and its claim in the context of the museum
Table of content
1. How did the document move into the museum?
1.1 Constructing documentary in the museum, the usual suspect
1.2 Meanwhile, reconstructing the document
1.3 Deconstructing documentary, Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula
1.4 Realism and Photography: artistic autonomy, social knowledge and politics.
1.5 Why Photography matters more as art/as document as never before
2 Antiphotojournalism, an exhibition
2.2 What’s wrong with photojournalism?
2.3 Antiphotojournalism, as used by Carles Guerra
2.4 Who is Who in Antiphotojournalism
2.5 How do they do it?
2.6 Are we Citizens of Photography?
3 Antiphotojournalism and the museum
3.1 The museum as a place for activism, how could that work?
3.2 Antiphotojournalism, why in the museum?
3.3 Antiphotojournalism, which museum?
3.4 Antiphotojournalism in FOAM
(the footnotes did not translate into the blog-format... If you need to know the origin of a quote etc, just contact me)
The Spanish curator Jorge Ribalta said in an interview with Guy Lane in 2009:
“In the photojournalistic world, there is no meaningful discussion of what has been termed 'post-photography.' [....] but I also think that photojournalism is not a very exciting field in terms of the critical discourse it generates. And I say this with great admiration and respect for photojournalists. I guess not many photojournalists read Azoulay, for example. Generally - in terms of providing alternative or interrogative models of both theory and practice - I find the media as non-productive as the art-market system. There are of course some exceptions, like Susan Meiselas, even if she can also be very problematic.”
It seems to me that this provocative statement by Ribalta was taken on as a challenge by Carles Guerra and Thomas Keenan. In the fall of 2009, they organised Antiphotojournalism, a seminar at Bard College, New York. In the discussions during the seminar, the so-called demise of news photography was questioned, and the critical and alternative accounts of the institution and practice of photojournalism from the 1960s to the present were explored. In 2010, Keenan and Guerra developed the findings of the seminar into an exhibition of the same title, which they co-curated at La Virreina Centre de la Imatge in Barcelona between July 5 and October 10 2010 and which was showing at FOAM, Amsterdam from April 1 till June 8 2011.
In this thesis I will research the claim the exhibition Antiphotojournalism is making with regard to the current position of photojournalism, touching on the reality-constitutive effects of media practices, as well as the notions of critique and rhetoric.
I investigate how the artists that take part in the exhibition individually position themselves with regard to photojournalism or anti photojournalism. Are there comparable strategies at work?
Furthermore I critically reflect on the role and context of the museum as a possible place of discourse for the claim of Antiphotojournalism. Is it possible for a museum of photography to create a critical discourse on what is seen as one of the pillars of photography? Jorge Ribalta, who himself works for the MACBA, formulates the following conditions: “I am critical of bourgeois artistic autonomy, even if simultaneously I defend art institutions like the museum. More precisely what I defend is the unresolved tension between artistic autonomy, social knowledge and politics; and to me the documentary aspect of photography embodies that tension in a singularly intense way which needs to be preserved and radicalized. But I’m not against good art. I’m interested in good art made under strong tensions.”
These questions follow: How does Antiphotojournalism relate to photojournalism and its practices? How does Antiphotojournalism critique existing practices and how does Antiphotojournalism propose to answer that critique? And how does the context of the museum function as a locus for this endeavor?
1. How did the document move into the museum?
1.1 Constructing documentary in the museum, the usual suspect
“What was once Egypt will become Beato, or Du Camp, or Frith; Pre-Colombian Middle America will be Desiré Charnay; the American Civil War, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan; the cathedrals of France will be Henri Le Secq; the Swiss Alps, the Bisson Frères; the horse in motion is now Muybridge; the flight of birds Marey; and the expression of emotions forgets about Darwin to become Duchenne de Boulogne.”
In the 1970s, photographs that had once lived in books, tomes and scientific collections where they functioned as documents of proof and study, were transferred from their original context to precious frames and into galleries and museums. And in that transference photographs became pictorial objects. For if photography was invented in 1839 and had been liberally used in the contexts of science, discovery and archival activities, it was only truly discovered as a medium with its own artistic ‘raison d’être’ in the 1960s and 1970s – photography was discovered as itself.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1940 was the first museum to start a photographic collection within the context of modern art. The essentially modernist view taken on photography within the walls of the MoMA is exemplary for the way photography has been viewed within the art world until a post modernist critique also permeated thinking on photography at the MoMA. The paradigm the MoMA created for collecting and exhibiting photography had been followed by many modern art museums around the world.
Beaumont Newhall was the collection’s first curator and he developed the first comprehensive retrospective of photographic works within the context of a museum of modern art. The exhibition that Newhall mounted was pivotal. It's accompanying catalog, The History of Photography, was the first account of the first 100 years of photographic history that gave equal credit to its technical virtues, as well as its value as an art form.
In 1948 Edward Steichen took on the post of the photography’s collection’s curator. Steichen had a particular interest in promoting photography as an artistic medium that could be enjoyed without the ‘high-art’ knowledge requirements such as authorship, oeuvre or style. In 1951 Edward Steichen staged an exhibition with the title ‘Forgotten Photographers, prints from the Library of Congress’. The exhibition consisted of photographic prints that had been submitted to the U.S. Register of Copyrights as ‘proof of copyright’. A vast collection of photographs had thus been coming together at the Library of Congress with no artistic guideline. Steichen selected from 125 “noteworthy prints representing a wide range of subject and interest” There were panoramas, landscapes, portraits of famous people, advertisements and street views. Some of the photographs shown were by well-known authors but others were by obscure photographers or sometimes the author was even unknown. Steichen was especially struck by how these photographs projected developments in contemporary photography as he was experiencing them at that time.
Post-WWII Western society was fully immersed in a sense of industrialization and modern life which manifested itself in a renewed interest in urbanism, advertising and media. Artists asked themselves why art should not take part in changing one’s life? Leaving behind the inward looking mode art had taken on in the museum from the 1940s, they moved into the domains of capitalism (confronting, using or manipulating it), consumerism or popular culture. Edward Steichen partook in this movement as a curator by famously staging the ‘Family of Man’ exhibition at the MoMA in 1955. An immensely popular exhibition of photography around the world with a life-affirming, very readable message: all human beings are alike, have the same hopes and dreams and an understanding of peoples among each other is possible. The book that accompanied the exhibition has been in print these last 56 years and still is available in its 30th edition.
In 1962 John Szarkowski succeeded Edward Steichen. When Szarkowski began his curatorial career, he set out to create a place for photography firmly situated within the discourse of modern art of the era. This was not photography’s first involvement with modern art of course: in the first 20 years of the 20ths century Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen had endeavored to elevate the photograph to the level of painting. Against the tide of mass production, popularization and media use of photography, they started an artistic practice that took art and arts concerns as a point of departure for photography, that reinstated the skillful print as an object and that promoted fine printing of photography in publications and famously in Camera Works, the magazine that acted as a platform for this firmly pictorial take on photography. Stieglitz and Steichen ran their own gallery, where they mixed avant-garde, mainly French art with their own photography. Their brand of pictorial photography as it continued in the 1940s with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, and in the 1950s Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, took on a stately modernist pictorialism that gained a comfortable although marginal place within the arts.
In the 1960s, artists and critics, taking their impulse from the avant-garde, wanted to radicalize the medium by demanding it to apply crucial self reflexivity (as did all the other media within the arts). Following Clement Greenberg’s demand that any medium should firmly stay within its own specificity, or it will risk becoming kitsch John Szarkowski, as newly appointed curator of photography at the MoMA, set out to create an ontology of photography. Two of his books, “The Photographer’s Eye” (1964) and “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures From the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art” (1973), convey his insight into photography’s defining characteristics. Szarkowski formulated them as The thing itself (photography’s engagement with the actual), The Detail (photography’s ability to point), The Frame (the frame signaling artistic endeavor by showing the act of choosing), Time (as being inherent in and referring to any photograph) and Vantage Point (the ability to show what has not been seen before). Szarkowski formulates the history of photography in terms of a progressive awareness of these characteristics which he deems inherent in photography:
“The pictures reproduced in this book [The Photographer’s Eye] were made over almost a century and a quarter. They were made for various reasons by men of different concerns and varying talent. They have in fact very little in common except their success, and a shared vocabulary: these pictures are unmistakably photographs. The vision they share belongs to no school or aesthetic theory, but to photography itself.”
With the terms he formulated in The Photographer’s Eye Szarkowski hoped to formulate “a vocabulary and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography” . This specific ontology of photography allowed Szarkowski to be inclusive. Any type of photography that pivots around these central characteristics can be included in the art notion of photography. It allowed Szarkowki to ‘discover’ Eugene Atget, to validate Walker Evans and to notice William Eggleston. But it also created a problem. It allowed Szarkowski to decontextualise photographs, to validate them only on formalistic terms and to ignore their referential content. Douglas Crimp points out that photography was thus ghettoized and could no longer be useful within other discursive practices. It would no longer serve the purpose of information, documentation, evidence or illustration. It would be reduced to a single all-encompassing aesthetic.
