The following notes come after reading David Campany’s essay ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography”’, first published in David Green ed., Where is the Photograph? (1).
Campany’s essay focuses on the role of photography in contemporary documentary practices. One of the arguments made is that with the growing popularity of video from the late part of the 20th century, photography’s role in documenting current events has moved from capturing the action (ie being in front of it) to a depiction of the aftermath (ie being behind the events). The reasons for this, according to Campany, are not directly related to technological changes as such, but to the transformation of photography’s place in culture, with photography now being “much less the means by which the event is grasped” (1) in news outlets, while “Video gives us things as they happen” (1). The popularisation of television first and then social media / alternative digital distribution channels in recent years have meant that people consume current events more through moving images than stills, which are more attuned to increasingly unpopular news outlets like the printed press or magazines.
According to Campany, the “aftermath” focus of photography in recent documentary practices is also partly attributable to another cultural shift, which is the use by moving image outlets (Campany singles out television and the cinema) of still images as some sort of “…instant history or memory that they, as moving images, are not” (1), which Campany believes may have “…cemented the popular connection of photography with memory…” (1). It is not entirely clear why the still photograph is more “memorable” than the moving image, but Campany believes this may be connected with the simplicity and compactness of information of still photography, compared with the complexity and large amounts of information that would need to be consumed at fast speed while watching a movie or television programme. This simplicity of still photography, and (although this is not explicitly mentioned by Campany) its superficiality, being only able to capture what we see in an instant with limited narrative powers, also allow it to remain ambiguous and open to interpretation, a characteristic which is particularly present in “aftermath” photographs taken after the events.
In the essay, Campany makes reference to a project undertaken by Joel Meyerowitz to photograph Ground Zero in NY while they were cleaning the remnants of the World Trade Center. These photographs, taken after the event, have a certain aesthetic component that Campany argues is probably impossible to avoid for a photographer with a long experience like Meyerowitz, that have develop a certain style that is now become second nature. The danger, according to Campany, is that with “aftermath” photography the removal from the events depicted combined with a desire, even if unconscious, to capture what is attractive to the eye may elicit “…an aestheticized response.” (1) and could “…easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance” (1).
On a personal level, a lot of my photographs in recent months have been of the “aftermath” type. While I do not normally do documentary photography as such, and I am not trying to reflect on events of historical significance, I recognise there is a certain ambiguity in my pictures which may be disconcerting. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if that was the response I am trying to elicit, but sometimes I feel the aesthetic elements of the picture are too overpowering and it is not clear what the actual intention of the picture is, even if I may have an idea about what I want to say. With this type of photography, and particularly in circumstances that are not specifically tied to an event, it is crucial to be able to hit the correct balance between form and content. Form should be able to create and sustain attention just enough so that content can build a narrative, particularly over a series of photographs.
(1) David Campany. 2017. Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ – David Campany. [ONLINE] Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/. [Accessed 06 July 2017].
The essay was reproduced in the author’s website, from where it was accessed.