Photography as Symptom

Photographers and those who’ve written on the subject have had a problem; one could say this problem haunts the medium. This problem is seeing photography as a medium to be addressed within a relative vacuum. Not necessarily culturally or socially, as many projects’ main focus today is to escape the tropes laid out in the late 20th century. Even NGOs have strict Stalinist-like guidelines and approval processes to make sure that images are both respectful to the subjects and ‘on-brand’. It’s not social and cultural issues, but larger ones. Photography faces a problem of ignoring the larger networks that photography exists under, specifically capitalism, neoliberalism, and post-fordism. This is exacerbated by the lack of writers on the topic in general, As Alan Trachtenberg observes in the introduction to Classic Essays on Photography, 1980:


A common lament among photographers and their admirers is that the medium lacks a critical tradition, a tradition of serious writing. It is true that photography has seemed to inspire as much foolishness in words as banalities in pictures, and especially true that we cannot name a single writer of significance who has devoted himself or herself entirely to photographic criticism and theory. 


Even for those who have written on the topic, the primary focus has been dissecting the medium without confronting it as a symptom. Why is this the case? The why is a matter of ideology, however, what is missing will be summarized in this article. 

While photography is its own network with elements existing under it (what most photo theory encompasses, although addressing of course the relation to things like art and technology), it’s more importantly an element within larger networks, such as the news media industry, photography industry, the tech industry, and larger networks like post-fordism, neoliberalism, and capitalism. To speculate on the current and future states of the medium, recognizing the medium as a symptom is essential. 

To expose photography as an element within a network is to reveal the transcendence of the medium. Photography as a commodity (as Walter Benjamin claimed) displays what Marx called the fetishism of commodity (the process of a commodity disclosing the networks involved in its production and distribution). Like a commodity, the processes that bring this medium to the point in which it can be criticized and theorized are there even if there’s little acknowledgment of them. The obvious example is the photo and tech industry. Obviously the camera you shoot with was made by low paid workers in factories throughout Asia, then the people in companies that make decisions about labor and tech are at the mercy of the market and competition, the market and competition are dependant on consumers and investors, as photography shifts towards including smart phone images, it of course includes the practices of Apple/Amazon/Google etc… 

Looking specifically at photojournalists, if they hope to make a living shooting images of current events, they are of course at the mercy of news media platforms who are of course also driven by the market. The current state of the news media industry exists as a product of neoliberalism (implemented by Reagan/Thatcher era deregulation) that led to the acceleration of globalized and hypermarketized news media companies. Neoliberalism’s not only a series of policies enacted by Reagan’s administration, but a global consensus, a hegemony, that the free market can solve problems and the government only disrupts prosperity (unless of course bailing out private institutions). 

As full-time photojournalists continue to be laid off, the overall trend can be observed as a symptom of multiple factors: technology and the overabundance of images/events that implode the meaning and monetization of photography, news media losing money and influence, but also the evolution of the workplace, from fordism (working in a factory, but being paid a living wage) to post-fordism (the ‘gig economy’/’be your own boss’, low wages, less full-time jobs, less benefits). This is easily seen in photography as there’s a predicted continued decrease in employed photographers and an increase in self-employed, outlining the current and future state of the field¹

It shouldn’t be a surprise that major news companies, after becoming the giants that they are, would be challenged and replaced by something new. This is of course an essential aspect of a market based system, summed up in the famous 1848 pamphlet by Marx and Engels:  


All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify… All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations… (Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848 p 63). 


This is illuminated in most industries today as the rate of technological advancements and automation threatens every industry when automation becomes the more profitable alternative to human labor, echoing the industrial revolutions. As Uber and Lyft drivers protest for higher wages and benefits, Uber is becoming closer to replacing drivers altogether with self driving cars. High quality phone cameras and dslrs have demonetized the career photojournalists. Small online news platforms are doing the same to larger news media companies. None of this technology would necessarily force industries to die if it were not for the larger networks it exists under. 

