Shawn Sobers is Associate Professor of Lens Media at University of the West of England, Bristol, and is a filmmaker, photographer and researcher. His projects has spanned a wide range of topics, from the use of youth media in informal education, through to using media as an ethnographic research tool exploring subjects such as the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, through to people with disabilities and walking. The common aspect across these diverse projects is participatory approaches to facilitating people to have their voice and opinions heard.
I have had the pleasure of working with Knowle West Media Centre on and off over the past 16 years, as a partner organisation to my own community media production company Firstborn Creatives. We worked on many participatory photography and video projects together, with young and older people, the ethos of all them being to foreground what the participants themselves wanted to say about any given topic, using the creative media tool as a form of expression. This is an ethos I continue to take with me and informs both my practice as a photographer and filmmaker, and as a lecturer in photography.
Talking about the role of writing in society, Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa said;
“The writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future.”
This is how I view the potential of professional photography in the modern era, in the age of ubiquity of the digital photographic image. In the same way that the invention of photography influenced the art world to develop more expressive forms of painting and mark making, away from figurative representations towards more impressionist and abstract approaches, I believe that the ubiquitous nature of digital photography will foster and accelerate new forms of professional photography, in ways that possibly only future historians will be able to detect.
The movement from photography as a mere capture tool, towards a more constructed and staged medium is nothing new, and has been a legitimate approach for photographers to take since the invention of photography itself. For example, Oscar Rejlander’s 1857 image ‘Two Ways of Life’ is a montage comprising of 32 spliced together images, and he was under no illusion that his aim was to raise moral questions and ‘shape’ the present and future.
That said, with the modern era of seeing digital photography production and online global display available to anyone with a smartphone, the question of what it is that separates an enthusiastic amateur from a trained photographer is a potent question. Here I am not going to attempt to present a hierarchy between the photographic skills of trained and untrained photographers, as you have strong and weak technical practitioners on both sides of the educated fence. What I will argue here for a deeper need for critical thinking and knowledge of the subject, not only the technical aspects of photography, but also the social and relational aspects of the discipline.
To survive and thrive as a professional photographer, whether working in commercial or conceptual art context, the awareness needed to understand how to navigate yourself both technically and intellectually, so you are a practitioner with both subject and business savvy, cannot be underestimated.
There is a school of thought that suggests due to the ubiquity of photography in contemporary industrialised societies, that there is no longer a need for photography education. I argue to the contrary, as the photographic image has now become ingrained into everyday forms of communication, there is now more a need than ever for photography education to be taken seriously as a relevant discourse in today’s society. Though I would say that wouldn’t I, as I teach photography at a university.
I am also an advocate of media literacy, which is a campaign of sorts that suggests modern forms of literacy have evolved from solely the foundational duel platforms of the spoken and written word to also include media products, and that access to media tools, an understanding of mediated messages, and the ability to produce your own media products, are becoming increasingly important skills needed to navigate the complexities of modern life.
The ubiquity of the pen and books did not dispense of the need for English as an academic subject, the advent of the calculator did not see the death of mathematics, and the proliferation of personal computers did not call for the demise in IT and computer programming. Photography education has more to offer than the mere ability of how to press a camera (or phone) button to capture a light written representation. It may soon become a time that the ability to read a photographic image is an important as the ability to read any given sentence in your native language, and many might argue that we have already reached that point.
As an experiment, type the word ‘family’ into your internet search engine, and show the results for images. When I tried this (at time of writing, 25 Oct 2016), I was faced with a huge page of results of photographic and illustrated images of happy smiley nuclear families, massive grins into the camera, tightly hugging each other, children on their parents backs, or leaping in the air with exaggerated joy. There was no deviation from the overwhelming view that ‘family’ is an extremely happy and positive phenomena. The only ‘subversive’ image in the search engine results, was a single photograph of a melancholy looking woman, man and boy, from a review of a television series called ‘The Family’. Of course, you do not need much prompting to work out that these are idealistic, exaggerated and ‘unrealistic’ representations of what most of us know from the experience of the idea of family, which I guess would be somewhat more muted than the gleeful stock images in these search results.
What I love about conversations about photography with students, colleagues, and at conferences, is that very soon you are talking about ideas much bigger than that single photographic artefact itself, even though that is still the root of the conversation. Like the famous Schrodinger’s Cat, you are both talking and not talking about the photograph at the same time.
For example, take any one of the family portraits from the internet search, and beyond talking about the technical elements of the image, such as the focus as colour saturation, soon you enter into a conversation about the what problematic notions of ‘normal’ mean in terms of the idea of the family, discussing gender roles and expectations, and what the body language, dress sense, say about our perceptions of the models, and how our own experiences of what the family means start to influence what we read into the image. You start to then explore how such ‘ideal type’ images proliferate a status quo in society that perpetuates certain values and beliefs that might be an anathema to your own. What psychological and alienating impact these types of images, which are essentially social propaganda images, can have on someone with more challenging history of family themselves.
