Politics of Portraiture 22 May 2020

Arpita offered a Zoom lecture on this subject which came at a useful point in Self and Other as I was involved with the ethical discussions signposted in the module.  Some of the points which came up in discussion were

  • The photographer/subject relationship and how it might be imbalanced in respect of the power dynamics
  • The duration of the photography – how a long term series might alter the nature of the work as opposed to a brief involvement
  • How the intended use of the pictures could be important to the subject as well as the photographer, and what happens should new opportunities for different uses might emerge.
  • The importance of transparency in explaining the purpose of the work to the subject
  • Whether a contractual arrangement needs to be established and what form that might take
  • Should the sitter be ‘rewarded’ with a copy of the results.
  • Is any kind of payment appropriate
  • Will any accompanying text influence the reading of the pictures adversely from the sitter’s point of view.
  • Will the subject be allowed any control in selections

We considered work by:

Dawoud Bey – Series: Harlem, USA

Mahtab Hussain – Series: You Get Me

Dana Lixenberg – Series: Imperial courts

Maud Sulter – Series: Zabat

Margaret Mitchell – Series: In This Place

Liz Hingley – Series: Under Gods

Anthony Luvera – Series: Assembly

JR – Series: Inside Out Project

Bieke Depoorter – Series: Agata

Ashfika Rahman – Series: Rape is Political

Sam Ivin – Series: Lingering Ghosts

A number of these photographers use large format film cameras for their projects, including Arpita herself. I have wondered elsewhere how this might affect the picture-making process and whether it is detectable in the final results.  It is a somewhat cumbersome method when compared to a digital camera.  A Wista 5×4 is heftier than a Nikon D810 and might bring more weightiness to the proceedings.  The black cloth, the disappearance of the photographer, the film loading and the exposure have the look of an arcane ritual.  The procedure is slow and methodical.  The subject doesn’t get anything pointed at them as they would when a SLR camera is lifted to the face.  The camera is more like a third party who needs to be appeased and cajoled into making its magic through the joint efforts of subject and photographer. The latent image is carried on a tangible but delicate and sensitive material and needs to undergo a complex transformation before the result is visible.  It requires its own long term commitment, one which demands care, precision and diligence.  Not so the digital picture, which appears instantly without any further effort.  In fact, the subject is quite capable of making their own digital pictures with their phone so there is very little mystery for them.  But the 5×4 camera is secretive, mysterious and unfamiliar.  It guards its secrets closely in a way which deters the subjects curiosity; it is somewhat aloof and terribly serious.

What does the subject make of this?  Well for a start it declares a clear division between them and the photographer, who by virtue of their command of the process might be afforded a degree of trust – and if they can confidently master all the baffling steps required they must be worthy of respect.

The photographer withholds from the subject the picture itself – only they can bring the image to life and they will do it in their own time, privately, out of sight.  In this way the photographer holds sway over both the subject and the picture itself.

But the subject might also detect a certain implied value being placed on their participation;  somebody is making a right old fuss about taking their picture, so it must be rather an important thing.

At the same time, the complexity of the operation – the heavy, alien looking camera and its support paraphernalia, the sturdy tripod required to hold it, the lighting, background and all the other accoutrements – forms an elaborate circus, with the subject firmly in the ring.  Is there an inclination to perform?

You can’t analyse this.  There are no double-blind tests, no evidence, empirical or otherwise.  One might suspect that the whole large-format performance influences the look of the subject, but who could say for sure?  The question lends itself to lengthy academic discussion and the expression of firm opinions but in the end, you just can’t tell.

I rather inarticulately raised the topic of how much actual work a photograph does in series like these. The question occurred to me when I was looking at the work of Mahtab Hussein, not the You Get Me series but another of his, The Commonality of Strangers.  The work is presented online as a slideshow with a block of text for each picture which gives some bio and context for the subjects.  I found that I had got to around picture number twelve before I realised I’d been reading the wrong text every time;  the words are to the left of the picture and I had been reading those to the right.  The odd thing was, it all seemed to make perfect sense, which led me to think about ‘how much actual work’ the pictures do in these presentations.

I had a go at artificially magnifying my error by seeing if I could place any text against any photograph and found that I could, more or less.

But this must be something I was doing myself, so I thought about the viewer / picture / text triad and how information and ideas circulate therein.  It seems that, given a few facts via the text, I was able to process them via my own life experiences and project my interpretations and inferences onto the picture.  It was me who was animating the the subject just as much, maybe more, than the subject themselves.. I was able to do this because I had foreknowledge of the matters referred to in the text: poverty, alienation, and ‘otherness’.  Given those clues I was able to reconcile what I saw before me with my own experience, indirect or otherwise.  It was me that was doing a lot of the work.

That may be the intention of the artist possibly.  Making the viewer provide the information. But it does seem to diminish the autonomy of the sitter if they are largely a blank canvas for the viewer’s projections.