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Shine a Light in Dark Places

Our world is changing at a seemingly unprecedented pace, and the forces behind this change — and its ramifications — can be difficult to grasp, much less escape. Donald Weber examines what this means for photography, and wonders if photographers should re-think some of the fundamental elements of how they work.

Illustration by Jordan Parshall

With light, we can illuminate and dispel. Rebecca Solnit has written that invisibility is a type of shield, while democracy is founded upon visibility. In polite concision, this is just what a photographer or journalist does: Claims visibility, counters hidden motives, dissembles corruption by yanking it full front and center, and confronts power. In other words, this light is a form of democracy in action, and a fundamental pillar of journalistic integrity.

And yet, how is this light we use shaped? What are the forces at play that enable us to confront power? As society changes, so, too, do the political and social infrastructures that create the space in which we photograph. We need to ask, What does it mean to “do” photography? How are photographers being pushed to let go of their ideals or rethink their incentives as they work? How can understanding political, economic, and cultural interests play a role in sculpting not only a photographic process, but also the environment in which we find ourselves working?

We are very good at positioning photographic discipline within issues of representation, but we must also look into the conditions of photography’s production and begin to see what is inscribed in the image. Today’s condition is a deep-seated confluence of corporate, military, and bureaucratic mechanisms, all determining our daily existence and influencing our choices. This is what visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff calls the “Anthropocene-aesthetic-capitalist complex of modern visuality,” deeply embedded in how we produce images, and within images themselves.

Photography, as a subset of mass communication, is a piece of what the Egyptian-French Marxist economist Samir Amin referred to as the elements of capitalism used by dominant countries to “perpetuate their domination,” alongside technology, finance, resource exploitation, and weapons of mass destruction. It is paramount that we, as photographers, begin to understand and investigate the conditions of politics and economics within which we practice. No longer can we separate the political and the representational, nor turn a blind eye to other social, cultural, and economic influences. Corporate enterprise increasingly sees information as the principal vector for the production of wealth, and capitalism bases its future largely on the commodification of this information. Photography, a product of the mental labor that generates information, is the perfect means of extraction.

This form of wealth-building is called “cognitive capitalism,” embodied in a relatively small set of knowledge workers on the one hand, and the commodification of all culture, thought, and media through the ever-quickening consolidation of corporate enterprise and Silicon Valley whiz-bang geniuses on the other.

Photography matured simultaneously with the advent of corporate capitalism and mass media enterprise. Capitalism functions as an exclusionary process, a relentless sorting mechanism creating institutions to serve and legitimize a strict hierarchy of power relations, and seeks ultimately to unify the globe in a single system of commodity production and exchange. Capitalism has always consumed photography and exploited it as a means of knowledge production and value creation — from mass media, to the commercial gallery, to the museum.

Today’s system is not based on a reasonable expectation of remuneration, but rather on the demand that knowledge-based labor be compensated by “exposure” or virtual recognition. Increasingly the greatest need for any contemporary photographer situated in such a cultural environment is that of incessant self-promotion. This, in turn, forces the practitioner of today to manage the aura of the personal “brand” as a product line, converting the intellectual and creative practice of photography into a tradable asset for the institutional exploitation of profit.

Illustration by Jordan Parshall

This is easily reflected in the vast nexus of global photography festivals that promote auteurism, in the enlivening of self-publishing enabled by the Internet, and in educational institutions flourishing with assorted programs and workshops. These are generally altruistic endeavors, marketed to the photographer as a way to build exposure and recognition, with the aim of helping to provide security to a career in a precarious field. And yet, these endeavors do nothing but create a privileged commodity, underwritten by the forces of capitalism and situated in the dominant cultural and economic centers of the globe, such as London, New York, and Paris.

A key event which primarily speaks to capital and exerts great influence is Paris Photo, the world’s largest and most exclusive fair dedicated to photography, situated under the glass canopy of the Grand Palais. Paris Photo and other similar events emanate from and perpetuate power, giving voice to institutional authority and reinforcing a system of oppression and precarity rather than promoting independence. These are places of power, where photographers, in their perfectly understandable desire for stability, ironically strive to reposition themselves as artists, trading the traditional, measured labor of journalism for the intangible.

For philosophers Yann Moulier Boutang and Maurizio Lazzarato, there has been a transformation of capitalism regarding creative work. Boutang writes: “the essential point is no longer the expenditure of human labor-power, but that of invention power.” To me, this simply sounds like a new manner of exploitation — instead of the photographer being paid by the client for assigned work, as it once was, today the photographer is asked to do all manner of other things in exchange for exposure, without knowing if any of that will actually pay off.

Illustration by Jordan Parshall

All of this leads to the separation of photography from the social and civic conditions of its making, and toward the necessities of commerce. This erosion of social practice in favor of commodification can be seen most clearly in documentary practice, where the co-opting of social value for commercial gain began decades ago. Capitalism has helped transform images intended to be common artifacts into privileged objects. This change of focus onto the status of images as objects of a higher calling thus legitimizes the documentary photographer as the genius, or auteur — the creator of a valuable commodity and thus a person who has risen to a new position of privilege.

