Archive for the ‘thinking about photography’ Category

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From twitter

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Heads up, folks: someday, people will point back at the iPhone as a device that forced people to really slow down and think about photos.

If that sounds crazy, remember that the way people think about the iPhone now is exactly how people used to think about:

  • 35mm film (as opposed to medium format/large format)
  • Medium format film (as opposed to large format)
  • Color film (as opposed to black and white)
  • All film (as opposed to glass plates)
  • Dry plate (as opposed to wet plate)

And that’s hardly exhaustive.

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

I have posted here many times about critics and what they are – or should be – up to. None of the best critics I’ve read – John Berger, Rebecca Solnit, David Levi Strauss, Dave Hickey – have taken the advice Jones offers – of publishing ‘hatchet jobs.’ Commenting some years ago on what made John Szarkowski so perceptive and influential a critic, Robert Adams wrote:

“Szarkoski’s writing made him envied, but the irony is that his competitors seem to miss some of the most obvious keys to his success. Among these is that he writes only about what he likes. It is a practice that cuts down competition from the start; to be clear about how and why something is difficult, whereas just to turn one’s animosity loose on something weak is both fun and safe (who can accuse you of being sentimental). No wonder the affirmative essays stand out, and, assuming they are about respectable work, last longer. Weak pictures drop away of their own weight, as does discussion of them, but the puzzle of stronger work remains: we are always grateful to the person who can see it better.”

(Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography: Against Hatchet Jobs

I don’t think crapping all over something that’s bad is intrinsically valuable. However, I think that talking about why and_how_ we dislike things is every bit as valuable as talking about why and how we like things, provided it’s done well. That’s not the same thing as a hatchet job, of course.

One aspect of the art world that can be supremely alienating to outsiders is that it can be totally unclear whether it’s okay to dislike a work, why some people may like it and others may not, and how to articulate dislikes. This is doubly true in online communities where all discussion is at least potentially to everyone’s face, providing a strong disincentive to being honest about dislikes.


Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Back in October, I had an interesting conversation with @vossbrink about obviousness. (He has a post branching off the same discussion here.)

Here’s an excerpt:

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca I’m beginning to think you need a photography blog were you just write about popular things you don’t like.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink But really, do I dislike popular things at an unusually high rate?

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Not unusual for someone who’s become an expert — and once people become experts, there’s a tendency to dislike the obvious stuff.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink Are you sure you don’t mean “hipster”?

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca So in photography. Popular: Ansel, Frank, HCB, Avedon, &c. All fantastic. But all are too obvious to truly say you like them.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink So, how to evaluate my immense photo-boner for the tremendously obvious Pepper No. 30, then? : )

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Weston doesn’t seem to be big name outside of photography. Which I think is the distinction of what’s popular vs too popular.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink Mm, fair. There’s also the question of good vs. important vs. popular. They can vary entirely independently…

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Absolutely. Anne Geddes is popular but not good or important. Ansel is all three. Weston isn’t popular. Muybridge is important.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink And then there’s also “remembered.” Minor White is good and important, but (somehow) semi-forgotten.

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Which was a lot of tweets getting to the point where I can say that I think you’re drawn to the good, important, & not popular.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink Ha! But that makes sense. And more to important-but-forgotten than important-and-remembered.

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Exactly. People like Minor White, Roy DeCarava, and Robert Adams.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink God, now I’m angry-sad just thinking about those three photographers under that heading. But yeah, to one degree or another.

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca “The Good. The Important. The Unpopular.” #YourNewPhotoBlog

I have to admit, @vossbrink’s observation re: “expert” resistance to the obvious does pretty well sum me up, and not just as regards photography. For example, it pretty much nails my objections to the prominence of American Gods, which is one of those topics that tends to crop up every year or so. (E.g., here.)

I’m a little uncomfortable with the “expert” label, though. Not that it’s necessarily wrong — as with anything, it all depends on how you define “expert.” My hangup is that I’m keenly aware that, while there are lots of things about which I know much more than most people, there are virtually no topics about which I have an authoritative knowledge.

This is especially true in an area like history of photography — I have no academic background in it, and I’m not especially well-read about it. I’m basically couple of notches ahead of “guy who saw a documentary about something and won’t shut up about it now.” Of course, everything’s relative — but the reason I’m talking about this is that a huge aggravating factor in my nerdrage on certain topics is my awareness that the fluency I’ve built up in most areas is not remarkable and should not be uncommon. I would be happy to be the guy who cultivates eldritch, obscure knowledge. I am less happy to be the guy who knows really basic stuff that seems to have somehow evaporated out of the collective awareness of enthusiasts.

