Assignment 2 – Initial idea 2 – Dissagreement

How do we deal with disagreements? I have been thinking about this a lot in the context of recent political events that have polarised public opinion, including the Brexit referendum and the independence referenda in both Scotland and Catalonia. From a purely observational perspective it seems we more or less follow the same mechanisms when dealing with disagreement: we shout and fight, we get mad with others, we put forward our arguments and most of the time we pretend that we listen to someone else’s. Then we sulk and retreat, in some occasions for a few minutes and some other times forever. The matter that we disagree with seems to be put in the back of our heads, but is it really there?

Perhaps more interesting that the external manifestations is the internal process of dealing with disagreement. What, from inside us, drives our reaction? Why is it that in many cases we are capable of reflecting ex post that the way we have behaved is incorrect but still do it again exactly the same over and over again? Why is it too hard for us to accept other people’s views, or at the very least cope with the fact that they are entitled to their opinion? More importantly, perhaps, how do we move on from the frustration that disagreement may bring, accepting that is a fact of life, rather than allowing it to surface every now and them and make us eternally bitter, with ourselves and with others? It seems, at least for some, that conflict and confrontation are hardwired into our human nature (a discussion about this can be found here), so this may explain our tendencies to disagree, to rebel against others challenging our closely held beliefs. The physical representation of disagreement in imagery has ranged from direct depictions of wars, insurrection and other atrocities, animals looking horns; to indirect representations via symbols of disagreement (eg thumbs ups / thumbs down, signs pointing in different directions, etc). But the process of dealing with conflict internally, and the stages this process goes through, may be harder to depict. One way of trying to make sense of this is to look at Kohlberg’s moral development theory (see link to the relevant Wikipedia page here), which describes various stages of moral reasoning within humans, typically moving up as we age (but in some cases with people being stuck in a particular stage for a very long time, regardless of their age) and which tries to explain the evolution of the motivations behind our reasoning when dealing with moral dilemmas, including conflicts / disagreements. Without going too deep into this, the stages could be summarised as follows:

  1. Obedience / punishment orientation: when actions / decisions are dictated by the need to avoid punishment
  2. Self-interest orientation: when actions are determined purely by a personal gain motivation
  3. Interpersonal accord and conformity: when actions are determined by social customs / norms and the need to conform to social standards.
  4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation: when actions derive from a desire to conform to legality and to maintain order / status quo
  5. Social contract orientation: when actions derive from a desire to achieve the greater good for the majority of people, understanding and respecting the opinions of others.
  6. Universal ethical principles: when decisions are driven by abstract reasoning about what is just, rather than on norms and conventions.

Most of the stages shown above are observable at some point of individual and social development, except perhaps for the last one which appears to be theoretical (Kohlberg believed it existed but could not find any examples of it)(1). While this theoretical framework about our moral motivations may be disputed by many (2), it does provide a basis for the graphic exploration of the different ways in which we deal with conflict / disagreement, perhaps by looking at ways of illustrating the behaviours associated with these stages, or by depicting signs/situations that may evoke feelings associated with such stages: punishment, greed, social conformity, law and order, respect for others and justice/fairness.  Another approach would be to emphasise, within the photo essay, only a few stages over the rest, by way of commentary on what one feels about the lack of evolution of our moral compass as a society and how the system seems to operate at one stage on paper (eg social contract) while many individuals seem to operate under a moral compass seemingly motivated mostly by self-interest or fear of authority / social order.

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  1. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – Wikipedia. 2017. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlberg%27s_stages_of_moral_development. [Accessed 07 November 2017].
  2. Kohlberg – Moral Development | Simply Psychology. 2017. Kohlberg – Moral Development | Simply Psychology. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/kohlberg.html. [Accessed 07 November 2017].
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Assignment 2 – Initial idea 1 – The moment of death

I have been thinking about the concept of death for some time, not only in the usual sense of the end of life as we know it, but in the more cartomancical interpretation of death as change, particularly permanent and irreversible one. There are potentially many of these changes throughout life, and sometimes it becomes clear when they happen, but in many other occasions we are not paying enough attention to notice, or we simply do not have the foresight to see them, only manifesting themselves many years later. The worst cases are those in which we refuse to admit change, even though it is painfully obvious, or when we are too pessimistic and believe there is inevitable, fateful change when there is still hope.

It is quite interesting then, that I have recently come across, as part of my research into Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, a video (see link below) in which towards the end Calle talks about another work titled Pas Pu Saisir La Mort (Impossible to catch death), which consists of 11 minutes of video showing the last moments in the life of Calle’s mother.

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She mentions in the interview that it was not possible for her to “…know if she was alive or dead. That moment that I have caught, where you don’t know, you could put your finger, like on the last book, the last mile, the last phrase, the last words, but the last second, the last breath was impossible to catch”(1). While I am not particularly concerned about the moment of physical death, I share her view that is quite hard to capture the precise moment when “death”, as a metaphor for irreversible change, takes place. In the case of Pas Pu Saisir La Mort, this was shown as successive persons putting their fingers in front of Calle mother’s nose and mouth, trying to ascertain if she was still breathing. In this work, the materialization of the concept is made clear by the context (somebody lying on their death-bed, people trying to ascertain), but in a more ideal sense, when we are dealing with circumstances that are less tangible, like broken relationships, falling out of grace with a mentor, leaving the village we were born into to seek a new life, it is hard to sense when permanent change happens.