Szarkowski’s exhibition ‘New Documents’ at the MoMA in 1967 exemplifies this. This show, considered radical at the time, identified a new direction in photography: pictures that seemed to have a casual, snapshot-like look and subject matter so apparently ordinary that it was hard to categorize. In the wall text for the show, Szarkowski suggested that until then the aim of documentary photography had been to show what was wrong with the world, as a way to generate interest in rectifying it. But ‘New Documents’ signaled a change. “In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends,” he wrote. “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”
The change Szarkowski is referring to, takes place on two levels. One is on the level of content: if issues of importance are no longer available to the camera, if all photography can make of big events is a scribble of light that promises more information than it delivers, and photography does not aim to ‘reform life’ as the ‘concerned photographers’ from Lewis Hine to Eugene Smith did, what does it do instead? It aims ‘to know life’. It points to the personal. But since their is no aim to ‘reform life’, this pointing becomes self-referential. Pointing to the personal is pointing to photography as a medium, to its limitations and failures. Allan Sekula refers to this shift in his article “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary” as a shift towards auteurism,
“Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist. To use Roman Jakobson’s categories, the referential function collapses into expressive function. A cult of authorship and auteurism takes hold of the image, separating it from the social conditions of its making...”
So not only does photography become self-referential, it also leaves behind all ‘knowledge’ of the way it was made, the context and conditions that brought the image into existence. Also it dissociates photographs that first were part of a series from that context and re-introduces them as single images. Underlining even more that self-reference is the purpose of the image.
The other level of change Szarkowski refers to is aesthetic.The inclusion of photography that was not pictorialist in the show, photographs by Lee Freedlander and Gary Winogrand for example, exemplifies the shift that was happening in photography. Leaving behind the pictorial need or purpose of a photograph as these artists seem to do, any impression of a ‘painterly’ approach to the making of photographs had to be avoided. So careful framing, lighting or posing were slowly leaving the aesthetics of photography. Jeff Wall, in his article ‘Marks of Indifference’, formulates the reason behind this aesthetic shift thus:
“Post-pictorialist photography is elaborated in the working out of a demand that the picture makes an appearance in a practice, having largely relinquished the sensuousness of the surface, must also relinquish any explicit preparatory process of composition. Acts of composition are the property of the tableau.”
Again photography is pushed towards a practice that underscores the qualities apparently intrinsic to the medium and through this self-examination is allowed to emerge as truly modernist art on a plane with others.
1.2 Meanwhile, reconstructing the document
Meanwhile, while all this was going on at the MoMA, there was a completely opposite turn photography was simultaneously taking. This turn was prompted again by contemporary art but now taking its impulses from conceptual art . The root lies in the avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s where photography took on the role of ‘factography’. Within Bauhaus, within socialist art and within other art movements like DADA, photography had played the part of being radically modern, radically ‘not-art’and radically ‘not-precious’. It offered the avant-garde of the time the possibility to include depicted ‘facts’, a sense of science, into their work. The work of John Heartfield is exemplary, a self-defined ‘press-worker’, who was one of the first artists to appropriate the method and rhetoric of mass media communication. Working during the 1930s with photography and montage for different press journals and magazines, Heartfield produced a mass of ironic work that commented on the Nazi regime and questioned its claims for truth. He considered the smallest fraction of the everyday to be more valuable that a work of art.
Within the turn art was taking towards Pop Art, the qualities ‘not-art’ and ‘not-precious’ were again highly valued. Jeff Wall, again in his article “Marks of Indifference”, refers to the preconditions that inserted photography’s popular uses into PopArt, and later photography as such into conceptual art, as “the lack of interest of art marketers and collectors [towards photography] marked photography with an utopian potential.” The utopian potential being that photography would be the medium that was and would not be included in the art discourse that was mainly made up of bureaucratic and commercial forces. To continue to fulfill this utopian potential photography had to undergo a different kind of radical critique to escape from the discourse that was plaguing art. A critique that foreclosed any further aestheticization or ‘artification’ of the medium. In Pop art this was achieved by including photography as it appeared in mass media. But the most radical development took place in Photoconceptualism. Artists embracing photography as document completely and unproblematically as an instrument in their artistic practice and by doing so pushing photography to be quintessentially ‘anti-object’. And paradoxically it was only then that photography could emerge as Art. Not ‘art-like’ or ‘just as good as art’ or ‘objects that can be valued for their aesthetic merits’ as the discourse of the MoMA was developing, but true radical Art. Photography played an instrumental part in the practice of Interventions, Akzionen, and Performance through self-documentation. And even though this self-documentation was originally intended as a form of reporting actions, it soon also developed a proper identity as a sort of archival activity for the survey of facts, people and narrative – and in this sense it functioned as ‘journalistic art’. Its principal feature is not (only) to retain memory and to make intangible events relevant to those who were not there, but also to constitute a concept of recording that is closer to ‘maintaining’ than documenting; that is a system for retrieving information, re-circulating it and reading it anew. In fact many of the quintessential achievements of conceptual art of the 1970s are either created in the form of photographs or mediated by them.
The role photography was playing in Photoconceptualism also paved the way for a renewed interest in documentary undertakings of the past like the ‘Mission Héliographique’ of the 1850’s with its archaeological purpose or American geological missions. The data of this kind of photographic work had sunken into oblivion until the 1970s. And even the investigation conducted by Bernd and Hilla Becher on the monuments of industrial architecture in the Ruhr Area was at best related to research in the sense of minimal art. The exhibition ‘The Era of Exploration’ in 1975 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was the first exhibition on geological missions allowing the photographs in it to be both documents and art. Reconnecting the images with the ‘knowledge’ of the way they were made, the context and conditions that brought them into existence.
And that same year this practice was repeated in the seminal ‘New Topographics’ exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester. Here Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work was shown in conjunction with Robert Adams, Stephen Shore and others. The New Topographics reaffirmed documentary photography as indissociable from the descriptive document, which implies aiming at knowledge and it reintroduced the series or body of work as a montage to allow for the communication of this meaning.
1.3 Deconstructing documentary, Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula
The inclusion of ‘photo as document’ by Photoconceptualists also achieved a reification of photography’s potential for social critique. Most famously perhaps by Martha Rosler’s ‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems’ 1974/75. The Bowery is a New York neighborhood that was socially challenged by alcohol abuse and slummification through property speculation in the 1970s. Rosler’s work is a large installation that pairs 21 photographs with the same number of pictures of word formations written by Rosler, introduced by three sets of words only, without accompanying pictures. Its aim was to advance an ‘act of criticism’ towards the notion that the poor are poor through a lack of merit. With the photographs Rosler reflects on the way documentary images have contributed to the perpetuation of the representation of the poor as ‘poor’. And in the word formations Rosler shows how language encases ideas on the poor. The images of storefronts and details seem deliberate quotations of Walker Evans and this deadpan mannerism works against the often expressionist liberalism of the ‘find-a-bum’ school of concerned photography. Rosler takes the subject of the Bowery as the incarnation of everything that has gone wrong with documentary photography. By not photographing the people she ‘speaks’ about, she addresses the physiognomic fallacy and the power relations that have marred documentary’s endeavor. The work critiques straight documentary but salvages the critical photographical document from being a mere aesthetical object. Rosler allows the photograph to play its ‘inadequate’ part in the act of criticism’. Identifying photography as one of the texts functioning within an ideological system she juxtaposes images with written words. And although she confronts the viewer with the fact that “photographs are powerless to deal with the reality that is yet totally comprehended-in-advance by ideology” , she allows photography to interact with the other text, thus creating an interval between the image and text that allows the viewer a moment of unique reflection and the creation of meaning. It is through montage that this moment is created.
Allan Sekula’s work, starting in the early 1970s, is perhaps the most comprehensive attempt fully to understand the fallacies of photography without losing its usefulness in an artistic practice. His extensive writings and many photographic works form a body of work that addresses the questions photography is facing. The art critic Benjamin Buchlog observed how Sekula’s work seemed to threaten both directions photography was taking in the art world. Sekula refused to engage with the modernist ontology of photography as formulated by Szarkowski, but he also was unhappy about the naive or untroubled way photography was reinstated as document by Photoconceptualism. His work was threatening the high-art status of the newly accredited photographic objects but it also seemed to have by-passed or ignored the current codifications of Photoconceptualism and its avant-garde ruptures. Sekula consciously redeploys those subjects and semiotic and textual conventions that have been disqualified within modernism: documentary photography, subjects of social concern and signification that recognizes the sign as simultaneously functioning as a semi-autonomous structure and a material construct determined by historical and ideological factors. Sekula usually uses sequences of still photographs which he devides into groups as if they were shots in a film, the photographs are stylistically not homogenous, they quote a variety of stylistic sources (although they become so more and more later in his career), he adds texts that are not captions but a mixture of personal novelistic impressions, interviews and interpretations of data. His narrative moves self-consciously between ‘fictional’ and ‘documentary’ modes. A lot of his ‘scenes’ are staged. Rather than reducing the photograph to a mere indexical record operating in manifest analogy to the ready-made, or to a purely denotative device of simplified structures and actions, as in the photographic records of conceptual artists, Sekula constructs a rhetoric of the photographic: his works take into account the instability of photographic meaning that continuously oscillates between a conception of photography as aesthetical and photography as referential. But most importantly Sekula does not construct this rhetoric as a self-critique of photography but to reconstruct a critical realism. A critical realism which had been lost in the 1960s when most Neo-Marxist aesthetics in the West were eager to dissociate itself from the traditions of realist aesthetics since it had been thoroughly tainted by its association with the socialist and Stalinist version of 1930s realism. Sekula’s topics center around the representation of labor in a post-industrial class society, which seemed to have banned this representation from modernist visual culture. Sekula humorously refers to Lewis Batz’s ‘Industrial Parks’ photographs to illustrate this point. He points out that the oxymoron of the title is taken for granted in a Pop disdain.