 The news media, a form of presentation which has caused a desensitization, a ‘war fatigue’ that spreads to all current events, has led many to believe that the medium as a vesille for change has lost its place altogether. However, there are many artists and photographers today who attempt to bypass the ineffective aspects of the news media through new processes, most of which are illuminated in Fred Ritchin’s books. Although Ritchin might not specifically address photography as a symptom of these larger networks in his writings, the projects he lists nonetheless illuminate an implicit intent to bypass profitability to spark change. Although they are subject to their own forms of market drives (most try to get the images posted on publications and displayed in galleries), specific projects seemed to have realistic goals set and their effectiveness seemed to be greater, especially with a lack of profitability. 

One of the projects Ritchin lists is the project Basetrack in which a team of photojournalists and artists followed the deployment of 1/8 – 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines, during their deployment in southern Afghanistan, posting iPhone images on a Facebook group where the public and family members could engage. The photojournalist Teru Kuwayama describes his frustration with the military, who needed to approve and censor all posts, and the media who wouldn’t feature the images or project:


It wasn’t just the military that was discouraging us from making meaningful pictures…  The magazines we worked for - or gave our pictures to - clearly didn’t want them, either. We would come back from an embed, where we’d been in the fight of our lives, and we would get these absurd reasons about how that wasn’t interesting enough to publish or wasn’t right for that week. p64


Ritchin goes on to say that while the media and military weren’t receptive - the military uninvited the team before the end of the tour -  family members of the soldiers deployed or elsewhere in the military engaged with the project on an impactful way. One mother saying “It has truly saved me from a devastating depression and uncontrollable anxiety after my son deployed. Having this common ground with other moms helped me so much and gives me encouragement each day.” 

Although Ritchin’s point is that maybe larger news companies should implement these alternative forms of presentation that utilize technology to more effectively illuminate current events and news, contributing their lack of implementation to publication’s taste (“The reluctance of other media outlets to contrast photographs in a similar manner may be a sign of a limited taste for visual adventure in the press, or a sign that such juxtapositions may be considered too politically charged…”), their implementation could warrant the opposite of what’s necessary for utilizing photography as a medium for change. Ritchin brings to light many of the issues and potential steps to solutions for reigniting the medium through utilizing technology, even if not acknowledging why. If we acknowledge where photography stands as a symptom, it’s clear that offering a new form of presentation to be exploited either by big companies or by becoming the new popular form of media presentation, this isn’t necessarily as glamorous as it sounds. These alternative forms of presentation would quickly become the ‘new meat’ which would quickly be commercialized and dried out just like the newest meme trend. More importantly these effects should be seen through this wider lens enveloping the larger networks such as the market driven news media whose place is a product of neoliberalism and whose future will be challenged by demonetized forms of presentation, just as photojournalism is now.

If there’s any solution to be formulated, perhaps acknowledging photography as a symptom is the first step. The medium is trapped in a bubble of the observer as Sontag prescribes: “Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world rather than trying to change it. Photographers… suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.” The essential second step would be to implement this acknowledgement of symptom into action. This would be through the way in which photographers and writers on photography go about engaging with the medium. Experimenting with projects which don’t aspire to be picked up by media outlets or publications, looking to fulfill specific realistic goals outside of market drives and larger audiences. Confronting the interaction, perhaps by attempting to avoid the larger networks, or exploiting them as a direct means of the aim of the project. Instead of simply acknowledging afterwards that “Yes, I am apart of the machine that delegitimize the impact of events on the public, but I’m just trying to do my part”, striving to experiment in ways that directly address the goals set. Instead of making the goal ‘exposure’ of an issue, which is inherent in every project that’s posted on as many publications as possible, try creating a form of realistic hyperintent (for example JR’s images printed on waterproof material used as roofs for the subjects being photographed). However, one should be careful in a misplaced optimism under these networks, as escaping them might be harder than it seems and photography, if utilized locally with hyperintent, will do little to nothing to change the larger networks. However, by acknowledging photography as a symptom, photographers can navigate the landscape of capitalist modes of photography and move towards a new future.

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