Seven Theses on the Photographic Situation

To launch our new blog, Sharon Sliwinski (University of Western Ontario and member of the project steering committee) writes about the conceptual framework which informs the network’s thinking about the question of photography.

1. The photographic situation is a conceptual framework that defines photography as much more than a technology for producing pictures. As Ariella Azoulay has made forcefully evident, photography should rather be understood as an event that mediates relationships between people. Its ontology is, therefore, political.

2. The photographic situation is playing an increasingly significant role in mediating relationships between people. As Walter Benjamin proposed, photography is just one of the technologies of mechanical reproduction that revolutionized the masses’ modes of perception. The advent of digital photography marks another, exponential increase in the ways in which people interact with the photographic situation. Its political significance, in other words, has expanded over time.

3. The photographic situation can be imagined as comprising at least three spheres, but it cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts: a) the photographer (the professional photographer, the state official, the layperson, the citizen journalist, the human rights worker, etc.); b) the spectator (the consumer, the citizen, the “world spectator” (Arendt), etc.); c) the “photographed subject” which can refer to any number of things: i) photographs themselves (whether documentary, art, science, advertising, vernacular images, etc.) as well as their various avenues of circulation and use. Photographs can be circulated and recirculated, but they can also be destroyed, withheld, and so on; ii) the referent – that piece of external reality (object or event) that the photograph presumes to re-present; iii) those events that “photography” sets in motion which do not necessarily result in a photograph (images that were not taken, for instance, or even simply descriptions of photographs, which in themselves can carry force).

4. There is much more to the photographic situation than can be seen in any given image.

5. The event of photography can produce a strongly affective situation. The emotions, feelings, and affects that are produced in the photographic situation should themselves be considered events. But the emotional situation is unpredictable, incalculable, and can reverse into its opposite (i.e. lynching photographs circulated both as tools of terrorism and as emblems of resistance to this form of political violence).

6. The various participants in the photographic situation usually do not have an equal role. However, no one individual or institution can clearly claim control or mastery of the photographic situation. In part, this is because photography, as Walter Benjamin noted, is marked by the presence of das Es, the unconscious, or simply “It.” Benjamin’s description of the “optical unconscious” suggests on one hand that the potential for photographic vision has not been exhausted (Blossfeldt’s enlargements, medical imaging, surveillance, etc.), but more radically that this force will belie any effort to master the event of photography: “It” shows.

7. The photographic situation is based on the circulation of images and pictures. These images and pictures can be translated into speech acts but images and words carry different modes and powers of signification. It is an act of translation to bring images to speech.

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3 responses to “Seven Theses on the Photographic Situation”

  1. Jonathan Long says :

    Many thanks for this, Sharon, which is a rich and extremely useful starting point for our discussions. Here are a few immediate thoughts.

    ‘Photography should rather be understood as an event that mediates relationships between people. Its ontology is, therefore, political’: This is a large and powerful claim, which ties in with your later comment that the political significance of photography has expanded massively in the age of digital communications. What’s happening here, I think, is in fact an expansion of the ‘political’ to encompass the entirety of the social, ultimately leading us towards a total conflation of these two terms. I began by thinking that we would need to be more precise in defining the political for the purposes of this project, and that the notion of the public sphere, mentioned in Ed’s introduction, might be the key. But once we begin to think about what happens to the public sphere in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Flickr, etc., it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate a public sphere in which ‘the political’ is deemed to be properly operative.

    Alongside this, we have a definition of the photographic situation that encompasses the photographer, the spectator, and the ‘photographed subject’ (itself a multiple term), even though the photographic situation exceeds the sum of its parts, and exceeds what can be seen in any given photograph.

    I agree with your use of the term political, and with your definition of the photographic situation. But they are pretty much all embracing terms, and it seems to me that the challenge we face will be to work out how these understandings of the photographic situation can be mobilised in the service of concrete analysis and political intervention.

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