“Baltz’s photographs of enigmatic factories fail to tell us anything about them. [...] In California, we are led to believe, no one works, people merely punch in for eight hours of Muzak-soothed leisure in air conditioned condominium-like structures that are somehow sites for the immaculate conception of commodities.”
1.4 Reconstructing Realism in Photography: artistic autonomy, social knowledge and politics
Allan Sekula’s main goal is to ‘save’ a potential for realism in photography. A critical realism that involves a research method that does not depart from a belief that offering truthful accounts of socially unjust situations and facts is a possibility within critical realism. As a method, it does not try to find its own essence. Instead it analytically explores the boundaries and limits of a technique that aspires to reflect on social reality in a critical fashion. It is a way to approach photography not in order to mimetically imitate reality, but to seek to understand the social complexity of today’s realities. To achieve this, not only research into facts has to be done, but also research into the aesthetics of realism. Sekula does so comprehensively by an elaborate ‘program’ of aesthetical decisions on his work: presenting his work often as slideshows prevents the ‘object-becoming’ tendency of the image in art. By using different styles of photography he underlines that not the authorial is important in what we see. By grouping several pictures from the same scene/moment in a montage he avoids the fallacy of the iconic image and by accompanying his photographs with texts that do not function as captions to frame the context he opens up meaning and possibilities in viewing the photographs.
As has been mentioned above, the philosophical relationship photography has with realism is one of contention. With its ties to dubious political practices, realism has been viewed very critically from within the art world, especially an art world that is firmly located in post-structuralist thinking. Since the late 1970s photographic history and theory have had two main targets: Modernism and positivism (and realism has been often grouped with positivism). These have been addressed through the ‘photography and social power model’ and ‘critical deconstructivism’. In the attempt to deconstruct the legacy of Modernist ‘photography-as-fine-art’ and documentary’s claim to truth, this writing has pursued a strong anti-realist bias in its discussions of photography. This resulted, among other things, in a weakening of the causal connection between the photograph and what it is actually an image of. Because the naturalistic and documentary image is constructed as truth, it is argued, the relationship between the photograph and the pre-photographic event is considered irrelevant or beside the point. This writing tends to reduce photography to always being subsumed under dominant power relations. Another line of thought identifies photography’s visual rhetorics as ‘free-floating signifiers’ that can and will only be ‘tied down’ by context/text. Every image can take on a different meaning or reading by the various contexts it presents itself in. Quality of print, size of the image, surrounding images, surrounding texts, surrounding space, captions etc, all play a role in meaning-production of the image.
As a result of both of these approaches to the photographic image, there is a loss of the analysis of the specificity of the original complexities of production, intentions and use. This tendency has been intensified since the advent of digital photography, which has brought forth a crisis of the index, the cause effect relation between the object and its photographic representation. This crisis of the index is not really something new, since Sekula writes in 1984 of the fallacy to think of the camera as being capable of an essential realism through its indexical relation. Photography does not mechanically reproduce the visual world, independent of human practice.
Jorge Ribalta states: “the idea that ‘after Photoshop, photography is dead in the realist-indexical sense is a beliefe that I find both theoretically unproductive and, on a political level, potentially reactionary or anti-democratic in some way. Its effect is to erase the documentary power of photography, which is precisely the political potential to link art to transformative radical politics”. What Ribalta defends is not a kind of nostalgic positivist realism, but a negotiated one, grounded on a social contract which changes historically. Ribalta: “I think we cannot simply abandon the claim of photographic realism. [...] It is necessary to establish a kind of photographic practice which is immersed in other social and political practices [...] These are practices that focus on the reinvention of what we can call the ‘documentary contract’ – in this respect what is relevant is that the conditions of the contract be relatively transparent and subject to contestation.” Ribalta takes the term ‘contract’ from Deleuze en Guattari to mean a fragile, temporary, dialogic, non-essentialist agreement on the conditions of the document.
1.5 Photography matters more as art/as document as never before
In 2009 the distinguished art historian Michael Fried published a book that took everyone by surprise: Why Photography Matters More As Art As Never Before. The surprise was much due to the fact that Fried was known as a rigorous modernist that had written mostly on minimalist sculpture and eighteenth and nineteenth century painting. Photography had never before been his thing before. The reason why I mention Fried in this context is because his book also provoked a lot of discussion that debates the principles Fried proposes. The curators from Barcelona, like Jorge Ribalta and Carles Guerra have been very vocal in their critique, Ribalta even going so far as to organize a symposium with the title ‘Why Photography Matters More as Document As Never Before’. The exhibition ‘Antiphotojournalsim’ can be seen as a bid against the viewpoints of Michael Fried. Another reason for bringing Fried up is the analogy between the result of Szarkowski’s thinking and practice, and Fried’s goals, namely a denial of photography’s documentary properties, and with that denial rendering photography powerless.
Michael Frieds book begins at the point in the late 1970s when contemporary photography, moving away from its journalistic functions, and increasingly conscious of its size and context, began to be made to hang in art galleries and on museum walls. Once photography had left the printed page, where it was viewed by an audience of only one or two people at a time, and was enlarged and elevated, then, as Fried argues, "issues concerning the relationship between the photograph and the viewer standing before it became crucial for photography as they had never previously been". Most viewers look at a large photograph on a gallery wall differently than they would look at it in a book, or as a small print. They prepare themselves for a lengthy, meditative relationship with the image. At this point, Fried argues, contemporary art photography inherited "the entire problematic of beholding". He suggests the problem arises in the division between "theatricality", when a picture looks deliberately outwards and declares itself to an anticipated audience, and "anti-theatricality", when the elements of a picture are constructed without any visible concession being made to an audience, or even to the idea of an audience, and the figures within the image belong to a world of their own – in other words, when the work does not require the audience's participation to make it complete. Fried began to develop his ideas in the now famous 1967 essay, ‘Art and Objecthood’, in which he criticized minimalist art for its theatricality, suggesting that it depended upon the participation of the public. For Fried, this meant it failed as art. To Fried art was successful when it related purely to the inherent properties of it’s medium and could be appreciated for the relevant way it did so. A purely self-contained, self-reflective approach that did not pre-suppose the participation of an audience.
It was an accidental meeting with the Canadian artist Jeff Wall in Rotterdam in the 1990s that spurred on Fried to extend these theories into recent photography. Many of Wall's works have aspects that fit Fried's analysis. Wall's photographs are both anti-theatrical, in that they nearly always depict a person or people fully engaged in what they are doing – in other words, "absorbed" – but at the same time they are deliberately staged for the camera, and their constructed quality is obvious, so they also have an inbuilt theatricality, a ‘to-be-seenness’, as Fried calls it. Fried finds these same qualities, on a sliding scale of ‘absorption’ and ‘to-be-seenness’, in the works of the other artists he examines in the book, Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Thomas Demand, Rineke Dijkstra, and Bernd and Hilla Becher (plus the Bechers's former students at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Candida Höfer). Of course it could be argued that all works of art are made with a sense of ‘to-be-seenness’. Jeff Wall’s works are an excellent case in point, for they are always both absorptive and theatrical, properties which to Wall are both ‘modes of performance’: the subjects are always, in a sense, performing for the camera.
Another aspect Fried does not touch upon is the question why these works were executed as photographs. Again Jeff Wall’s work is a good case to raise this question with. Why should an image that is so clearly staged, composed, self-contained and tableaux-like be executed with a camera? Apparently Wall attaches a great deal of importance to the rhetoric qualities of the photographic medium, involving it’s history, it’s theoretical discussions, it’s vernacular use and it’s position both within and outside of the art world in the ‘theatrical’ performance of the work. Fried never mentions these aspects in the description of Wall’s work. Michael Fried also discusses Andreas Gursky’s ‘Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Dyptich (1994) as completely ‘absorbed’ pictures, and by doing so he ignores the socio-political subject matter and the critical analysis Gursky proposes with his work. Frieds theoretical approach to photography in the art world strongly mirrors Szarkowski’s: the result is an appreciation of photographs purely based on their esthetical properties.
Jorge Ribalta states very forcefully “That Fried is about to become the major theoretician of photography’s current hegemony in the art market is clearly a symptom of regression. Remember Benjamin’s dictum that photography would transform artistic autonomy. Fried means the inversion of that promise, a return to order: photography’s triumph as art means its complete defeat as document. Let’s not forget that the document is the unresolved tension between art and social knowledge, it is not totally art.”
Both Thomas Keenan and Carles Guerra address the issues raised by Fried in the Antiphotojournalism exhibition by including works that are clearly positioned within the art world (for example works by Hito Steyerl, Laura Kurgan, Phil Collins) but leaving room for the reading of them both as aesthetic objects and works with documentary properties.
Photography’s immersion in, and appropriation by the art world has been an exiting and controversial roller coaster ride. It has provoked discussion and the formulating of theory both within the art world as well as in the realm that wants to keep photography outside of the art context. On several instances photography seemed to have been successfully appropriated by art’s concerns, but just as often the medium’s unruly relationship with the real, it’s indexicality, it’s socio-political history and reality, undermined this comfortable place. And by doing so photography shows it’s potentially subversive possibilities that makes the medium so attractive to artists wanting to subvert something... The trick is to keep seeing and using photography within the field of tension that lies between art and document.
