This week I am struck by the question posed by Steph : ‘which is better at provoking environmental concern’, the work of Sebastian Salgado or Nick Brandt?
A choice between the aesthetic approach of Salgado risking to anaesthetise or the brutal imagery of Brandt to shock. The question deserves a fuller answer than choosing one or the other. That answer must consider both the psychological nature of human responses and then the responsibility of photographers when presenting a concern.
The human brain is biased. It is designed to jump to conclusions quickly. Khaneman refers to the two systems of thinking. The system 1 is fight or flight response which is immediate and uses the best guess to respond to a threat. It is instinctive and emotional. System 2 is slower, more deliberative and logical. Informing these two systems are a set of biases hard wired in to us.
Korte (2003) summarises key biases human beings use in making decisions. My bold type to highlight consequence of biases.
- Prior hypotheses and focusing on limited targets: Decision makers bring prior beliefs, or orientations, to the analysis process and focus on selected interests and outcomes—often ignoring conflicting information.
- Exposure to limited alternatives: Decision makers reduce problems to
simpler constructs, seek fewer alternatives, and rely on intuition over rational analysis.
- Insensitivity to outcome probabilities: Decision makers rely on subjective judgments rather than rational probabilities of outcomes and tend to see problems as unique—thereby not relevant to the outcomes of past experiences.
- Illusion of manageability: Decision makers tend to be overly optimistic—overestimating their level of control—believing they can manage and correct the consequences of their decisions along the way.
Applying these to Salgado or Brandt will depend on prior hypotheses, ignore alternatives, be subjective and assume it is the answer. Aesthetically I would choose Salgado and if I were a revolutionary I would choose Brandt. It is highly likely neither choice is a good one if the photographer wants to have a positive impact on the world.
I propose that photographers have a responsibility to consider the consequences of their proposed intervention. It is not enough to say there are not enough lions and tigers roaming the wild now. What needs to be shown are the trade offs that need to be made if we want to provoke environmental concern.
A choice between Salgado and Brandt suggests taking action on the environment will make the world a better place. Maybe it will for lions and tigers but will it for human beings? Again all the biases are at play. To make it more interesting it is necessary to bring in more information on choices.
One consequence of the squeeze on space on the planet is the successful growth of human population to nearly 8 billion people.
Other data suggests there have never been fewer children dying before their 5th birthday.
There have never been fewer undernourished people on the planet.
Poverty is lower than it has ever been in the history of human beings.
If photographers are going to be responsible then the question has to be if you choose Salgado or Brandt and wish to have more protected species on the planet can you also guarantee that in doing so you can protect population growth, child mortality rates, hunger and poverty levels on the planet for human beings?
I have a concern that there are too many one issue photographers and protestors that believe that by pointing at their issue they are providing a solution to a better world. For photography to grow in to an adult discipline my proposal would be that if seeking to get a response to an issue…eg provoke action on the environment….that photographers do so with an honest appraisal of what has to be done and the trade off’s that need to take place to take the world to a better place.
Khaneman, D. (2013). Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Korte, R. F. (2003). Biases in decision making and implications for human resource development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 5(4), 440-457.https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Russell_Korte/publication/249631364_Biases_in_Decision_Making_and_Implications_for_Human_Resource_Development/links/54385e7c0cf204cab1d6d416/Biases-in-Decision-Making-and-Implications-for-Human-Resource-Development.pdf accessed March 17th 2020.