This week is titled a ‘Sea of Images’ but for me a number of strands are coming together and they all lead to power and politics. Perhaps ideology is there somewhere too. It is where the webinar this week is supposed to end up ‘Week 6 Webinar: Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely’ so I have arrived at where the course was planning to take me at this point. Photographing something is a power play, is political and can never be neutral. Discuss.
Let’s start with the National Geographic from this weeks reading. ‘Not only has it reflected a quintessentially American view of the world throughout our century; it has also created and refined a persuasive and pervasive photographic aesthetic.’ … ‘it tends to verge on the rhapsodic, depicting foreign lands and cultures as exotic and alluring’…. ‘the photography of the National Geographic produces a pictorial iconography that tends to reduce experience to a simple, common denominator.’ (Grundberg, Aperture)
More from the source article by Grundberg in the New York Times. ‘for which the National Geographic was once slightly notorious: dark-skinned, bare-breasted women, in their customary dress, looking at the camera without any awareness of their impending status as spectacles for adolescent Western eyes.’ …. ‘National Geographic represent the apotheosis of the picturesque. That is, they embody many of the same conventions of color and form as plein-air painting. They aim to please the eye, not to rattle it. As a result of their naturalism and apparent effortlessness, they have the capacity to lull us into believing that they are evidence of an impartial, uninflected sort. Nothing could be further from the truth.’ (Grundberg, 1988).
I buy all of this. I can express it a number of ways.
- The National Geographic is a celebration of a successful economic and social system.
- The National Geographic is an imperial magazine feeding the privileged masses’ in America their sense of superiority to the rest of the ‘other’ or primitive world.
- The National Geographic is politically motivated and all about the preservation of a corrupt system.
Edward Said expresses a version in this way by suggesting an ‘imperial perspective, that way of looking at a distant foreign reality by subordinating it in one’s gaze, constructing its history from one’s own point of view, seeing its people as subjects whose fate can be decided by what distant administrators think is best for them.’ (Said, 2003).
Ideologies gain power by consent or force. Once in power those ideologies will then praise and advertise the positives of their achievements. As Winston Churchill wrote at the height of his power ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it. ‘ (Goodreads). Capitalist, communist, socialist and all other ‘ist’s’ have used photography through history to tell their story of events.
The National Geographic is like a family photo album for the American people and people who believe in that construct of organising society. Many of us will not have seen the ‘war photo that no one would publish’ of a charred soldier in a tank in the Iraq war. (The Atlantic, 2014). In a civilised society it is not an image that will get support from the democratic voting population to spend more of their tax money to make more of this happen. Similarly very few people put the bad things that happen in their lives in the family photo album? For younger readers replace photoalbum with Facebook or Instagram.
There is a trap to fall in to when considering the power of photography in magazines such as The National Geographic. It is true that this is a misrepresentation of the real world of ‘other’ who may in fact be suffering as a result of the existence of the American Imperial system. They may also be superior in many ways to the American system. The trap is to then go therefore socialism or communism is a better answer. Socialists and communists do use this line of analysis to offer their cause. They do not do so with the images of the failed efforts on their part to create a fairer and more equitable society that feeds and keeps healthy the maximum number of people on the planet. There are no shortage of skeletons in their cupboard too.
All human beings are in a battle for power. Power over ones own time, power over those around us to protect them, power for our society over ‘their’ society. With human beings being designed the way they are there is little chance of escape from these grabs for power. Photography is a very effective tool to put across your ideological viewpoint and as part of your process to grab power for you.
The Photographic Daily Theme suggests ‘all photography is political. Because all photography takes place in a social and cultural context and is, even if unintended, a form of suggestive manipulation’……’Politics, per definition, is the art or science of influencing people’s beliefs on a civic or individual level. That’s what photography in essence is about: conveying a certain interpretation of a reproduced reality that we take for real.’
The phrase ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ appears to be so true throughout history. As the trend is undeniable it appears to be a human flaw that has, so far, been impossible to eradicate.
The other interesting provocation from this weeks reading is consideration of the iconic image of Che Guevara. ‘ Jesus Christ, Madonna, Princess Diana have all had their picture adapted and inserted under Che’s familiar red star beret, and framed by the same shaggy locks, in a subversive format pioneered by irreverent manipulators of the Mona Lisa.’ (Guardian, 2006).
If anyone has a revolutionary cause then this is an image often used to attach to that cause. However, the icon is quite different from the reality. ‘Most of those who sport the Che Guevara logo today forget that he was the Osama bin Laden of his time. He believed the US to be the principal menace in the world, and he thought it was the duty of revolutionaries to encompass its destruction.’ (Guardian, 2006).
Many who see in Che Guevara the embodiment of idealised revolutionary activity would be horrified if their daughter were to date him or their son were to spend most of his time with him or those like him?
Also fascinating reading this week about the phenomenon of Instagram or as Wolfgang Tillmans refers to it in the latest Aperture Magazine ‘a “terror of images” in our online social networks.’ I could write a lot more on this subject as it is central to why photography is important and the good and bad it can do. As time is limited I need to go and do some work on my project now so sadly must save more on this until another time.
Grundberg, A. Crisis of the real; writings on photography since 1974 (Decoding National Geographic). Aperture
Grundberg, A. PHOTOGRAPHY VIEW; A Quintessentially American View of the World. New York Times, September 18, 1988.
Said, E. Blind Imperial Arrogance. Los Angeles Times. JULY 20, 2003.
https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/08/the-war-photo-no-one-would-publish/375762/ accessed 7th March, 2020.
The Politics of Photography. https://the.me/the-politics-of-photography/ accessed 7th March, 2020.
Gott, R. Poster Boy. The Guardian 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/jun/03/art.art accessed March 7th, 2020.
Tillmans, W. Spirituality is Solidarity. Aperture, 237. Autumn 2019.
Goodreads. Churchill. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/4611-history-will-be-kind-to-me-for-i-intend-to accessed March