2. Antiphotojournalism, an exhibition
Antiphotojournalism is an exhibition that was developed by Carles Guerra and Thomas Keenan. In the fall of 2009, they organized the seminar Antiphotojournalism at Bard College in New York, where Thomas Keenan is the director of the Human Rights Project and Carles Guerra a vesting professor. In the discussions during the seminar, the so-called demise of news photography was questioned, and the critical and alternative accounts of the institution and practice of photojournalism from the 1960s to the present were explored. In 2010, Keenan and Guerra developed the findings of the seminar into an exhibition with the same title, which they co-curated at La Virreina Centre de la Imatge in Barcelona, of which Carles Guerra is the director, between July 5 and October 10 2010 and which traveled subsequently to FOAM, Amsterdam from April 1 till June 8 2011.
The term Antiphotojournalism was coined by Allan Sekula in 1999 and was first published in the book 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle & Beyond, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair’s report on the anti-WTO demonstrations that took place in Seattle in the fall of 1999. Their text is accompanied by 30 photographs by Allan Sekula under the title "Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black]." And accompanied by a short text by Sekula: "I hoped to describe the attitudes of people waiting, unarmed, sometimes deliberately naked in the winter chill, for the gas and the rubber bullets and the concussion grenades. There were moments of civic solemnity, of urban anxiety, and of carnival. Again, something very simple is missed by descriptions of this as a movement founded in cyberspace: the human body asserts itself in the city streets against the abstraction of global capital."
Sekula describes his photography as "antiphotojournalism" because it is preoccupied less with capturing a "defining image" than with conveying "the lulls, the waiting and the margins of events." Sekula formulated a ‘Dogma-style’ program that directly refers to stylistic rules and indirectly criticizes a dominant media-practice: “The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-photojournalism: no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence. " The implicit criticism addresses both the practitioner and the practice of photojournalism.
2.2 What is wrong with photojournalism?
“The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world. On the contrary, photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth. The vast amount of pictured material that is being disgorged daily by the press and that seems to have the character of truth serves in reality only to obscure facts. The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter.” (Bertold Brecht 1931)
Photojournalism has always been critically reflected on, as this quote by Bertold Brecht shows. The main problem resides in the gap between the actual documented occurrence and what journalists choose to read or not to read into it. Professional journalism claims a number of responsibilities and duties, like providing information in a balanced and impartial manner; acting as watchdog for social, economical and political deviance; facilitating public debate. In fact, a range of other types of outcomes are attached to traditional journalism: giving voice to the powerful; occluding or dissimulating dissent; constructing consensus; advocating and championing causes; expressing cultural differences; telling mythic tales; and bearing witness. These outcomes hardly ever come to light or are discussed in the daily use of journalism.
It is remarkable that journalists and news editors, when asked about their ideology, deny having an ideological motivation in their work. The exclusion of conscious values implies the exclusion of conscious ideologies, but the ways in which journalists reject ideology and deal with it when it appears provides a further understanding of how unconscious values and thereby unconscious ideology enter into news judgment. Photojournalism also plays its part in this journalistic practice, both its conscious practice as its unconscious outcomes. These outcomes can be loosely grouped under the term ‘propaganda’. “Mass production requires mass consumption. And there cannot be mass consumption without widespread identical views as to what the necessities of life are” says Jacques Ellul in the first comprehensive treatment of modern propaganda (first published in 1962): Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. According to Ellul one of the main instruments of integration propaganda (a propaganda of conformity and consent) is a biased but seemingly objective news system. Within the discourse of propaganda photojournalism can be viewed as a decisive instrument in constituting shared political views. So mass media play a vital part in constituting a consensual society by presenting occurrences as factual information while obscuring (unconscious) ideological news motives.
Furthermore the way the facts are presented in many media outlets seems balanced (point-counterpoint) but this presentation creates an info-vertigo that either cancels one point with an other or is so confusing to a reader/viewer that he abandons his attempt to understand the background of an issue and accepts the propaganda intent. Good examples of this point-counterpoint technique are represented in the American weekly Newsweek, or in the format generally used by CNN when having representatives of opposite opinions commenting on events simultaneously.
Villem Flusser further develops the role of photography in propaganda in his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983): not the photographer, but the photographic ‘institution’ is the one producing the photograph; that is, the industry that produces the economical-political infrastructure. According to Flusser it is not the photographer’s choice to determine what is photographed, but the photographic institution as such to determine the photographer, and therefore what is photographable. Journalism, and with it photojournalism, is implicated in a constant struggle between its ethical mission and its power position.
Furthermore what is photographable has become more and more a point of contention in the power struggle that is wrought in Western media (and increasingly also in Eastern media). From the First Gulf War on, war has become a battle of images. This war was the first time reporters systematically traveled in an embedded way, journalists were corralled into briefing rooms, far from the battlefield and what they got to see was completely staged by the military using imagery generated by the weapons systems. This became a substitute for actual reporting.
Increasingly images have even become the precondition for events to happen. This is most clearly described by the term ‘photo opportunity’. Such as mechanically generated images of laser-guided bombs, fired to prove military prowess to the viewer. But perhaps most clearly the issue of ‘photo-opportunity’ is described by the reporting that took place during the war in former Yugoslavia. Paul Lowe writes in his text ‘Witness to Existence’ that accompanies his photographs ‘Fellow Travelers: The media in Bosnia (1993-94)’: “I am waiting, along with other journalists, TV Crews, and photographers, to go and see a massacre” . Covering the war from Sarajevo, traveling on a field trip to the site of an atrocity, he realized he operates in a media-constituted environment. Things were happening for cameras. The traditional epistemology of photography presumes that first of all there is something in the world and then, in an independent and neutral way, it is represented somewhere else. The ‘photo opportunity’ however indicates that at least sometimes things appear in the world for the sake of the picture, that they would not happen without the image. This is the reality constituting effect of media practices at work and it is these practices that Carles Guerra and Thomas Keenan critically address with the exhibition Antiphotojournalism.
2.3 Antiphotojournalism, as used by Carles Guerra
The term Antiphotojournalism was taken up by Carles Guerra in a debate with Hilde van Gelder, Dirk Snaauwaert and Alexander Streitberger on may 14, 2009 at Wiels. The debate was about the Antiphotojournalistic aspect of Bruno Serralongue’s work. Serralongue’s practice started in 1996 and throughout his career he has been focusing on highly mediatized events, focusing on the nature of truth and how it is produced. Perhaps his most comprehensive project is ‘Risk Assessment Strategy’ (2002) which he made during a class called ‘Hostile Environment and First Aid’. The course is developed by Centurion, a risk management company, and this class is especially developed for photojournalists facing high-risk situations. The aim of the course is to reduce the risk for journalists sent to a war zone or an area of natural catastrophe. Serralongue shows the activity in a training camp, where journalists learn how to protect themselves from car bombs, mines etc. While the training anticipates future war scenarios, the photo series addresses the fabrication of future media events. In exposing the training of journalists, the author highlights the aspect of ‘mise en scène’ in every mediatized event. Like Sekula, Serralongue explores how today it is possible to develop an empirical knowledge through photography. What are the limits of an aesthetics based on lived situations, on lived experience?
Carles Guerra extended Sekula’s term of Antiphotojournalism, leaving behind the stylistic demands but holding on to its implied criticism and thus opening up the term to a broad field of practices and institutions as a basis for critical and alternative accounts of photojournalism. On their website Guerra and Keenan formulate their interest in the following way:
“Artists, reporters, citizens, scholars, activists and archivists are doing exciting things that link the image to political and social struggles, often in unexpected ways. Their work is interesting in its own right, and for the deeper questions it often raises about the fundamental concepts of photojournalism. What are evidence, access, coverage, reporting, bearing witness, and how are these practices in their hegemonic form increasingly fragile and open to reconsideration? What has actually become of photojournalism today, and how does it stand in sharp contrast to the traditional forms of the practice?”
2.4 Who is Who in Antiphotojournalism
To get a better view of who is actually participating in the construction of Carles Guerra and Thomas Keenan’s definition of Antiphotojournalism it is worth while looking at the list of exhibitors and their characterizations.
Gilles Peress (France, 1946) Member and twice president of Magnum Photos, has been a photojournalist since 1970.
Phil Collins (England, 1970) is an artist. He was nominated for the Turner Price in 2006.
Paul Lowe (England, 1963) is a photojournalist and has won multiple World Press Awards.
Kadir van Lohuizen (The Netherlands, 1963) is a photojournalist who has won numerous prizes for reporting. He is a founding member of Noor Images.
Goran Galic & Gian-Reto Gredig are artists who collaborate since 2002.
Paul Fusco (US, 1930) was a staff photographer of Look Magazine, he joined Magnum Photos in 1974.
Allan Sekula (US, 1951) is a photographer and critic. He was named US Artists Broad Fellow in 1970.
Laura Kurgan (South Africa, 1960) is an artist and director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at the Architecture School of Columbia University. She was named US Artists Rockefeller Fellow in 2009.
The Atlas Group/Walid Raad (Lebanon, 1967) is an artist. He received the Alpert Award in Visual Arts in 2007.
Hito Steyerl (Germany, 1966) is a filmmaker and a critic.
Arella Azoulay (Israel, 1962) is a professor at Durham Centre of Advanced Photography, filmmaker, curator and critic.
Mauro Andrizzi (Argentina, 1980) is a filmmaker, writer and director. He won a Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Decolonizing Architecture/Eyal Weizman (Israel, 1970) is an architect and director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, London. He won the Prince Claus Award for Architecture in 2010.
Sohrab Mohebbi (Iran, 1980) is a curator.
Susan Meiselas (US 1948) is a photojournalist and member of Magnum Photos.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin are artists with an editorial background.
