COLLATERAL DAMAGE

These are trying times. Many people have been pushed into a corner, or at least desperate straits, by neoliberalism (culture) and Covid-19 (nature). Not to mention the general stress of their lives since birth.

A cornered animal is a dangerous animal. A screaming, kicking, biting animal. This includes human beings. Paradoxically many animals (us included) have an almost unlimited capacity for suffering.

But right now, folks are in a fighting mood. Push has come to shove. And every push by the hard done by will be met by an even harder pushback by the powers that be.

One of the battlefields in this war is Cancel Culture.

I’m not going to explain or rationalize Cancel Culture here. There are many broad generalizations and lots of hair splitting about what Cancel Culture is. You will, if you’re interested, do your own research, your own soul-searching, arrive at your own interpretation.

One thing is certain, though . . . the fight is on and something’s gotta give. Both sides (let’s agree for now to this binary term, even though it’s more complicated and splintered than that) . . . both sides will pull out all the stops. And that inevitably leads to a certain amount of categorical thought and overreaction.

Thing is, polite discourse won’t get you very far: big change can only come from passionate overreaction. Because of this there’s bound to be some collateral damage. Once in a while the wrong statue will be pulled down, sometimes a not so guilty party will be swept up (and away) by overblown rhetoric. Occasionally, the finger will be pointed at an innocent bystander.

And that totally sucks if you are the one unfairly maligned. But in some situations, collateral damage is inevitable. The pendulum of politics and culture only passes by the sweet spot of balance for a short while as it swings from from one extreme to the other. Contrary to popular opinion, nature doesn’t do balance very well; evolution only comes from turmoil.

These are revolutionary times. At least in some sectors, some countries. And revolution is a messy business. Shit will get broken. So be it. I’m for it.

But . . .

I’ve been shaking my head recently at some photoland social media storms (or are they tempests in a teacup?).

This is, I believe, related to Cancel Culture. Andrew Molitor puts it well when he says: Cancel Culture is the ambient set of attitudes that supports and enables social media mobbing.

Let me get this straight: I have no problem with calling people out, though I typically do that under the radar, person to person. In other words: not performative. And fighting back is a good thing. When it comes to photo-culture at large I do my fighting on a public basis. 

I’ve been on record for, like, ever as a person who salutes people who are actively working to challenge/change the status quo. Conversely, if you are content with the status quo, well . . . you suck. 

And, yes, there is much room for improvement and deeper perspective, more empathy, when it comes to how I comport myself. I make mistakes. Don’t you?

Okay . . .

Lately, probably because of the Zeitgeist, I’ve been seeing some overly righteous indignation on my photoland social media feeds. (note: my photoland media feeds are not comprehensive.) And I can’t help but notice that these mostly come from white men. They are outraged! at the racism extant in the history and certain current practices of photoland.

I’m all for examining the structural racism and classism that plagues much of photography. Some of the issues they raise should be aired and discussed. But their take on these things seems to be based on bias rather than perspective, reasoned discourse is missing. Their criticism boils down to: I don’t like it and if you like it, or have a different interpretation, there’s something wrong with you . . . and you’re probably a racist.

Conversely, almost everything I read from people in the BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ communities that pertains to representation in photography is more balanced and believable. They have more skin in the game, their lived experience informs their perspective.

Now, I’m not suggesting that white cisgendered people should just shut up. We need to ally with and stand beside the communities who have the most to fight for. We should be prepared to give up our privileged position, be willing to make way.

Of course we should be outraged. But when outrage outweighs perspective what you end up with is fundamentalism.

The way forward must be fuelled by revolutionary passion, and that passion can be quiet and/or loud. But if the revolution (or whatever it is that’s happening now) . . . if the revolution is to be successful, reason must play as big a part as passion.

COLLABORATING WITH THE STATUS QUO

I don’t like fundamentalism. Categorical thought leaves no room for expansion or discovery, it’s limiting, a fallback position for just not thinking.

Problem is, I fundamentally can’t stand fundamentalism, and that means I am a fundamentalist. Fuck me!

In my favour, though, I’m aware of that tendency in myself and do my darndest to mitigate it. I try to always remind myself that there’s more than one side to everything, to every life. And I remind myself, too, that humans are not the great logical beings we think we are; we are ruled by our emotions. And we’re pretty much emotional wrecks, aren’t we? So there’s that.

I’m less forgiving/sympathetic, though, when it comes to the fundamental political proclivities of certain human beings. Take, for instance, anti-vaxxers, neoliberals and their ilk. (You know the type I’m referring to.) I get that they are, like all of us, ruled by emotion, but their fundamental belief is detrimental to others, their selfishness is a menace to society. But there’s no point in arguing or trying to change their minds, is there?

So I’m torn. On the one hand I accept this crazy, imperfect world as it is, accept that we’re all just human (all too human). On the other hand there are certain issues, politics, approaches (call it what you will) that I believe are worth standing up and fighting for (however that fight might manifest itself, however fruitless that fight may be).

And I admit that some of the stuff I feel the need to fight for is pretty trivial. (One of my ambitions is to care less about the stupid stuff. I’m working on it, cut me some slack, will ya!)

One of those stupid things (oh how I wish I cared less) has to do with photography . . .