Of course, it may just be that I have wildly unrealistic expectations regarding what’s basic. It is true that we live in post-canonical times, and my belief that any stuff is actually “basic” is poorly founded. (Although don’t count on me giving it up.) But I think there’s a bit more to it, and I think it has to do with the internet. (Get ready for me to sound like a fucking luddite.)

The trouble is that the internet gives the illusion of an instantly accessible depth of obscure knowledge. Years of habituation to tools like Google and Wikipedia have fostered the illusion that all knowledge is out there, and the only barriers to obtaining it are the cost in time, the cost in enthusiasm (nerdiness), and the challenge of sifting fact from pseudo-fact. And that illusion is almost the truth. Very, very nearly. It’s (relatively) easy to find the most astonishingly nerdy shit. But, and here’s the problem, not all equally nerdy shit is equally findable.

The trouble is that the internet’s version of knowledge is mediated by technology, and by communities of users who are in part defined by their access to technology, and by pools of content which are in part limited by their availability in digital form. And in fields where the canon has broken down, or even more so in fields where it was never really codified to begin with, that means that knowledge which does not happen to have tach-savvy champions is much harder to find, and if it happens to be tied into material stuff that simply cannot be found in digital form, or can only be found in shitty digital form, then the internet’s collective consciousness is very likely to start forgetting it. And as more and more people use the internet as their initial means of getting familiar with a certain topic, the gap between what is remembered about that topic and what is forgotten becomes harder to bridge.

Well, no, that’s not true. It’s not that it becomes harder to bridge — it’s that users become less and less likely to bridge it. And bridging it is a relatively simple act — it’s just a matter of seeing a reference, noticing that it’s not something you can find out a lot about online, and then taking some additional step to learn about it. For example, buying a book. But those steps always take time and often take money. In the short term, the net result is that some stuff is a little more obscure than other stuff — not because it’s less important, or less interesting, or more challenging, but simply because it’s less discoverable. In the not-so-short term, the net result is that what we know, as a culture, is going to skew. And in the meantime, people like me — who know just enough to be notice — are going to be pissed off on a regular basis.

PS: That will be offset to some degree in areas where there is a formal academic interest — where people will be forced to acquire broader and deeper knowledge. But academic disciplines and individual departments are often surprisingly cliquish or ghettoized and are unsurprisingly disconnected from popular culture — so their effect in offsetting the loss of information, especially by popular enthusiasts, is somewhat limited.

PPS: Of course, this isn’t really a new problem, is it? The oral tradition->manusript and manuscript->printing boundaries doubtless exhibited the same kind of loss.

Deep Assignments

Monday, February 21st, 2011

> Spielberg returned to Shanghai for _Empire of the Sun_, an eerie sensation for me — even more so were the scenes shot near Shepperton, using extras recruited from among my neighbors, many of whom have part-time jobs at the studios. I can almost believe that I came to Shepperton 30 years ago knowing unconsciously that one day I would write a novel about my wartime experiences in Shanghai, and that it might well be filmed in these studios. Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences. (_The Atrocity Exhibition_, p. 11)

The mind is in large part bibliographic. (Biography recapitulates bibliography?)

It is not precisely that we are what we read, but there is a nontrivial relationship between what we read (or, more specifically, what we will subsequently be ready to admit having read) and our basic interests, dispositions, methodologies, etc. So, there is a certain correspondence between the sources of our personal bibliographies and the sources of ourselves. Assigned reading is part of one’s intellectual origin story.

I am sometimes surprised or disconcerted when I am recalled to the earlier parts of my own bibliography — not because I read horrible trash (although of course I did) but because sometimes the foreshadowing seems obnoxiously heavy-handed.

One of the more extreme examples is Nancy Frankenberry’s _Religion and Radical Empiricism_, a book which brings together James and Nagarjuna, among others, not to mention Quine’s “Two Dogmas.” I read it in high school after buying it on a whim because I happened to see it on a local bookstore’s shelf at a time when I was thinking a lot about the word, “empiricism.” (The reason I was thinking about “empiricism” is that I had been embarrassed not long before because I had not known the word’s definition.)

I flipped through it, was briefly turned onto William James as a result, and then subsequently forgot all about it. In subsequent years, I became deeply interested in pragmatism — as an extension of problems in philosophy of education — and in some of the more skeptical variants of Buddhism — as an extension of internal consistency problems in my new-age upbringing. Later, when I once again flipped through a copy of Frankenberry’s book, I felt…horribly presaged, I suppose.