Renzo Martens (The Netherlands, 1973) is a filmmaker and artist.
Robbie Wright, Shane McDonald, Jonathan Cavender are cameramen.
Of the participants 5 are photojournalists, 6 are artists, 2 are filmmakers, 2 are critics, 1 is a curator, 1 is an architect, and 1 is a group of cameramen. A majority (11) of the participants are firmly placed within the discourse of art and only a minority are representatives of the practice of photojournalism. This could indicate a lack of critical reflection within the community of photojournalist as Jorge Ribalta already had pointed out in the interview with Guy Lane in the Catalogue of the exhibition ‘Universal Archive’ in Barcelona in 2009: “In the photojournalistic world, there is no meaningful discussion of what has been termed 'post-photography.”
The continuation of the tropes that dominate photojournalism suggest this to be true. WorldPressPhoto still awards those photographs that represent the iconic image, the heroic figure of the photographer and the mission of reporting of truth from far away places. Just recently Kadir van Lohuizen accepted a large fund gathered by crowd funding to carry out his project ‘Via Panam’ in which he will travel the length of the Panamerican Highway from south to north, reporting on the effects of migration. Apparently there is a large audience that is enchanted by the idea of the lone photographer on a mission and willing to experience this trip vicariously by paying for it.
But it could also mean that there is a strong interest in journalism from within the art world. Art as an emergent form of journalism became a paradigm for ‘committed’ artists and collectives during the 1990s, this became particularly obvious with Documenta X (1997), which was curated by Catherine David (with Jean-François Chevrier). Documenta X provided an extensive theoretical framework for artists working with journalistic methodology. Catharine David expressly wanted to counter the ‘melancholy loss of subject’ that had taken hold of post-modernist art at the hands of post-modernist theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard and Susan Sontag. They had fallen prey to a sort of image fatigue and simply stopped looking. The world filled up with images of horror and they loudly proclaimed that the viewer’s eye had grown unseeing, leaving behind the responsibility to the elementary gesture of looking at what is presented to one’s gaze.
Documenta X invited artists who address social, political, humanitarian and environmental concerns, attempting to construct an alternative to the mainstream news/information apparatuses. These artists use investigative methods in order to achieve a certain amount of knowledge about a problem, situation, individual or historical narrative. Sometimes this artistic practice aims to counter today’s media news of flashy headlines and ‘parachuted’ journalists (those assigned to cover issues, on which they have no possibility of doing research). Sometimes it complements the media view, providing an extra view.
“At a time when advertising, television, the news media, and the digital sophistication of virtual worlds are »swallowing the real in its spectacular representation« (Gruzinski), it seems particularly appropriate to foreground the processes of analysis and distancing at work in the practices of drawing and of documentary photography since the 1960s and sometimes even before (Maria Lassnig, Nancy Spero, Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Robert Adams, Ed van der Elsken). These practices find significant (if indirect) developments in the works of Martin Walde, William Kentridge, Jeff Wall, Craigie Horsefield, James Coleman, Johan Grimonprez, and Anne-Marie Schneider, who have been able to discover contemporary forms of non-spectacular dramatization” . (Catherine David)
Documenta X also gave prominence to historical works of photography’s documentary past (from the '40s to '70s) and reconstructed a context within which some of these well-known works are re-presented. The blending of historical and recent works reconstructed meanings and redefined relationships among established categories of work. For instance Walker Evans’ black and white documentary photographs of New York subway passengers were placed among the urban interventionist work of Matta-Clark, Haacke, and Alison and Peter Smithson. Correspondingly, the series of small-scale photographs of urban streets taken by Helen Levitt in the '40s were so prominently displayed that they encouraged the viewer to reassess the critical potential of these works. These juxtapositions underscored how these photographic practices deviated from the humanist tradition of documentary photography in the '30s and '40s.
“In the age of globalization and of the sometimes violent social, economic, and cultural transformations it entails, contemporary artistic practices, condemned for their supposed meaninglessness or “nullity” by the likes of Jean Baudrillard, are in fact a vital source of imaginary and symbolic representations whose diversity is irreducible to the near total economic domination of the real. The stakes here are no less political than aesthetic - at least if one can avoid reinforcing the mounting spectacularization and instrumentalization of »contemporary art« by the culture industry, where art is used for social regulation or indeed control, through the aestheticization of information or through forms of debate that paralyze any act of judgment in the immediacy of raw seduction or emotion (what might be called “the Benetton effect”).”
The criticism of Documenta X largely pivoted around the notion that David had turned the event into a very serious event with a narrow curatorial approach, but she had been successful in overcoming post-modern melancholia and firmly reconnecting art with the world it functions in.
An ‘art’ approach to journalism and fact reporting is a mode that relates to reality and our experience of the world: art is another attempt to represent the environment we live in, and the way we experience it. If journalism at large can be considered a view of the world (of what happened and its representation), then art would be the view of the view; a tool to question both the selection of the material delivered, and the specific reasons for why things are selected. This is precisely the role the artists included in Antiphotojournalism are representing. Villem Flusser writes in 1983: “For journalism, to include or be included with other formats of information like the arts might result in opportunities rather than limitations, we need to query not the way art and journalism transform the world, but the way they can transform the meaning of the world.”
But some important questions arise from the cross-fertilization of journalism and art: is an aesthetic approach a viable path to bring in critical potential? Can art reinforce investigative journalism, which today has to struggle against lack of time? Are artists and filmmakers, who adopt archive research, interviewing and documentary, able to counter-balance the effect of media manipulation, using the same mechanisms? If the artist-researcher assumes the role of narrator of ‘facts’, does he take responsibility for these ‘facts’?
2.5 How do they do it?
Looking at some of the artists participating in Antiphotojournalism helps to reflect further on what it is that art and journalism can do.
The photojournalists participating in the exhibition are Gilles Perez, Kadir van Lohuizen, Paul Lowe, Paul Fusco and Susan Meiselas. The projects/works they show in the exhibition have all been made outside of the framework of the media they usually would work for as photojournalists, or the work started out as regular assignments and then they break away from their initial intention. According to Thomas Keenan and Carles Guerra the most powerful critiques of photojournalism are just these sorts of deviations, swirls, and divergences from within the practice. This was their provisional starting point for understanding how these alternative practices develop.
Paul Fusco, Funeral Train, 1968
The oldest example in the exhibition Antiphotojournalism, Paul Fusco’s ‘Funeral Train’, was famously ignored by the media and even by his own representing agency Magnum Photos for over 30 years. Fusco’s project begins in a traditional way. He is on assignment for Look Magazine to cover a news event: Robert Kennedy, the presidential candidate, has been shot; there is a funeral; and his body is carried by train from New York to Arlington cemetery in Washington. When the train reaches the first station along its route, in New Jersey, Fusco is “overwhelmed” and “stunned,” to see that the platforms and tracks are lined with people. So he runs to the window, and “photographed everything he saw on the track that day.” He turns his camera away from the object it is supposed to be looking at, toward the people looking at the vehicle of the object. Here the photographic or political interest is neither the funeral nor the burial, but rather the reactions to the funeral train. That gesture of turning the camera away from the icon toward the act of watching itself, and turning that watching into the story itself was a departure that happened from within. He had turned the assignment into a narrative, and the coverage into a story about America, not about the presidential candidate. This is underlined in the exhibition by showing the images in a slide show that enhances the cinematographic experience, allowing for great empathy by the viewer through the images of grieving Americans.
Paul Lowe, Fellow Travelers: The Media in Bosnia, 1993-94
The gesture of turning the camera on the act of watching also occurs in Paul Lowe’s work. Lowe has worked as a frontline photojournalist from the 1980s, but it was during his reporting from Bosnia in 1993 that he started to consciously reflect on his position as a photojournalist in this conflict. Realizing he was playing a part in the reality constituting effect of the media practice that seemed inevitably tied up with the situation, he started to photograph not only his assignments but also the conditions of appearance of those pictures. Lowe photographed the situations surrounding the iconic images and of other photographers at work with the aesthetics of ‘conventional’ journalistic photography: black and white, dynamic/raw composition, the subject in action. Suggesting that this look at the conditions of photojournalism was actually within the same discourse as the topics photojournalism was covering. He even uses the ‘ultimate trope’ of photojournalism, he prints the negative with its frame, the space around the image on the film where the negative numbers are imprinted and the film type can be seen: ‘Kodak TX’. This printing of the frame through time has been a convention that underlined the photographical prowess of photojournalists. Printing the image with the frame meant that the picture was perfect as it was, no cropping had to be done to make it more compelling. Also it signaled that the picture was ‘genuine’, not ‘worked-on’. The work Fellow Travelers: The Media in Bosnia and the accompanying text Witness to Existence were first printed in Camera Austria in 1994 and later included in Lowe’s book Bosnians (Saqi 2005), but never published in mainstream media.
