04 February 2007

Discerning Conventions that Disable Us

How can we establish with confidence what conventions govern some domain of photographic practice? To say that some image conforms to convention is to make a generalization - the photo (or series of photos) addressses its subject in the way such subjects generally are addressed. The problem is that there always are exceptions. One way to establish the generalization is to determine which images are picked as exemplars or, more specifically, as exemplary of a particular sort of practice. So one might look at photographs that win awards or prizes in a domain.

© Ovie Cater (1974 Winner)

Consider this story from pdn online that identifies some patterns among images that have won the annual World Press Photo photo-journalism competition. You can find the winners for the past 50 years here. The pdn folk state: "certain motifs have won numerous times.

- Child (in distress, in danger or dead): 11 prizes
- Mother with child: 7
- Grieving woman: 6
- Father with child: 2
- Man engulfed in flame: 2"

© Alon Reininger (1986 Winner)

What the pdn folk note is that the preponderance of winners deal with matters of suffering and grief and pain in one or another form. They also suggests that sometimes the judges select an under-reported story. What they do not note, but what the examples I've lifted here suggest, is that the overwhelming majority of the winning images focus on a single individual. They invite compassion - vicarious identification with the pain of an other. Hence, as Hannah Arendt tells us, they are de-politicizing in the sense that they direct attention away from general or aggregate level matters. And since most of the circumstances (most obviously epidemics, war, famine, genocide, industrial accidents, forced displacement, etc., but also often purportedly "natural" disasters) that cause the pain and grief and suffering depicted in the pictures have political causes, the winning images point us in precisely the wrong direction. That is what is wrong with the conventions of photo-journalism.

© Lucian Parker (1995 Winner)

© Arko Datta (2004 Winner)

PS: (Added a few moments later) It is interesting that few of the images actually depict political events or actions. What they typically portray is the aftermath of some event - the wailing and grieving. It is interesting to think about the political events that have transpired in the past 50 years none of which are directly addressed.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What they typically portray is the aftermath of some event".

This is the nature of photography - it 'already' provides an articulation of the past.

Such recording/documenting highlight the difference between digital and the analog, between 'representation' and 'presentation' (to borrow terms from Virilio).

Raymond Carver - excellent!

My favourite (from a much longer poem), from memory:

Write me a poem she said/a love poem/all poems are love poems i said/i don't understand she said/its difficult to explain I said .

Still finding your posts thought-provoking.

Best, Sean.

04 February, 2007 05:42  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the comment. As a general point I agree with you. (See the passage from John Berger in the sidebar at right.) We can only capture things past. But WHICH things?

I think of Koudelka's images of he Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague. Or to take a winner from the WPP cmpetition, the image of the solitary figure facing off with tanks in Tiananmen Square. There is little "agency" in the winning images and lots of "victims" responding with grief and suffering.

Thanks too for the remarks re: Carver. He is, as I mention in a comment on that post, simply terrific.

04 February, 2007 15:01  

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