It is impossible, of course, to say what precisely the chain of causality here is. Some of the underlying concerns and approaches are fairly fundamental; it may have been inevitable, given interests and concerns that go back far deeper than my high school years, that I should be drawn later to thinkers like James and Nagarjuna, or the glee with which I took to, especially, Nagarjuna and Quine, may have been a direct result of the subconscious memory of some of those connections I’d seen in Frankenberry’s book.

More likely the truth is somewhere in between, but in any case, I find it acutely unnerving to feel that such interests–which are closely tied to very fundamental aspects of my intellectual process and disposition are in some way fated.

I’m having a similar feeling now as I read through Ballard’s _The Atrocity Exhibition_. This is another book that I read when I was of high school age. In this case, it was loaned to me by the only person I had met (up to that point) who was not only better-informed than me about the things I was interested in, but manifestly (and significantly) smarter than me in ways I valued. I read it and enjoyed it, up to a point, but I was (and largely am) too literal-minded to fully appreciate that kind of work. Certainly I did not anticipate that, after setting it largely aside, I would later find it directly useful in approaching an intellectual problem (ruin porn, to be specific) in photography.

In fact, there’s quite a lot of juicy photographic thinking in The Atrocity Exhibition. I just never made the connection before, because when I first read it, I had zero interest whatsoever in photography. This is worrisome, because my _photographic_ origin story is so absurd (it involves my previous hobby of knitting, and my long-undiagnosed poor eyesight, among other factors), that I had pretty much taken for granted that it was entirely discontinuous with my previous intellectual history.

That being said, Ballard’s photographic interests are largely confined to areas of photography that — well, it’s not that I don’t approve of them, or don’t like them, so much that I think of them as someone else’s problem or task. I think no causative element can be found here, just a reminder that…while the world appears to become a more complicated and information-rich place as we mature, it is actually just that we (all too slowly) acquire the ability to perceive and appreciate the complexity that was always there, even in our own experiences, even in those experiences to which we may have given our full attention.


Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

A few weeks ago I read _Mirrors and Windows_, by John Szarkowski. (About whom we’ve [posted]( once or twice before at _1/125_.) It’s pretty fantastic.

I’ve tried quite a few times since then to write a useful post about the subject, with little success; each draft tends to spiral out of control, until I feel like I’ve written myself into the middle of a book-length disquisition on the nature of photography. That’s an easy trap to fall into with Szarkowski, because he’s such a moving target; his writing is so rich with information, allusion, interpretation, and provocation that it is hard to keep attention focused on any one argument or claim.

So, I’m going to give up on trying to write one coherent post on the book tackling everything that really interests me (which would still have only touched on a fraction of everything contained in the brief essay in _Mirrors and Windows_) and write two or three shorter posts, instead.

Let’s start with this passage:

> During the first century of his existence, the professional photographer performed a role similar to that of the ancient scribe, who put in writing such messages and documents as the illiterate commoner and his often semiliterate ruler required. Where literacy became the rule, the scribe disappeared. By 1936, when Moholy-Nagy delcared that photography was the lingua franca of our time, and that the illiterate of the future would be he who could not use a camera, the role of the professional photographer was already greatly diminished from the days in which his craft was considered a skill close to magic. Today it is only in a few esoteric branches of scientific or technical work that a photographer can still claim mysterious secrets. (pp. 14-15)

This interests me because I think it helps me understand a confusion many photographers have regarding the nature of what they do.

Following the metaphor, let us assume that we are living in a time after that in which the scribe had a useful role — a time in which (in developed nations) everyone has the ability to read or write for themselves.

In that context, what do we make of someone apparently performing the functions of a scribe? Examples might include:

* Translators
* Editors, designers, etc.
* Paralegals
* Medical transcriptionists
* Notaries Public
* Calligraphers

These are people who have technical skills which are not required for the normal, everyday reading and writing functions routinely performed by people in both their business and personal lives.

There are photographic equivalents to many of these functions — or, rather, there are photographic professions which have a similar relationship to the photo-literate as these professions do to the word-literate. For example, I doubt one hears the complaint that, “with digital, everyone is a crime scene photographer.” (Note: If there are any forensics people reading and I’m getting that wrong, please let me know.)

However, most types of professional photography currently being done today are not so well sequestered from the realm of everyday, non-professional photography, which is usually (although not quite accurately) classified as “amateur.” But there may still be parallels.