Gilles Peress, The Long Arm of Justice 1999-2010
Throughout his career Peress has worked as a photojournalist within the conventional framework of the media and image distribution (having twice served as president of Magnum Photos). But as it was for Lowe, the war in Bosnia proves to have been a turning point in Peress’ thinking on the role of photojournalism. His book ‘Farewell to Bosnia’ which he published in 1994 is much more a travel-log that also included letters he wrote during that period and other documents. He was rethinking ‘documentary’ towards ‘document’ and ‘documentation’, a working method he further expanded on during his continuous work in Bosnia and also in Rwanda. "I work much more like a forensic photographer in a certain way, collecting evidence. I've started to take more still lifes, like a police photographer, collecting evidence as a witness. I've started to borrow a different strategy than that of the classic photojournalist. The work is much more factual and much less about good photography. I don't care that much anymore about "good photography." I'm gathering evidence for history, so that we remember." The work shown in Antiphotojournalism is a representation of the work Gilles Peress has done in collaboration with the ngo Human Rights Watch and a forensic anthropologist in Kosovo. On May 14th 1999 the village of Cusca near Pec had been attacked and a massacre had taken place by the hands of the Servian military. Peress documented the places and details of what had taken place and later he and his collaborator Fred Abrahams found photographs, taken by the perpetrators of themselves, in a pocket album. The ‘selfportraits’, the images of Peress and the witness accounts of the attack were gathered together in the book ‘A Village Destroyed: May 14’, 1999 (U.California Press, 2002). In the exhibition all those documents can be seen, but also the continuation of events since 1999; 11 of the depicted men have been identified as the actual perpetrators and arrested.
Some of the strategies used to address the problems of photojournalism from ‘within’ can also be observed when artists try to critically reflect on the subject from ‘without’.
Turning the focus from the event on the ‘players’ that bring the representation of the event into the world, like Paul Lowe does, can also be observed in the work of Goran Galic & Gian-Reto Gredig, who have interviewed 32 photojournalists accustomed to working in zones of conflict or disaster. By having them answer questions about personal motivation, hopes and fears, they want to explore the self-perception of the photographers and tilt the power relation that lies usually between the photographer and the subject, towards the photographer and the viewer.
The more forensic attitude to photography, as Gilles Perez describes his attitude, can also be observed in the work of Laura Kurgan, but with a very different approach. She uses high-res satellite imagery to trace alterations in the state of endangered forest areas through time. Changes are registered in different shades of green. Her work, printed in extremely large formats and strangely colored by the coding, both functions as an aesthetic mode of representation (hence the title ‘Monochrome Landscapes 2004’) and as testimony to the possibility that this kind of data-analysis can be done in the civic sphere and is not privileged anymore to governmental bodies. The data are so detailed (resolutions up to 0,5 meter) that any kind of analysis can be conducted from them, any kind of interest followed.
Two other strategies are open to artists and I will discuss them in further detail below.
This strategy strongly takes the gaze of the viewer into account. By creating what Umberto Eco called ‘open works’ the artist invites/challenges the spectator to add his own ‘performativity’ to the work to complete it. It is this mechanism of interaction set by the artists during the creation process, and by the audience during the reception process, in a mutual exchange that gives meaning to the work. Juxtaposition, simultaneity and withdrawal are the main techniques that bring this mechanism about.
The Atlas Group/Walid Raad uses interactivity/performativity for its ongoing project of documenting and researching the history of Lebanon, with particular emphasis on the fighting which stretched from 1975 to 1991. The documents available to The Atlas Group - which include notebooks, films, photographs and other objects – are of uncertain authority, attributed to both real and imaginary characters. The series ‘We Decided To Let Them Say ‘We Are Convinced’ Twice. It Was More Convincing This Way’ presents photographs said to have been taken by one Marwan Hanna during the Israeli attacks during the summer of 1982, but not developed until twenty years later. The story told is that Marwan Hanna was thirteen at the time of the attack and he photographed all afternoon from his rooftop with his new telephoto. The images fall into the familiar genre of ‘bombs on Bagdad from the hotel rooftop’ and the negatives seemingly are touched by the passing of time as seen in stains, discolorations and scratches. But the images are printed on very carefully selected ‘museum-type’ paper which is even named on the text panel. This mode of presentation undermines the expected trope of ‘found footage on old curled paper’. We see 22 pictures in 11 frames, but many of the pictures are fuzzy and hard to make out, although they are all shown as if of equal ‘worth’.
The images, through their ‘chance rediscovery’, show a familiarity of scenes, a scene that has repeated itself so often in the history of Lebanon that it produces an unusual time-lapse effect: the event cannot be securely locked in the archive, in the past, but seems somehow not entirely finished yet. Walid Raad sets up what we can call an open work, avoiding a statement of reality and not claiming to tell what it is all about, but rather proposing a selection of possibilities of reading so that the viewer is engaged to complete the work with his own meaning. Raad withdraws the certainty of authorship, of provenance and time, but he signals the possibility of meaning and a deeper understanding of what it is like to have one’s history be a continuous war zone. The series ‘We Decided To Let Them Say ‘We Are Convinced’ Twice. It Was More Convincing This Way’ does not aim at reporting but at creating empathy.
Interactivity/performativity allows for a representation that is always in a state of becoming.
Walid Raad usually employs withdrawal for this ‘state of becoming’, whereas Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin use, in the work presented in Antiphotojournalism, the notion of simultaneity. In ‘Afterlife’ Broomberg and Chanarin offer a re-reading of an iconic image. It was taken in Iran on August 6 1979 just months after the revolution and it records the execution of eleven blindfolded Kurdish prisoners by firing squad. The image was widely printed at the time and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. The photographer, however was unknown and listed as ‘Anonymous’. Recently a Wall Street journalist discovered him, it is Jahangir Razmi, a studio photographer in Teheran. Broomberg and Chanarin visited Razmi and discussed the photograph and how it came about. They also examined the neglected images on the roll of film that Razmi had produced that day. And from that material Broomberg and Chanarin produce a series of collages. On 14 glass panels the figures of the different victims are visually isolated from their background and combined on the glass panel, the figures of the executed men are taken from the sequence of negatives and these figures depict them at different moments in time. Some of the plates allow for a sense of sequence of occurrence, others show moments that have no narrative connection. The viewer is disconnected from the expected images of distant violence and has to reconnect through the acceptance of the mode of depiction Broomberg and Chanarin choose. The work allows for meaning to oscillate continuously between the proposition and its representation: a tragedy is about to occur to these persons, and it continuously actually occurs in the same image.
Another of the main strategies open to artists can be bracketed under the term witnessing. Witnessing essentially involves time and participation. Both are problematic in the conventional news business. News is largely dictated by timeslots, be it on television or by the deadlines of daily, weekly or monthly publications. It is these timeslots that determine if a story is ready. Participation in traditional journalistic practice is frowned upon. It would impair the objectivity of the reporter.
But time and participation are also essential on the part of the viewer. He has to have time (get time, be invited in) to engage with the subject and add in a participatory way his own knowledge and experience to produce a subjective meaning to overcome the immediacy of the reporting. However, it is exactly this immediacy which has become the main currency of conventional news media. The websites that newspapers perhaps created to report longer or more extensively are primarily used to keep up with the competition of news channels: reporting events as they happen. (There are always exceptions of course, the website of The New York Times being a leading example)
Art is one of the few realms in which time is still negotiable. It is an opportunity to go beyond immediacy. Witnessing is not reporting, it implies a plurality of points of views, a passage of time. Artist and art-institutions can produce works over a period of months instead of minutes allowing the space to think, digest and re-work what has been the object of investigation. This also holds true for the spectator. A carefully considered representation of the witnessing process allows the viewer to repeatedly view the representation and so slowly to build up or develop the topic from within.
In the Antiphotojournalism exhibition there are several artists involved with this strategy (Decolonizing Architecture/Eyal Weizman, Mauro Andrizzi and Susan Meiselas), but most comprehensive is the work of Ariella Azoulay.
In the exhibition Azoulay shows a work which is titled Act of State 1967-2007. It is an archive of images compiled by Azoulay from 80 different photographers. It covers forty years of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The archive is ordered in two simultaneous directions: a continuous horizontal timeline, intersected by numerous fragmented lines branching off in the vertical. Along the horizontal timeline the photographs expose things that changed their appearance/representation from its appearance until then. The theme lines along the vertical axis point to later developments of the particular phenomenon that first appears at a specific point in the horizontal timeline. For example, at a certain moment photographs appear of Palestinian women in the street. They had only been photographed in domestic settings before, but from that moment on they become participants of what is represented in the streets.
The images of the archive are treated as documents that are at once political and historical. As political documents they open up a civic reading of the photographs in which the viewer is participating in the constitution of the persons photographed as citizens, even as their citizenship has continuously been denied by Israel. As historical documents they function as testimonies and traces of historical moments that are reconstructed and investigated. The organising principle Azoulay applies to the archives allows her to offer an outline for a historical narrative that has not existed before. As a result, she avoids a traditional narration, which would tie events causally to each other.
2.6 Are we citizens of photography?
The name of Ariella Azoulay already came up in the opinions of Jorge Ribalta: he remarked that he doubted whether photojournalists were familiar with Azoulay’s theoretical work. It is a relevant remark because, as also mentioned by Ribalta, photojournalism has not yet critically related to what has been termed ‘post-photography’ and the demands for critical practices in the media are radically different from those in the museum. Ariella Azoulay attempts to describe the critical preconditions for photojournalism to continue fulfilling a relevant role in the media. In her book The Civic Contract of Photography (2008) (like in the work Act of State 1967-2007) she puts the term citizenship as a pivotal concept for a ‘deconstructed and reconstructed’ use of photojournalism in a civic sphere.
