Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ideals and polemics

A Hoopoe threat display, the white in thebackground is plastic
Susan Sontag levels many charges at photography in her essay 'In Plato's cave' in On Photography. Sontag's criticism of photography and this book in particular has apparently had a checkered history, rebuttals and denials and elaborations. Even today, Sontag's name on LS is not a exactly liked. Nonetheless I believe that one has to engage with what she says, think about it and digest it, perhaps eventually deny it. I can't seem to ignore it easily.

Hoopoe foraging
While I was shooting the Hoopoe, one of the things that bothered me a great deal was the plastic that was littering the place. Especially since it got into the backgrounds of my frames and 'screwed' things up. I found myself constantly attempting to find a composition that left out the litter. At some point, I gave up and made a few frames where it was part of the image. It even became the point of the image for me. The image now took on a political message. It's a simple message, that wild animals are forced through our carelessness to root through our filth to get by. That we pollute their environments and that we oughtn't to.

Black headed cuckoo-shrike female with a plastic bird
Both sorts of images were driven by separate notions, one of how an certain image becomes a political/environmental message and one of how animals should be depicted, with no trace of 'the hand of man'. Or at least no obvious visible trace. It's interesting that this particular qualification is actually a requirement in some competitions. The hand of man is an odd concept, while it is overt in a plastic infested image, it isn't necessarily missing elsewhere. Biologists now constantly question and discard the notion of a pristine environment. Leakey and Lewin push our ability to influence biology large scale back to pre-history! So these ideals are not real, they lie within our own sensibilities, (some would argue, evidently, so what?). Well, why is this the mode that dominates wildlife photography? If you doubt this, visit any nature photographers forum, pristine, isolated and completely 'natural' is the dominant visual image. Nothing could be further from reality, so why is the rank and file producing 'idealized' beautiful images? This, off course, is a charge Sontag levels, that animal photographers produce idealized images.

A common myna attempts to use a plastic cup to line her nest
Off course you'd argue that there are people who address this in their photography, and I would concur. Nick Nichols does, a few landscape photographers do. There are the beginnings of this in a few small places, here and there. I'm not qualified to say if it's a trickle or a flood (Indian bookstore's photography sections suck), but it's only just begun. The story of the wild world today is not biology; its conflict, conservation, climate change, what have you.

Or is it? Or is that the merely what is current conversation, what is now happening within our discourse. Has this always been the story? Maybe even the scale of human effects has not really changed that much, we are just closer to our own extinction hence the panic? I admit that this is hard to disentangle. Sontag argues that photographs begin to be there, be viewed, be appreciated and make an impact only in if the political sensibility that guides them already exists. She uses the Korean war and the Vietnam as examples. She argues that the photograph of Kim Phuk from Vietnam was seen and considered outrageous not only because of what was in it but also because the American people were in a certain political mindset. There were many such (maybe not as evocative?) pictures from the Korean war, but since that war was seen as an Us against Them (the commies) that these images did not enter public consciousness (actually not me, I'm Indian, but Sontag was American).

White breasted water hen on floating garbage
And yet people publish the '100 LIFE photographs that changed the world'.
One can't argue that these weren't powerful images. Which came first the chicken or the egg? The sensibility to see and hence react to an image? Or the reaction from the image and hence the sensibility?

When I look at my own images, I am often surprised by how easily they could cut both ways. That one could surmise by seeing a bird among garbage both that it is hindered by it, and that the scene is unpleasant. One could equally well think that it is assisted by it and the existence of garbage does not hurt the bird at all. I, off course, usually feel the first (not second), but this no reason to believe that it is the most common story conveyed.

Blue capped rock thrush among garbage
Are photographs then intrinsically neutral? No, they reify and ascribe value to certain specific things at certain specific times, so not entirely. Maybe that's not the right question. Are they useful on their own to make a certain specific political point. Perhaps not. That then limits a photograph, even photography's scope somewhat. It makes both less free-standing. They become poor polemical devices. It requires photographers to take verbal/written control of their photographs if they are to communicate. (Do read Jim Johnson on Ed Burtynsky 1, 2.)

Not such a hard thing in Web 2.0, but perhaps a new thing for some? And even if we do speak for them, will we be heard. Will the images be taken from what we intend to whatever anyone intends once they are out there? Where's the control to rest, is there control?


Rahul said...

"I, of course, usually feel the second" -- I suppose you meant you usually feel the first? Surely the garbage would usually hurt the bird, if not immediately then indirectly.

Natasha said...

Yes, I meant the first, thanks for catching that :). Bad writing practices die hard, hadnt proof it.

Theriomorph said...

These are spectacular shots, Natasha (came over from CRN). All the more *because* of the litter, the evidence of how our human behavior impacts wildlife. Beautiful and meaningful work, glad to have found it!

Natasha said...

Thanks theriomorph