But when a photojournalist is no longer a medium of mass communication and has instead become a privileged commodity, the act of the photographer changes as well, transitioning to being in service to capitalistic forces and not speaking truth to power. As photojournalism bends to the pressures of capitalism, a predictable cult of authorship has taken hold. In order to survive — to thrive — it has become necessary to place this authorship above the nearly mundane usage to which documentary and journalism is usually placed, driving a mannerist, aesthetic, and subjective response.

What gets created, then, is a professionalizing influence on photography through the creation of a “reputation economy,” subservient to the ever-expanding industry of branding, self-promotion, and careerism. The photographer is now professionalized by market conditions and colonized by finance, such that inclusion becomes the prized goal in one’s work. Thus the photographer becomes professional. Concerned with the ways of the market as dictated from on high within corporate hierarchies, reconfirming and legitimizing existing power relations, the professional photographer resides inside the status quo, where labor is extracted for cheap in exchange for a line on a CV or humbled mention on social media.

To pick up on Rebecca Solnit’s comment about democracy as a form of visibility, this encroaching professionalization ironically shuts out others, including other artistic disciplines, minorities, women, other gender identities, etc., from opportunities photography should offer, sorting and classifying winners and losers through exclusion and selectivity.

But all is not lost. We must start by asking simple questions. Questions enable us to challenge the assumptions of photography as a form of cultural production, and see it entangled within complex notions of a living social context, constantly on the move as fluid as an organism. This allows us to get at the deeper crises of the social, political, and economic infrastructures that preconfigure the conditions of producing work, making it possible to reposition photography and reclaim visibility as a means to confront power.

One of the simple questions we should all be asking, is: how are our lives invented for us by those in power? Perhaps a response might begin with the command from German philosopher Hannah Arendt: to “think what we are doing.” What she means is that being able to think freely leads to action. What we do as photographers is profoundly political, and we must engage in messy debate as equals — among our peers, first, and then, if need be, with powerful institutions as well — to begin reconciling 21st century image-making as a complete process of knowledge, practice, aesthetics, and politics that is contained — embedded — within the act of image-making itself. This allows us to demand a perspective of the power relationships that remain hidden behind the image, pointing out the morally indefensible, politically incoherent, and sustainably destructive.

We must become intruders into the professional field so as to dispel corporate, political, and moral entanglements. Photographers can dismantle from the inside and the outside, to act as Edward Snowden-like creatures, disabling and confronting, subverting and disrupting. We do not shun awkwardness and unconventionality, anathema in the professional world. We embrace what we don’t know, allowing ourselves to take risks, make mistakes, and engage with the pleasure of creation (there’s nothing to lose). In effect, we behave as the scorn of the professional — we become amateur. Writer Andy Merrifield notes that “the politics of amateurism is about dismantling our giant professional machine, stripping it of its legitimacy, of its functioning credibility.”

By embracing the practice of the amateur, we situate ourselves as autonomous beings, freely capable of building relationships, outside the vectors of power and capital. Our amateurism realigns pleasure and worth, and acts as a conduit between realms of experience usually sequestered in tight control behind the walls and barriers of gatekeepers and institutions. American artist and writer Claire Pentecost names this as the “public amateur,” someone who is able to acquire knowledge in a non-institutionally sanctioned way, living and working outside the dictated norms and freely exposed to scrutiny.

Let’s not confuse “amateur” with someone who is a dilettante, unprofessional. No, an amateur is someone who finds joy — love — in what they do. Perhaps the best way to condition yourself as an amateur is to look at its etymology. Amator is the Latin for lover. Don’t you want to do something that you love, that fulfills you, that provides meaning? To me, the world of possibility is open. I can drift across disciplines and collaborate with others; I can engage with institutions and challenge their power; the freedom to work outside the constricted norms provides sudden portals for a future I could never imagine. Do what you love. Others will want to participate, allowing opportunities to re-engage, and re-position, a field that is more closely aligned to the needs of community. This will simultaneously send the powers-that-be into a convulsion, while the formations of a future practice reform in a state of inclusion, diversity, and equality.

In other words, become educated. Empower yourself — and others — to make informed political decisions. Aim to engage with ‘prizes’ that seek social justice and sustainability as adequate reflections of democratic society. Generously enter into other discourses and disciplines to allow an informed process for yourself, while opening up the conditions of making. Do not step back from the crises of the moment, rather examine the deeper-seated issues of capitalism, consumer society, and political engagement.

If you are to challenge the assumptions of the system, then you cannot accept the creatures of the system. This means the prizes, awards, reviews, and other by-products of the professional system must be pushed back into a public discourse so we know what the heck is going on and can all participate. We can pursue alternative courses and resources that support independent and competing infrastructures — many such people and places exist in the photographic and communication world today.

This is about challenging the status quo from within, to effectively operate independently and free to challenge and subvert, demystify and empower, and ultimately unite the everyday practices of consumers, producers, and citizens.

It’s about opening up, rather than being buried under common assumptions.

The genesis of this essay came out of long discussions with Oliver Vodeb during the winters of 2016 and 2018 where we were both participants in the ‘Doing Visual Politics Symposium’ in Kathmandu, Nepal. Oliver has linked the idea of amateurism as a means to dispel the inherent professionalism that can be so detrimental to creative practices, particularly in communication design. I propose we learn from communication design and introduce this idea into photographic practice. The organization he founded, Memefest, is a great resource to further understand the matrix of capital, exposure, awards, and striving to find meaning through social responsibility. His insights and years of research prove invaluable for photographers and photography. Look him up.

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