It is necessary, according to Azoulay, to think the categories of citizenship and disaster together. The association of citizenship with disaster and the characterization of certain populations as being more susceptible to disaster than others show that citizenship is not a stable status that one simply struggles to achieve, but an arena of conflict and negotiation. On the one hand, disaster is declared an exception because it is a situation in which citizens suffer immensely and need special protection from the state (or from their sovereign). On the other hand, certain people or populations governed by the state are declared an exception, and this makes them more vulnerable to disaster, or it abandons them in ways that turn their living environment into a disaster zone. In both cases, photography plays an important role in constituting who and what is the exception and thus enables the distribution and withholding of civic rights. Azoulay attempts to describe a new way of using photography. Photography has been understood as existing in a framework of distinct dominance relations between a photographer, working as a sovereign subject, and a photographed person, who serves the former as an object. But this framework does not take into account that there is always someone watching as well, the viewer has been left out of the equation.
Azoulay reconsiders Roland Bartes’ notion of ‘ça a été’ to open up the role of the viewer. Barthes sought to capture the photograph as testimony to the fact that something ‘was there’. Azoulay critiques this notion to be both melancholia-inducing and sealing the photograph in a shield of inactivity. She claims that when photographs are viewed and not just watched, one cannot fail to observe that indeed the people in the picture where there, but they are still present in the time the viewer is seeing the picture. This introduces the notion that the viewer becomes part of the framework of power and anchors spectatorship in civic duty towards the photographed persons who haven’t stopped being ‘there’. Azoulay proposes a ontological-political understanding of photography. It takes into account all the participants in photographic acts – camera, photographer, photographed subject and spectator – approaching the photograph as an effect of the encounter between all of these. So the civic contract of photography shifts the focus away from seeing or viewing to an ethics of the spectator, an ethics that begins to define the spectator’s responsibility towards what is visible. The spectator is not confined to being positioned as the photograph’s passive addressee, but has the possibility of positioning himself as the photograph’s addressee and thus becoming a citizen in the citizenry of photography, sharing in the responsibility in the arena of conflict and negotiation of citizenship.
Azoulay’s proposed practice of ‘citizenry of photography’ implies that the apparatus, the subject and the viewer are involved in an action that allows none of the participants to be passive. Azoulay formulates the conditions for the civic contract, but she does not formulate the conditions with which the contract can operate. How and where can the photographs that were made within the notion of the civic contract be shown?
Azoulay, Sekula and many others of the Antiphotojournalism exhibition generally choose the museum to show their work. In the next chapter I will investigate the museum as a locus for works like these and what the preconditions might have to be to do this successfully.
3 Antiphotojournalism and the museum
3.1 The museum as a place for activism, how could that work?
During the 1960s cultural institutions accommodated artists’ critique towards their own function and representation policies, and promoted the research and discussion of a wide series of issues in the social and political fields. But already in the 1970s this had become a problematic relationship. Allan Sekula in 1978 felt the museum did not fulfill its potential in reaching the audience he wanted to reach: “I think marginal spaces have to be discovered and utilized, spaces where issues can be discussed collectively, union halls, churches, high schools, community colleges, community centers and perhaps only reluctantly, public museums.” In practice, not many artists reached out to communities in the way Sekula was envisioning, and his own work is mainly seen in museums. (although Sekula is very careful of the context and museums he shows his work in.)
During the 1990s the biennales Documenta X and Documenta 11 and different art venues like Witte de With in the Netherlands re-invigorated the possibilities of art institutions functioning as venues for critical art and debate. They even commissioned works or acted as producers of works. For example Witte de With acted as the producer of several large-scale projects by artists like Allan Sekula (Fish Story 2003) or Lukas Einsele (One Step Beyond 2001-2004). Considering the list of venues these projects subsequently are exhibited in it seems as if art institutions are now the only places where an alternative, complementary account of the world is possible. The exhibition room allows an audience that space and time for debate which is lacking in other realms, especially in the mass media. “Mass “communication” is almost entirely subject to the pragmatics of the one way, authoritarian manipulation of consumer “choices”,” says Sekula in 1978. Art venues can create a space that allows to pose questions and instigate conversations.
But the art context also limits the scope of audience the work can reach, and the questions that arise now are relevant: is this what the subject in the project entered the ‘civil contract’ for? To be noticed only by a small group of people? To serve as a means of criticizing a medium or the function of a medium? As opposed to criticizing the situation the subject finds himself in?
The museum itself is in the middle of a confluence of economic and political interests. Museums and art institutions are given a function within the shift towards a third sector economy, mainly as being part of the leisure industry. In this shift, art and museums become instrumental, a phenomenon best described as the “Guggenheim Effect”. In this context the cultural sphere as an autonomous space of criticism is difficult to sustain.
To step into a museum or biennale with dozens of video screenings about war and displacement may give the unpleasant sensation of being very problematic, of a routine of reporting and cartographic visualization and false participation which leaves everyone in their place. Each project implying a very limited critical practice, they become a politics in themselves instead of working on politics.These works risk being devoid of any influence, because they constitute themselves in limited circumstances and with a very circumscribed audience and do not try to enlarge it. Martha Rosler emphatically states that “no practice of social documentary that sees itself as providing evidence of structural injustice can flourish where there is no model of social progress, of implied routes to get to a better place.”
But it is important to add that art cannot be committed in the same way as politics itself. It is the political commitment of the artist himself, as translated into his work, that subsequently accounts for the political potential of his aesthetics. How can the museum find meaningful and emancipatory methods and discourses that help the artist to manifest his political commitment?
3.2 Antiphotojournalism, why in the museum?
“What are evidence, access, coverage, reporting, bearing witness, and how are these practices in their hegemonic form increasingly fragile and open to reconsideration? What has actually become of photojournalism today, and how does it stand in sharp contrast to the traditional forms of the practice? The exhibition examines some answers to these questions in a genealogy of contemporary antiphotojournalism, from the 1960s to the present.”
In an interview on Antiphotojournalism Thomas Keenan was asked why he chose the visual exhibition format as a means to communicate his thought and criticism about photojournalism. Keenan was trained as a literary critic and came to writing on images only later in his career. He had always felt that contrary to writing on texts, writing on images feels as if there is a limit, a gap between the form, medium, materiality of the writing and what one is writing about. There is mediatic distinction between the analytic material and the things that are analyzed. “This is why I was attracted to the idea of an exhibition. It’s a chance to make an argument visually and to set up a system in which images could start talking to each other, making references, and unfolding arguments in a non-thematized way.”
Keenan is clear about the intentions he and Carles Guerra have with the exhibition as a whole. In the interview with Ozge Erzoy he describes photojournalism as an institution that needs to be critiqued, but not from the outside. He emphatically states that for a critique to be of value it has to remain attached to the institution it is critical about, to be invested in its welfare. “The deconstruction of an institution implies taking a position and making a commitment to an alternative institution. In short, if a thing is worth critiquing, one must take the risk of building the alternative that’s implied by the critique.” The works selected for the exhibition were combined to allow a form of visual thinking that illustrates an alternative set of practices and positions. Keenan and Guerra believe that these practices can criticize but also affirm the possibilities of this institution of photojournalism.
The exhibition was physically organized in a line and there was only one path in the gallery (La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona) The works in the exhibition make use of different moments of rhetoric, one being a tropological dimension, works that aim for a cognitive function of rhetoric, that report, that make a certain moment known and ‘knowable’. Other works use a persuasive rhetoric that aim to generate effects, to get the viewer to do something: vote, buy, go to war. Some of the projects work on the premise that they offer new configurations of ‘what can be seen, said and thought’. Most of the works are representational, and most also alert the viewer to the rhetorical dimension of itself.
The rhetoric of the exhibition itself is one of “and+and+and”, a paratactic viewing. Only at moments do certain works influence the viewing of another. Keenan mentions Hito Steyrl’s work ‘Red Alert 2007’, a video piece which echoes Rodchenko’s monochromes with a red derived from the official palate of the American Homeland Security. The monitors are very bright and can be seen well ahead. Their impressions influence the viewing of other works.
The viewer who visits the exhibition sees one project after the other, entering the particular rhetoric of each project and then taking this along to the next work. Maybe comparing the next with the first, making decisions on which one is more interesting, more successful, tells the story better or involves the viewer more.
As mentioned before, the museum is a place where time is still an abundant commodity, this allows the artist to carefully construct his work and for the viewer to consider what he has seen. Keenan and Guerra claim there is coherence in the alternatives that are given to traditional photojournalism. But the term Antiphotojournalsim reduces the separate works to a coherence that lies in the fact that they all criticize traditional photojournalism. And again the question arises if that is the contract the people in the photographs have entered into, to serve as a critique of photojournalism.
3.3 Antiphotojournalism, which museum?
“A new period opens up for La Virreina Centre de la Imatge.[...] the centre launches a new program aimed at presenting cultural policy as something that can be the subject of exhibition and debate.
The central goal in this new stage in the development of La Virreina Centre de la Imatge is to propose reflection on political and material conditions within the institution. This task will be the main focus of the centre’s activities, whilst particular attention will also be paid to the peculiar fact that its premises are embedded in the headquarters of a body that establishes cultural policy in the city of Barcelona. Taking into account this unusual arrangement, one may well consider La Virreina Centre de la Imatge as the ideal forum for studying how cultural policy is made, from a critical perspective that is located, nonetheless, just a short distance from the administrative offices themselves. From this standpoint, La Virreina Centre de la Imatge should be seen, not as just an art centre, but as a site where images and culture reveal the circumstances behind their very production and distribution.”
