Saturday, January 19, 2008

Photography in the Age of Digital Reproduction

(nota bene: this essay was originally written for a Fotofestival in S. Carolina, where it was to accompany a slideshow of imagery culled from contributions offered up by the members of Lightstalkers. The mass of imagery, ably edited by Andy Levin and Bob Black, hewed to no particular theme, but its lack of definition nonetheless did not prevent one from grasping the current trends in mainstream photojournalism. Lamentably the more innovative or experimental elements were largely absent from the fold, but I felt I could still write up an essay that attempted to ascertain where we stood as communicators in the brave new world of digital media, and that is what I decided to discuss. For various strategic reasons, the essay did not appear at the festival, but on rereading it a few months later, I feel that the assessment is solid and that one needn’t have immediate reference to the slideshow in question in order to understand the tenets of the essay.)

Although the slideshow presented here stakes no claim over the territory originally arrogated by the famous Family of Man show, it cannot help but evoke some associations, particularly when we continue to view the state of the world today in terms of such fraught notions as the “human condition.” Much has changed over the years that have elapsed since that ambitious but flawed attempt to sum up the world at mid-century, and while the concept of family received a thorough beating from postmodern critics, the notion of a basic human connectedness somehow has survived and even flourished, seeking its reincarnation in new communication technologies. More than rockets to the moon or supersonic jets, contemporary mass media have served to shrink the globe and connect the centrifugal points of its compass. Along with the internet and cell phones and computers, the digital revolution has also transformed the nature and practice of photography in ways that have yet to be understood or fully exploited.

I remember as a child visiting the 1965 New York World’s Fair and upon entering one of the pavillions being greeted with the Disney theme, “It’s a Small World after All.” Its bouncy melody propelled one through a rosy panoply of futuristic delights. That banal promise of a world happily united through technology turned out to be as hollow as the puppets through whose plastic lips issued that silly song. The world is indeed smaller than ever, but no less dangerous – or marvelous, as we can see in this striking series of images taken by photographers from all over the world. Yet while the ties are all the tighter, the knots don’t seem to bite much into our flesh. Gross inequities continue to demoralize and destabilize the relations between developing and developed nations, but even while a migrant laborer on a banana plantation culls the fruit that eventually provides breakfast for some office worker in a steel and glass tower, that distant but intimate tie created by our international political economy remains somehow invisible. Conflicts are smaller too, they are “local” and widely dispersed. World War seems almost a quaint notion nowadays. But the connections between these local events are more insidious though just as exigent as ever, less a matter of overt alliances between nation-states and more a question of arcane ideas and clandestine links between nebulous entities such as factions or sects or ideologies. We are no doubt all united, all bound together in fateful ways, but we do not yet constitute a civil family. It could be argued that it is ever more imperative for our journalists to explore and document these connections, lest their bewildering complexity frustrate and lead us to a numb resignation. We are just as puzzled as ever by our unfolding history on this planet, and we still need globetrotters like these to etch the milestones that mark our progress.

The possibilities for communication and greater understanding are larger than ever, and photographers can still play a major role in shaping how we think about our world. A digital image is beamed by sat phone from the top of a Nepalese mountain to some media hub from which it is then uploaded to the internet and made available to a variety of screens at billions of points on the globe. The transit of this image negates, if not actually annuls, Time and Space. It also cuts across political and social borders. We hear much about how we are supposedly inundated with imagery, oversaturated and desensitized. Certainly the media wraps us round as never before, and we all feel as if we were living at impossibly accelerated speeds. But I doubt that the wonder and the terror that we experience as we fly through the void on this tilting ball could ever be diminished by the imagery that washes over us; rather it is my hope that this sea retain its salt to sting our eyes. Guy deBord’s specular society remains a threat to our authentic social connections, to be sure, but the greater threat lies in thinking that all imagery is inimical to our making sense of the world. The stories that you find here, many of which were produced independently of the mainstream media, are one indication that the art of storytelling via the still image has in no way lost its power to communicate the meaning and the matter of our existence. While imagery is all the more ubiquitous and instantaneous, and thus in danger of becoming banal for being common as dirt, it is nonetheless capable of affiliating viewers, shooters and subjects in a web of mutual interest and knowledge that is visceral and not vitiating. The images gathered here are as provocative as the proverbial stumbling block, and you will no doubt experience the same satisfying if painful confidence in their reality as did Samuel Johnson when he refuted Berkeley by kicking a rock.