This week, from Sept. 20-22, the Toronto Photography Seminar is hosting a two-day workshop on “the photographic situation,” which invites fourteen international photography scholars to respond to and elaborate on “an emerging conceptual framework that defines photography as much more than a technology for producing pictures.” Co-organized with the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies (DCAPS) and The Developing Room, the aim of the workshop is to develop new case studies and methodologies for understanding the photographic situation, in its many iterations.
As one of the organizers for the workshop, I’ve had the chance to read the papers as they’ve developed from abstracts to fully formed arguments. (To put the emphasis on discussion at the workshop, we’ve asked authors to circulate their papers before the event so the audience can read them and come to the event with questions and comments prepared). And, while there are a few common touchstones throughout the papers—Ariella Azoulay‘s work on the event of photography appears often, as do Sharon Sliwinski’s “Seven Theses on the Photographic Situation“—I have been most struck by the diversity of the situations that the papers take up. From Shawn Michelle Smith’s analysis of what is made visible (and invisible) in early spirit photography, to Stephen Mayes’s exploration of the impact Smartphones have had on photojournalism, to Kelly Wood’s reappraisal of Lincoln Clarkes’s critically derided Heroines series from the early 2000s, the working papers examine how relationships are structured by the camera in private, public and fine art photographs.
This diversity of material is refreshing, especially after the long debates about the division between fine art and documentary photography that plagued photography history in the twentieth century, and also seems to speak to the flexibility that the notion of the photographic situation offers to us as viewers and theorists. Though this flexibility sometimes feels a bit unwieldy (as Jonathan Long points out in his comments on this blog), it is also one of the concept’s strengths. By insisting that the relationships that are mediated by the camera are inherently political, the photographic situation seems to prompt theorists to reorient our analyses to some of the social dynamics that occur outside the frame of the photograph, treating them as political events rather than peripheral moments.
The way the event of photography, and the photographic situation, has been theorized necessarily puts stress on the temporality of photographs: the way that images emerge from a relational encounter, and the ways that they are understood by viewers in a particular historical moment. But the working papers also draw out the spatial dimensions of the photographic situation, calling our attention to the different spaces in which photographers, subjects and viewers negotiate their relationships to one another. The portrait studio, the artist’s home, the mug shot, the album and the photobook all emerge as spaces where the photographic situation takes place. It seems that, as we begin to use the photographic situation as a rubric for analysis, we may need to find ways to address the role of space and place both in the production and circulation of photographic images.
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.