In a tutorial you would then steer the conversation to find out what the student’s intentions were for their project, what is it they want to say about families in their own work, and how they might use their own personal experiences, knowledge of what others have produced on the topic of family, (for example, Bill Owens, Tina Barney, Trish Morrissey, Nicholas Nixon, and Richard Billingham, etc), and how ideas relating to representation, semiotics, gender politics, and other references, might inform how they go about shooting images of the family dynamic for their project. Following this, the discussion turns to methods of engagement, ethics, relationship building, and how best to approach the project from a position of integrity.
Integrity is a slippery word, especially in relation to the discipline of photography – it can relate to ideas about photography and truth – especially in the fields of documentary and photojournalism. It can relate to conversations about ethics – and how photographers relate to their subjects and being aware of the power you have when you have a camera in your hand. And it can also point towards attitudes of professionalism – to produce work with integrity.
With professionalism I’m reminded of the carvers of misericords (also known as mercy seats) found in medieval churches and cathedrals, who spent years painstakingly carving the underneath of the pews with perfect designs even though they would never be seen by human eyes, as it was about their pride in their work, and their own satisfaction. In many ways to succeed as a photographer in today’s climate, one has to be somewhat obsessed and possessed, brewing a heady mixture of talent, skill, intellect, savvy, and tenacity.
In a loose way you could say the different perspectives on integrity are connected with the thread of, what could be described as ‘honesty’, and how upfront and aware the photographer is about what they are doing, which will often be a fusion of the personal and professional.
In photographic terms I think of Sophie Calle, who might be considered quite a left-field example in a conversation about integrity. It could seem contradictory that as someone who is interested in photography and ethics that I would reference Calle’s work, as through the frame of ethics she is hugely problematic and would not get past a university ethics committee. I remember talking about the work of Sophie Calle to a room of non-photographers during a workshop, and when I described her work – about how she stalked a man all the way from Paris to St Petersburg, how she got a job as a hotel chambermaid to take photographs of the guests’ belongings, and show she found an address book and contacted all the entrants – their jaws hit the floor. They asked how come she wasn’t in prison, and how she got away with not only doing what she did, but then going public about it, presenting the images of her exploits as art. The key quality about Calle is that she is truthful in what she does in obsessive and possessive ways. Professional as an artist, and I would say an artist with integrity, even though it is ethically problematic. She puts her full conviction into her work and makes herself vulnerable in the process of making others vulnerable. So even though Calle might be ethically problematic, and is not something I would ever personally want to do, or advise a student to do, for me she is still a bit like the carver of the underneath of the pews, doing things with perfection, sometimes at a personal cost.
So integrity can mean different things depending on how you enter the conversation and how you personally relate to it. The topic of photography and ethics is hugely important to students and recent graduates, as they enter the professional and public arena. In terms of integrity though we are all students, we are all forever learning and understanding what is acceptable or not in any given situation of the day. Integrity comes before photography and is exaggerated and accelerated after photography, and is accentuated by it. This is why research and knowledge of your subject is vitally important, as it arms you with an understanding and awareness of these wider related conversations and some contextual guidance of how to avoid the ethical road mines.
In an era of tighter budgets and shorter deadlines, the tension to remain a practitioner who retains your integrity to your own sets of principles can become acute, especially when working in a competitive market. Beyond the theories of integrity, ethics, truth and professionalism, as individuals working in any field at any level, it is important we understand how we personally enter the conversation of ‘What makes me a person, a practitioner, or an organisation with integrity?’ as our response to that answer is our anchor to help keep us grounded when all else around us is swirling in doubt.
I’ll end by telling you about a scene I saw last week when I was driving. I did not pull over the car even though I had my camera with me, as I did not consider it ethically sound to do. It resulted in a classic photograph that I did not take.
9.30am – early morning drinkers, possibly homeless, near Cabot Circus St Judes area. About six men using a fly-tipped cabinet unit on the pavement as a bar. The men crowded around it, cans of lager and bottles of cider placed on top the unit, the men stood cross legged chatting to one another. It was a lovely moment to witness.
I didn’t get the photo, but the memory remains. Maybe one day I might get some people together and reconstruct it, to bring the story alive and make visual, but maybe I won’t. I have a belief that the ubiquity of both images and text on social media, especially on Twitter, has made visuals like slogans, and text like visuals – an instant scan of the content and we feel we get the meaning, and we move onto the next one. Now that I have written about this scene, especially in a photographic context, maybe that in itself is the photograph. No need to make it visual, as it already is, hopefully with my integrity still intact. The scene continues to possess me. That is enough.