The day before yesterday there was quite a long discussion on Flickr here about what photography students are made to study. A student was complaining about a course where he was required to investigate issues of Feminism and photography. His main point was that the course required him to go into a great deal of depth on the subject whereas an introduction to it might have been enough.
I can see his point – as photographer’s we need to know that art is political but just how much we need to know about any particular movement is open for debate. What is important is to recognise that we all garner meaning from art but that meaning will always be ideologically driven to greater of lesser extent. Think about it, if it were not the case then we would all interpret images in the same way and their meanings would be fixed and not change by place and time. Yet we know it is the case –just read Gombrich’s Art and Illusion or Solomon-Godeau’s Photography at the Dock. But if you haven’t got those books to hand let me illustrate the fact.
Forensic photography is supposed be to evidential and scientific – factual above all else. Yet the approach can obscure rather than illuminate. Look at the image below.
This is my forensic approach to documenting a thumb splint. As you might imagine my shoulders, wrists and hands take a massive amount of pressure because of my paralysis and my thumbs – especially the puffy base of the thumbs – get very very painful and weak. Thus it is the case that when the pain gets too bad I use wrist and thumb splints and this is a photo of one that I use. I’ve used a flash to illuminate from the front, I’ve labelled the items and used a ruler to provide a sense of scale. But this doesn’t really tell the viewer much about the item in terms of its application and use. Indeed unless you have used one I would argue it tells you very little. Compare the photo with this alternative below.
I think this approach of showing the item being worn and in context is much better. My body provides the sense of scale and the fact the the item is in situ being used shows its function and purpose. Accordingly neither of the above images are objective in the sense of being value neutral – they both show an index of the referent – but do so in ways that connote as well as denote.
Indeed when people start talking about documentary or forensic photography as providing “objective” evidence I think of my research into Eugenics and photography.
Governments in Britain, the USA and Germany began to apply policies based on the theory of Eugenics from the 1870s through to the end of the Second World War. Not only did the theory explain many social ills such as crime, poverty and disability, but it did so in a way that individualised these phenomena and ignored structural, economic and political explanations (John Tag – Evidence, Truth and Order: Photographic Records and the Growth of the State in The Photography Reader by Liz Wells published by Routledge 2003). Some writers have argued that such an approach could not have been popularised without the application of photography (Picture Imperfect Photography and Eugenics 1870-1940 by Anne Maxwell, published by Sussex Academic Press 2008, 2010 edn).
For example, while some photographers such as Muybridge were working with forensic photography out of a general interest, others were applying similar techniques in order to classify people into types. For example, researchers such as Lousie Agassiz in the USA, Thomas Henry Huxley in England and the Dammann brothers in Germany were all applying a comparative forensic photographic approach to people in order to define common characteristics of lesser races, criminals, the feeble-minded and mad people in order to help direct and inform Governmental social policy (Maxwell 2010). They were successful too.
By 1935 the impact of the theory was so great that policies in the USA and Germany had been adopted whereby disabled people were routinely classified, disenfranchised and institutionalised. Indeed the policy was to become so strong that by the beginning of World War Two the classification and institutionalisation of disabled people would widen to include their mandatory sterilization and an adoption of euthanasia in the USA and Germany (Maxwell 2010).
So this was a limited but powerful approach of photography in representing disabled people as sub human but doing so in a way that purports to be scientific and objective. Yet when you look at the images of the Eugenicists they are far from documentary or neutral. Photographing people using harsh lighting can give a sinister air to the subject; removing contextual information such as clothes and make up can remove a sense of human identify and so make people appear different from the viewer; engendering particular meaning with supporting texts can drive a particular connotation. Look up the photographer’s mentioned and judge for yourself whether all photography is political.