This opening statement on the website of the Centre de la Imatge in Barcelona sets the stage for the Antiphotojournalism exhibition. The website makes no qualms of the political and philosophical framework the institution is operating in. In Barcelona it is apparently unproblematic to make such a bold neo-neo-marxist statement. It is clear that this institution has created a thorough context for the critical viewing of exhibitions that have as their theme the way images are used in media. Carles Guerra has been the director of the art institution since 2009 and his exhibition program has consistently built a framework of investigation and critical reflection on art and photography, which he combined with a comprehensive program of additional activities. The Antiphotojournalism exhibition of October 2010 was since followed by an exhibition by Martha Rosler, If You Lived Here Still and a group show with the title 1979, A Monument to Radical Instances. During the Antiphotojournalism exhibition the Center organized a lecture by Ariella Azoulay, a viewing of Renzo Martens’ Episode III followed by a discussion between Renzo Martens, Rafael Vilasanjuan, the former Secretary General of Médecins sans Frontières, Carles Guerra and Thomas Keenan, and a videoprogram showing the complete video oeuvre of Allan Sekula.
The Centre de la Imatge is not alone in its view on the role of the museum in Barcelona. The institution’s points of departure are shared by the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art), with Bartolomeo Mari, former director of Witte de With, as its director and Jorga Ribalta as curator. This museum has an extensive exhibition program, workshops, lectures and community programs. In his article ‘Mediation and Construction of Publics, The MACBA Experience’ (2004) Jorge Ribalta gives an outline of the political and theoretical base the MACBA is operating on. One important aspect of the work is centered around the knowledge that the museum must always be conscious of the fact that there is no such thing as ‘the public’. The MACBA takes as its premise the fact that “publics are elusive forms of social groupings articulated reflexively around specific discourses.”
In many public debates centered around art the public takes a central role. It is the legitimizing principle that is most often spoken of. But in this debate ‘the public’ has been named as a relatively fixed group that has to have access to art and culture as to common goods. The public is identified with consumption and this leads to a homogenization that allows for difference only in terms of marketing. The result is an impoverishment of the critical potential and emancipatory dimension of the cultural experience and a false sense of participation.
The MACBA proposes another approach: “the public does not pre-exist as a defined entity that has to be attracted and manipulated. Rather it is constructed in open, unpredictable ways in the very process of the production of discourse.” The public is being constituted within the process itself and that allows for a reconstruction of a critical public sphere.
In practice this means that the MACBA for example develops both exhibitions and workshops revolving around those exhibitions. Both ‘mediums’ have been carefully prepared around social movements and address different groups. Community involvement, artist involvement, NGO involvement, political involvement and critical thinking are all part of the pallet that take part in the question of mediation and the construction of a critical public sphere.
The art institutions on the Iberian Peninsula are known for their outspoken political views, maybe they were literally jarred by the arrival of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I know that the possibility of a Guggenheim in Sao Paolo Brazil also sparked a very vivid political debate and a growing awareness with artists and art institutions of the ‘commodification’ of the arts.
In this context the Fondacao Serralves of Porto, Portugal is worth mentioning as an institution that has very similar views and methods as the La Virreina Centre de la Imatge and the MACBA. Their exhibition ‘As Artes Cidadaos!, To the Arts Citizens!’ from November 2010 till March 2011 was a bold attempt to open up the critical civic sphere through art. And of course, both these countries are relatively young democracies.
Thinking about Ariella Azoulay’s civic contract of photography, and how this contract demands the viewer not only to see, but also to act, the question arises if this is the approach that can be conducive to this need.
Does the approach Jorge Ribalta proposes both towards the documentary potential of photography, the ‘documentary contract’ or ‘molecular realism’, and the constitution of publics through the constitution of a critical public sphere create the conditions necessary to uphold the civic contract of photography completely?
The Centre de la Imatge provides many of the pre-conditions necessary for this to successfully happen. The Centre has positioned photography and it’s use within a clear critical discourse which is explained, exemplified and discussed through a consistent programmatic approach. Through their comprehensive exhibition program and the ‘extracurricular’ activities, audiences have been involved in the reviewing and discussing of photographical oeuvres or projects within a historical and socio-political context. An openly activist approach by the Centre encourages its viewers to find their own activism.
The loss of a large audience such as mass media could offer is compensated by a carefully managed critical sphere in which these works can be seen and understood by a discerning audience.
3.4 Antiphotojournalism at FOAM
Foam enables people all over the world to experience and enjoy photography, whether it's at our museum in Amsterdam, on the website, via our internationally distributed magazine or in our Editions department.
Foam is for photographers, picture editors, designers and all those who have a passion for photography. We focus especially on exhibitions, publications, discussions and specific projects relevant to contemporary themes in this field. Of course, well known photographers and historical work has an important place on our agenda. But special attention in our exhibition program and elsewhere is also given to nurturing upcoming artists.
Essential to Foam is our extensive international network of photography professionals and partners. They help to plan and develop new projects, ensuring that the largest audience possible can experience the power of photography.
The opening statement of FOAM sets a different framework for the Antiphotojournalism exhibition. The museum is a medium-specific institution and questions and discussions are framed from within that context. Furthermore the museum has been concentrating on its own legitimation for quite a while due to funding and political struggles. This made for an approach to exhibiting that did not problematize photography’s role in the arts, culture and media and addressed a large audience through ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that they took over from other museums. Only in the last two years did FOAM make a start to open up to more critical debate, through organizing a supporting program of discussions and lectures running along their exhibitions and very recently through the ‘What’s Next’ program that is looking at the future of photography.
During the Antiphotojournalism exhibition FOAM organized a discussion on the future of photojournalism between Geert van Kesteren (photographer and former Magnum member), Kadir van Lohuizen (photographer and participant in Antiphotojournalism) and Harald Menk (photo editor of Stern Magazine). Much of the discussion centered around questions of distribution. On the website FOAM published an article by David Campbell, a photography consultant, writer and multimedia producer, and member of the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies at Durham University. His article ‘Photojournalism’s Future’ is largely about funding and distribution. The interview with Thomas Keenan by Ozge Ersoy, which was published in 2010 on www.artteritorie.net, was placed on the website and also a video interview with Zach Wise, a multimedia producer for the NY Times, largely on how the technological evolution of cameras allowed photographers to engage with the moving image.
FOAM reaches a very large audience that could be involved in the goals of the exhibition: a critical debate about photojournalism’s role and most of all a proposition for its future. But has the critical practice of FOAM evolved enough for this to happen? In order for ‘Antiphotojournalism’ not only to be one more ‘blockbuster’ exhibition they have bought, and in order to avoid the exhibition just to be a commodity to be consumed, the museum has to actively constitute a continuous production of critical discourse. FOAM has up till now failed to clearly define what the discourse is they want to produce, contribute to and develop. The museum lacks a clear positioning of its viewpoints on photography’s role in today’s society. FOAM opens up discussions and provides a podium for many different approaches towards photography’s use and roles, but these always seem to remain in a ‘surveilling’ stage. Until now the museum has not yet formulated the discourse from which FOAM would like to address, show and discuss photography.
As a result the Antiphotojournalism exhibition came and went as part of a policy of programming that has ‘surveils’ at it’s core. The audience have seen a surveil of critical practices concerning the photojournalism of today. But none of the exhibitions coming before Antiphotojournalism (W.Eugene Smith retrospective), nor after it (Anton Corbijn photographs his favorite artists), frame this ‘surveil’ in such a way that the audience can gain a deeper understanding and most importantly create an impulse to actively engage with the subject.
When I started this thesis I was mainly driven by an interest in the claim the Antiphotojournalism exhibition was making and in how the museum functioned as a ‘locus’ for this claim. Two writers, Jorge Ribalta and Ariella Azoulay, have given me the main criteria with which to organize and judge the statements made by the curators of the exhibition and other authors.
Jorge Ribalta sheds an analytical light on the precarious preconditions of the documentary claim. He is very precise about what the conditions for this claim are and what endangers them. Furthermore he reflects on the functioning of the museum or art institution as a place for critical civic debate and describes a practice at the MACBA that attempts to instigate and facilitate such a debate.
Ariella Azoulay’s definition of the ‘civil contract of photography’ is a very comprehensive attempt to save photography from a melancholia-induced inactivity. It is all right to look, if the conditions of the contract are understood!
My main question arose from Azoulay’s notion of the civil contract. The viewer is assigned an active role in this contract. But how could the museum set the right conditions for the viewer to become active?
My research brings me to the conclusion that an exhibition in a museum, especially a group exhibition, is a very precarious place to bring the right conditions about for the viewer to become active. Two main reasons have come to the surface.
To step into a museum with dozens of video screenings and photographic series about war and displacement is very problematic. Each project implies a very limited critical practice, and they risk becoming a politics in themselves instead of working on politics. These works risk being devoid of any influence. The projects can become reduced to building blocks that exemplify the curators points of departure, and do nothing more than that.
And in order to avoid the exhibition just to be a commodity to be consumed by an undefined public, the museum has to actively constitute its public by the continuous production of discourse. This demands a great involvement on the part of the museum, not only in time and resources, but also in commitment to the ‘cause’ of the exhibition. So the production of discourse for the Antiphotojournalism exhibition could only take place if it was part of the general discourse the museum is constituting.
FOAM has committed itself to investigating what the future of photography is going to be, and in this light the Antiphotojournalism exhibition seemed like a logical choice. However FOAM did not take into account what the necessary pre-conditions are to successfully frame such an exhibition, so that it can fully play it’s role in a critical civic debate on photojournalism’s future. The works, photographs and videos, shown in ‘Antiphotojournalism’, were part of a ‘civil contract’ the photographers, the photographed and photography had entered into, and FOAM was not (yet) ready for their part of the contract.
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