 27, 2021

Week 10: Photography, Power and Others

Positions & Practice
"The Photographer, both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates."
(Sontag 2008: 64).


Such is the nature of photography, which goes far beyond tracing reality; beyond photography's capacity (camera) to make copies of reality. As Sontag suggests, "To photograph is to confer importance", and “Pictures got taken not only to show what should be admired but to reveal what needs to be confronted, deplored—and fixed up" (Sontag 2008: 63). This ability of photography and the photograph is evident in the recent allegations against the conservative government led by Boris Johnson dubbed "party-gate" by some in the media.


The media alleges that government staff broke Covid rules during periods of lockdown. At a time when the law permitted people to be away from their homes if they had a "reasonable excuse" ('Downing Street Gatherings: What Were the Covid Rules at the Time?' 2021). The Daily Mirror reported a party in Downing Street on 18th December 2020, when socialising with colleagues was outlawed. However, members of the government and the Prime Minister deny that Downing Street’s Staff broke Covid rules.


But the allegations widened to include more occasions and events. To back these allegations, The Sunday Mirror published a picture of Mr Johnson at a quiz, which it said took place on the 15th December (Fig 1).

The Sunday Mirror has published a picture of Mr Johnson at the quiz, which it said was on 15 December

Fig 1. The Sunday Mirror 2021. The Sunday Mirror has published a picture of Mr Johnson at the quiz, which it said was on 15 December. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-59577129

The purpose of such a picture is clearly to "reveal” and to “confront". Here photography lends its quality of objectivity to this debate, conferring importance to the three individuals captured in the frame. These revelations inevitably provoked outrage from the public by denouncing the actions of those in power.


Similarly, Marc Garanger used his photographs of Algerian women to challenge the colonial powers of his time. As Karina Eileraas puts it, Algerians were required to carry identity cards that would render them "visible and legible" to French colonial authorities during the Algerian revolutions. Soldiers rounded up entire communities, and forcibly unveiled Algerian women, to take their ID card portraits. Although the French practice of unveiling sought to render Algerian women identifiable to colonial authorities, it also violated local customs and religious practices.


Garanger, a Frenchman born in Normandy, served as a photographer in the French army, where he composed Algerian cartes d'identité. His photographic experiences converted Garanger into a staunch critic of colonial policy and practice. An evolving consciousness spurred Garanger to work feverishly during his two-year tenure to create a portfolio of images that would memorialise colonial injustice. His work registers profound ambivalence about the objectifying function of colonial photography—an ambivalence that frequently haunts or disturbs the surface of his images. To this end, Garanger's most provocative images record the violence of colonial representation and the destabilising potential of Algerian women's looks (fig 2).


After fulfilling his military duty, Garanger sought to highlight these stories of resistance by arranging for the public display of his work in explicitly anti-colonial contexts. He also published anti-colonial photo essays to raise awareness of the brutalities of occupation and to memorialise Algeria within the French national imaginary. Ultimately, Garanger hoped to shatter French silence regarding the Algerian revolution.



A 1960 photograph of an Algerian woman in a French regroupment village.

Fig 2. Marc Garanger 1960. A 1960 photograph of an Algerian woman in a French regroupment village. [Online]. Available at: https://time.com/69351/women-unveiled-marc-garangers-contested-portraits-of-1960s-algeria/

It is essential to note in a cross-cultural encounter in which the smile would typically serve a “mitigating” function to mute the potentially disruptive or confrontational role of the “other’s” return gaze(LUTZ and COLLINS 2003). The women in Garanger’s photographs did not smile. Instead, they confronted Garanger’s camera with lips tightly pursed, and their mouths conveyed their resolve and their desire to be recognised on their terms. As Sontag puts it, “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed” (Sontag 2008: 14). The asymmetrical power relations between coloniser and colonised subject and photographer and the multiple gazes that intersect in each photograph emerge from these photographs. The women’s looks are enmeshed with the photographer’s eye and the varied interpretations of the viewers.


“Photographs are best understood as collective assemblages of photographer, viewer, and photographed subject”(Eileraas 2003). Much like the exposure triangle, scrutinising the relationship between these three parts identifies where the balance of power lies. It also makes it easy to address the moral or ethical issues that may emerge from this imbalance. For instance, my practice aims to address waste. Therefore, I am mindful not to create more waste. But it is clear and inevitable that this work will generate waste. Thus, to mitigate this, I have included strategies like repurposing the found objects used in creating the work to display some of my images. Also, I am continuously analysing my impact on the environment as I produce this work. I intend to keep it as low as possible so that it doesn’t contradict the primary message in my work.


But from experience, there are times when things go wrong. Towards the end of this summer, I chose to take a short break in one of the UK’s coastal towns. I intended to spend this time reflecting on nature and verify some of my research on ocean pollution. However, one afternoon, while I explored some rock formations, expecting to find plastic debris, the tide changed. I was only alerted to this when an announcement was made through the PA, high up on a cliff. I looked down from the rock I was on, and the ground had disappeared. Luckily the water was only waist-high, and I could swim to safety. This event highlighted that I failed to consider my subject and myself (the photographer). I did not complete a risk assessment before venturing out. As a result, I would have risked the lives of any emergency personnel who would have been drafted in to help me.


Reference


  • EILERAAS, Karina. 2003. ‘Reframing the Colonial Gaze: Photography, Ownership, and Feminist Resistance’. MLN 118(4), 807–40.
  • LUTZ, Catherine and Jane COLLINS. 2003. ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic’. In Liz WELLS (ed.). The Photography Reader. London: Routledge, 354–74.
  • REALITY CHECK TEAM. 2021. ‘Downing Street Gatherings: What Were the Covid Rules at the Time?’ BBC News [online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-59577129 [accessed 22 Dec 2021].
  • SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. Reissued. London: Penguin.