The photography I’m seeing (and here I’m talking about “serious” photographers’ work) . . . the photography I’m seeing seems to mostly feature two approaches. Broadly speaking:

  • You’ve got folks who are interested in photographing and contextualizing the social and political aspects of the times. (Here is a link to an in-depth look at what I consider political photography.)
  • On the other hand you’ve got folks whose images seem to imply nothing much has changed. I see these kinds of images as being akin to pictorialism. (Encyclopædia Britannica describes pictorialism as: an approach to photography that emphasizes beauty of subject matter, tonality, and composition rather than the documentation of reality.)

I get why people might want to carry on (photographically speaking) as though everything is normal. There’s a certain solace in photographing the familiar, in finding comfort in the standard beauty. In these fucked up times we need to find relief however we can; people are feeling fragile and doing whatever they need to do to remain sane.

Far be it from me to suggest that what you are photographing (whatever that may be) is wrong. As far as I’m concerned you can photograph whatever you want, however you want. But if you put your work out for consideration . . . I’ll consider it.

Further to this, our changed circumstances must surely mean we should spend some time thinking about which of our “core” beliefs might be reconsidered and modified, and which core beliefs are immutable.

And I’m doing that . . . spending some time considering and reconsidering where I stand and how I should live. I’ve learned (or maybe: realized) a few things over the last couple of months. Nothing like a systemic shakeup to, well . . . shake things up.

One of the things I’ve learned is to be more charitable when it comes to pictorial photography. I now understand (but still question) the reasons some photographers embrace pictorialism.

At the same time, my core belief that pictorialism is really just collaborating with the status quo remains unshaken.

Given all that’s going on in the world these days this beef might seem inconsequential. But how we frame the (our) world has consequences, large and small.

Yes, the ordinary and mundane must be a part of how we see the world. But by seeing only that, by excluding the larger context, the resulting photographs become a form of acceptance.

And I for one can’t and won’t accept that.

Every word has consequences. Every silence, too.
– Jean-Paul Sartre

Two possible images, work in progress.

CAPITALISM and CONTAMINATION

Okay, I have a newsletter and this blog. What’s the diff? Well, both are about photography but my newsletter, HYPO, is broad-ranging, you subscribe and it gets delivered to your inbox. On the other hand drool. has longer pieces, is more political and, unlike HYPO, you come to it.

I say this because HYPO reader Souki Belghiti, from Morocco, sent along a question. It was pretty political so I’m responding here on drool.

Read on . . .

Here’s Souki’s question . . .

Ok, here is a question I’d like to hear your thoughts about.

Capitalism has created an aesthetics. Is that aesthetics so contaminating in and of itself that it invalidates any attempt to subvert it?

I am, for instance, puzzled, by the work of
Hank Willis Thomas. Yes it is effective, provocative, but then, something feels “bling” and “easy”, as if he is using a language we all know too well, of simple thought association.

Likewise I was making photographs of a mall’s aquarium- with a critical intent-how we are all drowning in this consumer’s culture and I saw almost the same shots in a commercial for that very mall at the airport. That really got me wondering how artists can produce any critical images now, (and showed me how contaminated I was).


Wow.

I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. I’m not exactly what you would call a deep thinker, more of a gusher with ideas. That has its benefits though, because a lot of deep thinking in the art world is based on current group-think and is bullshit-by-design.

Anyway, let me begin by saying what I think Souki is asking: how can artists subvert the status quo when almost all the available visual vocabulary has been co-opted by, well, the status quo?

First of all, I’m pretty sure that the art system is not interested in anything more than paying lip service to upsetting the system. Too many paycheques and careers rely upon preserving that system.

But if, by some chance, something revolutionary strikes a chord that resonates with a larger public, the system will figure out a way to co-opt it and turn it into money. So, unless you want to be co-opted and make money, you’ll have to figure out a way to operate more or less outside that system. And, yes, it can be done.

I also think that if you want to cause some little ripple that might become a larger wave, one that disrupts standard ways of looking at and thinking about things, art must be recognizable. After all, you want people to relate to it, right?

So, to get to the bones of Souki’s question, specifically about the work of Hank Willis Thomas . . . Well, I find his imagery fundamental and completely lacking nuance. It’s so shiny!!!!! and revolutionary!!!!! and radical!!!!! Seems to me he’s just yelling slogans and that’s not going to change anyone’s perspective.

On the other hand take Dawoud Bey (chosen here because, broadly, they are thinking about the same things: let’s call it, again, broadly, African-American history and relationship to power and politics) . . . what Bey is doing is quiet work that gets under your skin and, thus, promotes reflection. And reflection is what will alter you.

Both these photographers use common approaches, their photos are not unlike those you have seen before. But one of them, for me at least, is more effective at moving his agenda forward.

So in the end it’s the intelligence of the creator, coupled with the context they situate their art within, that shifts how that art is received. And no matter what, your work will be used and/or abused by some people in order to bolster their view and/or cut down yours.

The best you can hope for if you are an artist with politics is to slightly alter how a person or two (or a handful if you’re lucky) thinks about things. There is no such thing as radical transformation, there is only evolution, and evolution is a slow, incremental process. Sometimes it makes things better, other times it makes things worse. It’s all a great big experiment. And, to quote Jack Kerouac, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”
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Here are links to a couple of recent drool. articles that are related to this:
The System
Photography and Politics