Andrew Jackson is a documentary and editorial photographer. He has worked on commissioned and personal works, at home and abroad and his photographs are held in both national and private collections of photography. He is co-founder of Some Cities CIC, a Birmingham based participatory photography company, and in 2012 was nominated for the Prix Pictet Award.
Image credit: Vicky, Granby – Liverpool L8. From the ongoing series, “The Ghosts of Granby” made in assistance with Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool.
The eye sees and then the heart feels.
All this, of course, before our brain engages to create a composition which captures this emotion, within a photograph; so that we can share with someone, whom we may never know, what we felt at that precise moment in time when our fingers pressed slowly down onto the shutter release.
I’m a photographer; it’s all that I’ve ever wanted to be. Outside of once wanting to be a fighter pilot or the Captain of the England football team, which after recent results, is a dream I’m still slightly hanging onto.
So, yes, I’m a photographer, one who has done many things in photography. I’ve developed participatory community photography projects and I’ve taught photography at several universities. I’ve done long form documentary works, at home and abroad; undertaken photo essays and been commissioned to produce editorial portrait features for national Sunday supplements.
Along the way of my photographic journey, which the best I hope is yet still to come, I’ve seen the highs and lows of life. Photographing people at the highpoints of their lives, as well as photographing the dying and the dead; and I’ve collaborated on conceptually driven ‘fine art’ (whatever that means) works and last week, well, I even photographed a cat for the Guardian.
Yet, with that said, I’m not really sure what it means to be a photographer or at times even if I ‘feel’ like one, today at least, in this world where everyone is a photographer and where more student photographers will graduate from universities in the UK, than there are professional working photographers in the whole of Europe.
My anxiety, and professional identity crisis is on level down to the fact that I work though in an industry where there is no defined career structure. At times it feels as if I’m running up a never ending ladder that is, at the same time, falling down a large hole in the ground; leaving me always in the same fixed position, legs paddling away.
But my identity crisis as a photography is, frankly, also down to the fact that I really see anyone who looks like me in it. A matter, which Holly Stuart Hughes found, in her interviews with Photographers of Colour.
I know that my existential crisis is not mine alone though. As the question of why do I do this, who is for and why do I make these sacrifices for photography in the face of shrinking economic gain and growing financial insecurity is experienced by so many others within the photographic industry – where is seems that everyone is making money – except the photographer.
So, here’s to the gatekeepers – the visual programmers, curators, picture editors, portfolio reviewers, academics, blog writers, competition runners – all of those who talk a lot about photography but never actually make anything – but who are making a living out of it, and at the same time, dictating what gets seen and what doesn’t.
OK let’s quickly move on from me urinating on my career there; besides, I’m just being facetious!
That said we only have to look at the money made by certain universities, which run increasingly questionable photography courses, to know that someone is making money out of photography, and in the main, it isn’t the photographer. In this light, for so many students, the one or two photographs and obligatory self published book, that they can squeeze into the cramped spaces of their degree shows, will be the pinnacle of their photographic careers.
No doubt some people are booing and hissing right now, hurling abuse at this demoralizing text. But, let’s be honest, whilst some will find their path into other areas of the arts for many students this will be the crowning moment of their photographic careers before their work gets shoved under their beds.
Yet, they will have paid three years of their lives and tens of thousands of pounds for this moment. A moment which will consist of the presentation of a decontextualized photograph, or two, on a wall that bored partners and parents of their fellow class mates dutifully drudge by – on the way to find the free booze of the degree show.
So, yes, for some, the journey ends here. For others, though, they will plod on wandering the photographic trail, through the wilderness, looking for a strange mythical Promised Land called a “photographic career”. Whilst, on the way, bumping into snake oil sellers, on the way, peddling their portfolio reviews and photo competitions. It has always been this way, as the odds between who will ‘make it’ and who will expire upon this trail, have always been set in favour of the economically able.