Of these post-scribe forms of technical literacy, the last — calligraphy — is the one that I find to be the most interesting in relation to photography. For our purposes, let calligraphy be defined as the practice of making series of written letters appear aesthetically pleasing; it is (or at least, can be) totally agnostic with regard to the meaning of words represented by those letters. It is about making things pretty, on demand.

I think calligraphy is interesting in relation to what people want from photography. Specifically, to what they want _when they first become excited_ about photography — when they stop regarding it as a routine task requiring no special knowledge or insight and begin to regard it as something they can and should do well. Perhaps even as something which they are _called_ to do well.

When people today feel that way about the written word, virtually none of them say, “_I want to be a calligrapher_.” They want to be novelists, or poets, or journalists, or what have you. They want to write something in which other people can find meaning, amusement, excitement, solace, escapism, or insight.

But when people feel that way about photography, huge droves of them turn to the photographic equivalents of calligraphy — like wedding photography, commercial portraiture, stock photography, and advertising — disciplines which are, at heart, dedicated to producing prettiness on demand.

Budding photographers are often obsessed with becoming skilled in technical areas related to these disciplines, so that they can be more “pro” — which, amusingly, means that these industries are generally less and less sustainable for those who actually do set up shop in them. (And, as with calligraphy, hand knitting, and similar crafts, this tends to shift the area of commercial viability away from doing the work in question and towards books, supplies, workshops, instructional videos, etc.)

Of course, that does not sum up every budding photographer. There are plenty of photographers who are deeply embedded in the art world (which has largely swallowed up serious photography), and photojournalism is not dead. And I would not suggest that art photography and photojournalism are not worthwhile pursuits.

But is there a photographic equivalent of a novel, at this point, or of a short story? (Equivalent in _use_ I mean, not in structure, like the “literary” photographs of Frank Gohlke.) Is there photography which is produced for and consumed by the general public, for the joy of it?

That is more questionable.

Certainly there are people who are making photography that I would consider to be suitable for this role; there is good photography that exists outside the art niche and apart from the perversely utilitarian industries of prettiness on demand, and also apart from the civic-minded function of photojournalism and documentary photography.

But what is happening to that photography after it is made? Some percentage of it is published in various forms, and some percentage of what is published is bought (if applicable) and viewed, but the extent to which that happens outside the art community or the community of people who identify as photographers is more questionable.

And that — well, that worries me a great deal.

Frank Gohlke at the SF Art Institute

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Last night, Frank Gohlke gave a lecture in San Francisco, and I quite nearly missed it, since it wasn’t mentioned in any of the local events lists I (barely) follow — fortunately, I saw it in a post on Mary Virginia Swanson’s blog the day before. I would have been seriously annoyed at myself if I’d missed it.

Most of the lecture actually consisted of readings from Thoughts On Landscape, so I won’t attempt to reproduce any of it here. (Especially since I’ve quoted it extensively here, on my tumblr, and on 1/125.) I’ll just say that if you are even slightly interested in photography, and you have read _Thoughts On Landscape_, you need to get on that, prompt-like.

Afterward, there was a question and answer period, and I did take some notes for that. I tried to be as accurate as possible, but I’m not much of a stenographer, so please forgive me if some of this is imperfectly recorded. I’m also not going to elaborate or provide much in the way of interpretation or response, since I just want to get this posted, for the moment:

On choosing where to go when making a trip, Gohlke said that he always avoids going to places that qualify as “destinations,” saying, “Too much is decided for you in destinations; what can you do but affirm it?”

Describing his feelings about photography after he first turned to it as an alternative to his graduate studies in English, Gohlke said, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I never want to do anything else. Why didn’t anyone tell me.”

Gohlke also talked about how one can explain what it is to photograph, especially with regard to relating the photographer’s work to the painter’s work, and whether or not one “just takes takes pictures”:

> You don’t just take photographs. You live, and you photograph. And the closer those things come to being the same, the better, and the better you’ll work.

He expanded on this by pointing out that much of the work of photography is done without a camera — that it is about everything else the photographer experiences, and digests, and can then bring to the practice of photography.

Maybe my favorite part of the evening was an exchange in which Gohlke said that he makes “literary photographs,” and someone in the audience asked, “Why literary,” to which Gohlke replied, “Because they require reading.”

Gohlke also talked about the importance — both in writing and in photography — of not caring about how people will perceive your work, and how this is something that tends to get easier with age. (Which is heartening.)

