The following observations are based on my reading of the essay “Inside / Out” by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, which first appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition “Public information: desire, disaster, document” held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art between January 18 and April 30 1995 (1).
Central to Solomon-Godeau’s essay is the perspective of the photographer and how that may influence the interpretation of the results. She cites two possibilities in that respect: the “outsider” perspective, characterised by a detachment from the subject, lack of empathy and, at an extreme level, “…rejection of all the hallmarks of photographic authorship…” (2), and the “insider” perspective, which involves engagement between the photographer and its subject (including on occasions direct participation in the events depicted) as well as privileged access to the intimacy of the latter.
At some point in the essay Solomon-Godeau talks about the implications of the two perspectives according to contemporary photographic critics including Marta Rosler and Susan Sontag, hinting that the “outsider” perspective has perhaps the more negative connotations, associated with voyeurism, objectification and expropriation / disenfranchisement (by the “outsider” of his/her subjects), whereas the “insider” position is associated with a more humane, sometimes even more compassionate, approach to the subjects. Yet, Solomon-Godeau believes that in reality the distinction is not as clear-cut, due in part to the limitations of the photographic medium itself: photographs are only able to capture what is visible and nothing beyond that. Consequently, no amount of intimacy or engagement with the subjects by “insider” practitioners is able to overcome the fact that photography “…remains fixated on the outside, that it cannot tell what the photographer knows, it cannot reveal a truth of the subject.” (3), and as a consequence, it may not be possible to separate, either in form or in content, an “insider” picture from that produced “superficially” by somebody taking it from an “outsider” perspective. The issue is further complicated by the interaction between photographs and their viewers. Indeed, some examples of “insider” work cited by Solomon-Godeau in the essay, such as Nan Godin’s “The Other Side” or Larry Clark’s “Teenage Lust” contain images of vulnerable groups of people (drag queens in the former, teenagers performing sexual acts in the latter), that, in spite of the author’s best intentions, may still be perceived or interpreted as being portrayed in an objectivising, exploitative manner simply by virtue of the viewer’s prejudices.
Paradoxically, perhaps, Solomon-Godeau argues that the cold detachment of the “outsider” perspective, by being more attuned to the superficiality of photography as a medium, is capable of achieving a certain degree of unambiguous authenticity, which Solomon-Godeau has termed “a truth of appearance”, achieved by a presentation of the subjects “…with a sort of principled modesty and discretion [that] refuses “interpretation” altogether” (4).
The implications of Solomon-Godeau’s argument are interesting. The “insider” approach, by virtue of its intimacy, is capable of giving the viewer access to points of view that would otherwise not be accessible, but at the same time, because pictures are not capable of providing any clarity beyond their surface, the resulting ambiguity could give way to interpretations which are considered as exploitative or objectifying. This is avoided somewhat by taking an extreme “outsider” perspective that, by refusing the subjectivity of artistic interpretations, contents itself with embracing the authenticity of what is being shown, without looking for any further meaning or truth beyond the surface. In my opinion this latter position is too safe, and is perhaps also untenable in reality. The examples quoted by Solomon-Godeau in her essay are perhaps in the extreme ends of the perspective spectrum and is likely that most photographic practices will fall somewhere in the middle of the inside / outside duality. It is hard to argue that a photographer can be wholly objective most of the time: we all have prejudices and preconceptions and will develop various degrees of attachment to our subjects, all of which will influence how we photograph them. Even if it were possible to be completely neutral vis-a-vis the selection of subjects (like for instance, when we photograph indiscriminately a collection of similar objects) it would be difficult to conclude that the photographer is not exercising its artistic interpretation when, for instance, he or she decides to take the series of pictures in a certain style.
As a practitioner, most of my work at the moment could be seemingly classified as being on the “outsider” end of the spectrum, in as much as I tend not to have a relationship or attachment with the people or objects that I photograph, other than a temporary attraction. But alternatively, I could turn this around and say that my temporary attraction to these subjects comes from inside me, from a picture that forms in my mind and which in many cases differs from the reality captured by the camera, and that these pictures are all somehow related. This potential “insider” perspective, which could at some point turn autobiographical, is presently plagued by the limitations of the medium, as mentioned by Solomon-Godeau, which prevent me from effectively transmitting thoughts and feelings into something that can only hold what is on the surface.
(1) Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. “Inside / Out”. Public Information : Desire, Disaster, Document. Kara Kirk and Fronia W. Simpson. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1995. 49-61. Print
(2) Idem, p 51.
(3) Idem, p 58.
(4) Idem, p 60.