I have been thinking for some time about how to represent this irreversible change in photography. In video, as seen in Calle’s work referenced above, the moment of change can be broken down to fractions of a second or slowed down to allow the viewer to digest and understand the moment. In literature, a moment can also be stretched over several paragraphs, freezing time even more effectively than movies. Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga was a master of this, particularly in his short stories such as Wild Honey (translation available here), Adrift (translation available here) and The Dead Man (original Spanish here, summarised in English here). A photograph, on the contrary, seems to contract rather than stretch time, showing just a frozen moment, fractions of a second. Unless that moment is followed and preceded by other moments, like in a sequence, it is hard for an image to capture the essence of a concept in just a moment. As a best approximation, one could imagine, for instance, that a carefully selected still from Calle’s Pas Pu Saisir La Mort could successfully convey the idea that we are in front of somebody who has just died. But that in itself does not fully evoke the feeling of uncertainty, the anguish or the resignation that change brings, particularly when one realises that the change has happened. Furthermore, those feelings may be fully interiorised by the affected subject, which further complicates their graphic representation.

My first attempts at trying to capture these feeling was through photographing temporary objects: bags, leaves, cigarette buts. These objects may degrade and change over time, some faster than others, but I was primarily concerned about their permanence among us, which is even shorter. A leave or a plastic bag do not stay still on a windy day, and many of these objects are swept on a daily basis. We see them today, and maybe again tomorrow, but then they disappear from our lives for ever, never to be seen again. That is the essence of change, expressed through objects to which we have no attachment and consequently, incapable of generating any concern or anguish to us, but change nonetheless.

Another possibility, which is one I could explore in this assignment, is to look for signifiers of permanent change, items that evoke the idea rather than the idea itself. There are many of these that are universal, others are more local and yet some others are quite personal, and sometimes it is hard to perceive which is which. An additional challenge with this approach is that some of these signifiers may be temporary in themselves, part of a change which we perceive as permanent but that with sufficient time, mainly beyond our lifetime, may actually turn temporary. At some point, it becomes debatable if a change is permanent or not and I think it would be interesting to see how my selection of signifiers tallies up against the opinion of the viewers.
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(1) Venice Biennale: Sophie Calle | Tate. 2017. Venice Biennale: Sophie Calle | Tate. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/venice-biennale-sophie-calle. [Accessed 21 October 2017].

Research notes – Gregory Crewdson

I initially came across Gregory Crewdson when flicking through an American photography magazine. One of his famous tableaux images (link) was featured as part of an advertisement from a well-known print manufacturer. I remember looking into him at that time and noticing that, like Jeff Wall, whose pictures I had seen before, Crewdson primarily works with carefully staged scenarios. Unlike Wall’s, Crewdson’s images have a distinct quality that make them immediately obvious as to being staged (see this, for example), but at the same time intriguing enough for one to stop and ask why has this been set up and what is the photographer trying to tell me.

I decided to look at Crewdson images again for this part of the course because for one of the exercises as well as for assignment 2, I was going to rely heavily in props and made up situations, and I wanted to try to understand how these images work at a general level, without any pretensions as to being able to produce anything near that quality, at least for the time being.

The image referenced in the first paragraph is part of Crewdson’s series “Beneath the Roses” and this was my starting point. The book covering this (1) is generously sized but does not do justice to some of the images, which are printed to very large formats (about 1.5 by 2.2 meters). Crewdson’s subjects can sometimes occupy a very small part within the frame, and looking at the original size print would have helped to look at the details of this. Many of the images share common visual elements, and in some cases I found that there were pictures that were too similar and I started to question whether it was necessary to include all these images in the book. I presume not all these pictures are shown together in a show, so it may just be a case of the photographer trying to give us the full set of images produced for the series, like a full body of work, rather than a condensed, curated view.

In “Beneath the Roses”, Crewdson presents us with dark, eerie view of suburban life. The images were mostly taken at night or during the twilights. Artificial light plays and important role in the images, in some cases being the only source of light – some of the images were taken inside a soundstage – but even in the outdoor pictures artificial light is used to emphasise the location of the subject (see this, for example, where the car at the junction is illuminated from the inside). I also like how Crewdson mixes light sources, with many pictures having a mix of both warm and cold light that emphasizes the vivacity of the images. Most of the indoor images are contrasty but have a slight HDR quality to them, probably created by the lighting effects employed during production. This emphasizes the sense of staging that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Crewdson’s subjects are rarely doing something in the pictures. Most of the time they are static, motionless – standing or sitting – or just walking, seemingly aimlessly. There is almost no interaction between subjects in the frame and this also adds to the oddness of the images. Some of them look like taken from a dream, like the image of a man digging out suitcases and moving boxes in the middle of the forest (link). In others, the action of people make no sense, like in the image of a lady, who has presumably just got off a taxi and is standing in the middle of the road barefoot, pensive, with people remaining in the taxi looking to the front, away from her, oblivious to the fact that she left the taxi door open (link). I looks like rather than showing the decisive moment, Crewdson images are taken moments before or after that, capturing instead an odd moment. All in all, the people in these images look lonely and the overall impression one gets from the images is that of sadness and self-absorption.

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(1) Crewdson, G., 2008. Beneath the Roses. 1st ed. New York: Abrams.