Monday, September 27th, 2010

I had a minor epiphany the other day about a certain source of unease I feel regarding photography.

The epiphany happened while I was mulling over the subject of video games and their relationship to art. I was listening to the Joystiq Podcast episode in which Ludwig Kietzmann talks about Bulletstorm. I forget his phrasing on the podcast, but here’s what he wrote in his preview:

> Writing about games always comes with a peculiar kind of self-defeating dissonance. This morning, I might have grabbed a metaphorical megaphone and shoved it in some ebert’s ear, right before laying out why Shadow of the Colossus is such a magnificent meditation on loss and sacrifice and etc. “Games involve and encourage and inspire!” I’d say. “It’s for grownups, you know.”

> And then, just a few hours later, I’ll write about a game that’s awesome because it lets you kick people to death.

This made something click for me: I really like video games — despite not being all that good at them, and despite not playing them all that much. But maybe even more than playing them, I like reading and listening to people share what they think and feel about video games. I like the intellectual culture surrounding gaming.

I also like TV. I like TV a lot. I think about TV a lot, and I talk about it, and good television is quite possibly my favorite sort of media to experience. And I take the idea of good television extremely seriously.

I don’t particularly like movies. I mean, some movies are excellent. But I find that, by and large, I am nowhere near as excited by a good movie as I am by a good television show. Even more so with theater. I feel out of place as a member of those audiences.

And when it comes to fiction writing, I am _strongly_ biased towards genre work.

All this, plus my enjoyment of photography — and, specifically, the aspects of the photographic world which make me _uncomfortable_ — point to a very strong, fundamental bias on my part: I prefer media that have not gained acceptance as art and, in general, legitimation.

I like stuff happening in cultural contexts where the “high” and “low” have not yet differentiated themselves into mutually exclusive markets, where the best and worst work sit side-by-side on the shelves or the walls — and where conversations about quality, taste, and worth cannot be shut down by simply pointing to the segregation of high and low markets. These are contexts which have a more democratic flavor to them, and a more diverse one — and as such, I feel more at home in them.

These are also, significantly, the contexts in which separate scales of value have not yet been created for audiences of different socioeconomic class.

This is perhaps why I’m generally drawn to photography that took place in the time prior to the ’80’s (that is, amusingly, prior to my birth), when the longtime dream of creating legitimacy for photography as an art form was more or less accomplished. And also why I’m uncomfortable with both the world of contemporary art photography and the world of contemporary commercial photography — and the communities of wannabes that orient toward either of those worlds.

I’m not sure whether that should make me optimistic or pessimistic about the future. In general, that gap gets wider as time goes on — look at theater, which is basically either highly rarefied or is Cats, and look at cinema, where it feels like more and more, every movie can be classified either as indy or blockbuster.

However, it seems like the lines in photography are getting somewhat more blurred recently — or, rather, that the contexts which are defined by those lines are overlapping more and more. I don’t think this is necessarily making photography a more democratic and diverse place than it was in the 90’s, say, but I do think it makes the direction of the medium more uncertain, and maybe more open to redirection…which is maybe enough cause for a bit of optimism. God, I certainly hope so…

Origin stories

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

I noticed something recently while reading a post on La Pura Vida. A photographer began by saying, “before I can talk about my photography it’s important to share my history,” and then proceeded to say something which I’ve read (with some variations) many times before:

I was given a small kodak instant camera as a kid. I used it for the single purpose of taking back memories to my parents when I was away from home, to share with them what I had lived. I couldn’t bare the idea of them being absent and not experiencing what I was seeing. I was obsessed with the – “Look what I saw!”

via Featured – Alex Cretey | la pura vida

I find a lot of interviews with photographers and essays by photographers start with something like this — a disclosure of childhood experiences that flowered into photographic obsession.

For photographers, origin stories often start at a very early age.

I don’t have anything of the sort — I had zero interest in photography as a kid, aside from occasionally envying any gadget that had so many controls on it. A good thing, too, since I could never have afforded film for a camera back then. I was — and remained until quite recently — a fundamentally word-based person, with virtually no interest in art of any kid, just the written and the spoken word.

I got my first camera for an entirely pedestrian purpose (I wanted to be able to photograph my knitting). Inevitably, like every other asshole with a camera, I started using it to make flower macros and shit, too, just because I could. Some of that stuff is probably still lingering in my flickr account.

But I think the shift toward thinking of the camera as something more came when I realized that the camera could see things more clearly than I could.