The proclaimed status of photography, being the mythical democratic medium, has always been just that of course – a myth. As photography has never been an inclusive medium – where it matters most at the top at least – either in terms of ‘race’, gender or class. Photography, like all art forms, is an elitist pursuit designed to keep the many out – regardless of how many people will tell you that everyone is a photographer now. Photography is medium where the adage of ‘pale and male’ still persists to describe those higher up the photographic food chain, where the real decisions are made and real power resides. But don’t take my word for it. Have a look at what M Scott Bauer discusses here in Skin colour and the photography industry.
The photographic industry, at least my small connection to it, just like the photograph itself, always comes with an agenda; a point of view, a subjective imposition, if you will. Within a polemical and didactic illustration that reflects the dominant fictions of the dominant voices. As John Tagg may agree, photography is more often an expert witness testifying on behalf of the status quo than it is the defender of the subject of their gaze; in this sense, photography is more likely to denounce than it is to defend; more likely to accuse than acquit.
Some of you now are shouting out the names of humanistic and socially concerned photographers who have championed the issues and concerns of the ‘less fortunate’. Yet, of all the social concern of photography there is also the presumption that the ‘man’ or at least capitalism needs the afflicted, the under-classed, the oppressed and the poor to be made visible. Not to solicit our empathy for them, of course, but to engender within us a sense of fear that we too, if we deviate from the path of social productivity, will become just like them.
The poor, in this analogy, become the carrot and the stick that propels the viewer to want to work harder in order to avoid becoming the very victims of our gaze within the photograph. It is also important to stress that the ‘system’, which is afflicting and blighting the lives of the objects of our gaze is rarely visible with the frame – only the afflicted are.
The balance, inevitably, of who is doing the looking and who is being looked at – and who their images are being made for – is indeed the question.
Usually the audience for these ‘concerned’ images are still never the same as the subjects under scrutiny – as images of poverty, for example, are more likely to be viewed by people outside of poverty. So indirectly, they are made for the consumption of others.
This does not mean that these images should not be taken, of course; it’s discussed here just to raise the issue of the central problematics of representation and its consumption.
In this light, if we change ‘class’ for ‘race’; invariably we see a similar paradigm. Most images of black Africans, which permeate Western Media, see white picture editors or charities commissioning white photographers to in turn produce images of Black people for the consumption of mainly white audiences.
For a representation of an object to be seen as ‘accurate’ the audience must, in the first instance, have a preconceived and validated concept of this object in order to recognise this representation as an honest and ‘truthful’ depiction. Therefore, for the white photographer, and in turn the white picture editor or white charitable organisation, to have their images accepted by this white audience as ‘real’, they must produce their images in ways in which this audience already ‘stereotypically’ perceive Black Africans to exist dependent on the historically and culturally passed down representation that have determined this ‘representation over the years.
This Western post-colonial representation would be one, which undoubtedly would differ, if a black African photographer, who had his or her own African perception of self, had constructed this representation. It is to the detriment of photography, and the audience it serves, to have the same set of eyes forever looking at the world within the same unequal power relationships.
Upon the continent of Africa there is of course war, famine and starving children but these tropes do not reflect the totality of African existence. But ‘normality’ and domesticity does not sell – as Stephen Mayes alludes to here in his discussion on the underrepresentation in photography – as it does not fit the paradigm of perceived representation.
Photography, in this mode, as National Geographic and even World Press Photo usually confirms, becomes the lynchpin in the construction and continuation of stereotypical representations that comfort, soothes and affirms the West’s known knowledge of the world via the limited gene pool which is contemporary Western photographers.
But, perhaps it was always so?
There is, without doubt, a need for photography to be more inclusive, if only so that everyone is able create representations that matter to them; because the consequences of being socialized to imagery constructed by others, who are unable to, or deliberately, wilfully and continuingly choose to show them in negative lights, could be seen here in the black child – white doll experiments.
To conclude, where will photography be in twenty years from now? My gut instinct tells me that, as social mobility continues to be an immovable force, so then the demography of photography will stay the same; and the same dominant eyes will continue to look out at the world depicting it the same ways as always for the same audiences to have their realities confirmed. So to answer the question; photography will be in the same place where it is today.
But what do I know?
I’m not a soothsayer or a time traveller – I’m only a photographer.
One, though, whose eyes sees, and heart feels, nonetheless.