Safety in Numbness by David Campany

I read this essay because it looked interesting and I enjoyed David Campany’s Handful of Dust exhibition.

I wasn’t expecting to be engaged as I was.  I skim read it, but have printed it to read in more detail.

David says that as video becomes the primary tool of our times, photography is being used less. Many conflicts are covered solely by embedded media staff and their content is then syndicated worldwide. Photographs of this conflicts are often simple screen grabs from video footage. It’s interesting to think that as we fanny around over colour versus black white within documentary photography, that its entire position within the world of documentary is eroding.

I thought the description of Joel Meyerowitz’s imagery of the 9/11 wreckage as “not so much the trace of an event as the trace of a trace of an event” was very apt. The separation in time from the event does also suggest a separation in distance, an emotional remove. Instead of talking about the tragedy, of being outraged, we are looking curiously at the work of one person, who we “know”, we are looking at pictures. There’s almost an emotional Chinese whispers going on – does the message change with each new interpretation? I didn’t watch the program that Campany did. I wonder how the message changes, firstly with Meyerowitz’s unquestionably spell-binding imagery, secondly with the film edits, thirdly with the piano score in a minor key…. The point was made by Campanythat Meyerowitz “can’t avoid the beautiful”. Even when trying to be objective, it’s hard to go against a lifetime of the habit of looking for the best photograph. This contrasts against Allan Sekula’s view that “Social truth is something over than a matter of convincing style”, and his reference to documentary as “this pictorial presentation of scientific and legalistic “fact”.

I have mixed feelings around this work. It is unquestionably well-made and arresting. I wonder if it does too good a job though, does it get us thinking more about the photographer and the image than the environment that he photographed, the people who lost their lives or loved ones, the thousands of lives that were changed? I’m sure that would not have been his intention. Reading this essay straight after the Martha Roslin essay on documentary photography may have coloured my interpretation.

I was interested to read Campany’s views on Roger Fenton’s war photography. He makes the very relevant point that photography then was all about still scenes, there was not the technology yet to capture action. Whereas today’s aftermath photography shows stillness because all the action is finished and the photographer wasn’t there for the action but is there now. Photographers seem to have ended up in the position of providing an artistic photographic requiem. It was interesting too to reflect on some of the images in the Handful of Dust exhibition, including Jeff Mermelstein’s Statue (Double-check).  This looks so much like a film still to me, and this in itself comes back to Campion when he talks about how we actually see the world differently because of film being the predominant medium.

There is much more to write, but this will do at the moment. I now have to look at my A1 images in the light of my new knowledge and consider how far they are aftermath images.

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