This was not a metaphysical realization, mind you — my eyesight had become pretty bad for distant subjects, and because I don’t drive, it was a long time before I was forced to do something about it and actually get glasses. This was around the same time I started using the camera out in the world, but there was still a window of a few weeks or months in which my clearest view of the world was on the back of a crappy LCD.

When I would see something that — despite its fuzziness — I thought might be interesting, I would photograph it simply for the purpose of being able to inspect the details I could not otherwise perceive.

At that point, the camera was acting for me as a kind of mild prosthetic. It was an extension of my eyes, a tool for seeing. Since then, while I’ve gone much deeper into the medium, I don’t think I’ve strayed too far from that initial, banal relationship with cameras; I still basically see the practice of photography as an act of perception, although as time passes (and I got glasses), that has been more and more in the phenomenological sense and less and less in the optical sense.

This probably has a lot to do with my distrust of “creative” photography and many flavors of conceptually-oriented photography…


Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

In the process of writing this short post for 1/125 I did a quick self-google to verify my suspicion that I had already posted about this same interview.

As it turns out, I did, but on an old, now-defunct personal blog that I had mostly forgotten about. I won’t shame myself by linking to it here. I only mention it at all, because I notice that I was already thinking, in 2007, about the problem of creativity in photography, and my intuitions then are pretty congruent with my conclusions now — which is interesting, because on a whole lot of photography-related topics, me in 2007 was a completely different person from me in 2010.

I don’t think of photography as a creative art (I don’t generally stage pictures or engineer situations for taking them), but more as an analytic craft, like non-fiction writing; it is more a matter of peeling away what does not belong than of putting in what does….

I’m probably being influenced right now by some of the thinking I’ve been doing about photography and non-fiction writing. Excluding the form of photography where you build stuff just to take pictures of it, neither is a “creative art” in the sense of causing or even pretending to cause something “new” to be. The point is not to create the newest thing but to make as clear as possible (not necessarily as accurate; that’s another, more loaded issue) a description of something that already exists.

In fact, I might go so far as to say this perception/determination regarding the non-creative nature of photography may be the closest thing to a unifying theme (Minor White’s “thin red line” — no, because it is not unique to me) that extends from almost the beginning of when I started to use a camera with intent to the present.

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

I sincerely believe that a subjective experience can be understood by others; and it would give me no pleasure to announce that the black problem is mine alone and that it is up to me to study it. But it does seem to me that M. Mannoni has not tried to feel himself into the despair of the man of color confronting the white man. In this work I have made it a point to convey the misery of the black man. Physically and affectively. I have not wished to be objective. Besides, that would be dishonest: It is not possible for me to be objective.

— Frantz Fanon, _Black Skin, White Masks_, p. 86 (My emphasis)

I think that everyone who does documentary photography (or its cousins), and anyone who views such photography, should be familiar with this passage.

Set aside the specific context (racism and colonialism) and consider the principle: _I sincerely believe that a subjective experience can be understood by others…But it does seem to me that M. Mannoni has not tried to feel himself into the despair…_

When dealing with any attempt, in any medium, of one person to authoritatively represent another person’s experience to a third party, there are always two temptations: on the one hand, to despair of the possibility of anyone having insight into experiences they do not share, and privileging primary experience and group membership above all else, and on the other hand, to avoid ever acknowledging that there may be a problem with allowing someone who is outside a problem to form our understanding of it. There is also a third temptation that should be mentioned: the temptation to retreat away from experience into the realm of “objective” facts.

These three temptations are major barriers to useful communication on subjects like race, class, gender, and sexuality, but they also rear their heads in many other areas.

The reason these temptations exist is that all of them free us from the burden of having to exercise personal judgment in evaluating the reliability of another person’s account of a given situation. Judgment is not a problem that can be referred to the realm of facts, or to automatic principles of exclusion or inclusion, and it is also not something that can be replaced with an appeal to credentials granted by some authorizing institution.

We have to actually decide whether _we_ believe in someone’s sincerity, their insight, and their eloquence — or whether we think they fall short in some or all of those areas. That judgment is inescapably subjective, but it is _not_ merely a matter of opinion, and it cannot be ignored or set aside without crippling our ability to deal with realities.

This is a terrifying realization for a lot of folks — myself included. It frightens us because we know that our judgment is not 100% reliable, _especially_ when operating on limited information, as is usually the case when we’re applying it to, say, a photo essay or a book. And given that fact, we can be absolutely certain that some of the time, we are going to be _seriously_ wrong. However, that fact is by no means adequate justification for giving in to one of the three temptations enumerated above.

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