Essay component…

by am109145

‘An illustrated essay, which critiques how socially engaged practitioners, including myself, have addressed social engagement/ activism through…photography’

 Looking at Social activism/ engagement as a whole we can define it to be the expression/demonstration of a subtle or confrontational opinion that has a political, social, cultural, economical or environmental agenda. Looking at social activism/engagement in the context of visual communication we can refer to the term to being work that demonstrates an interest in the world and society, work that essentially hopes to make the world a better place and most importantly work that hopes to change the world in some shape or form, whether it be in a subtle manner or a radical/extremist manner. In terms of Visual Communication there are a multitude of practices that allow an individual, a group or groups of people to portray or demonstrate their opinions when interacting and becoming socially engaged with an issue. The way that I intend to illustrate, address and critique social activism/engagement is through the practice of photography.

Photography can be used as a tool for social engagement/activism in various ways, from the very early stages of photography photographers have used it as a tool to demonstrate social injustice and help social reform or even just raise social awareness. One of the beneficial attributes that photography has as a form of activism is that it allows for an audience to be able to see something in the form of a freeze frame in it’s rawest form, the content of the photograph depicts that something needs to be changed or corrected within society. John Locke explained that ‘as every man has a power to punish the crime, to prevent it being committed again, by the right he has of preserving all mankind and doing all reasonable things he can do in order to the end’  (Locke, 2012: xii) we can apply this to the role of an activist photographer in this day and age. Using photography as a tool we are able to portray a issue that needs to be corrected or changed in society by capturing a photograph and using it as a piece of evidence of the crime/issue that has arisen that needs to be corrected and changed. Another benefit of photography been a tool for activism is that is allows for individuals to become socially engaged not only for the benefit of society but also for the benefit of themselves, using photography as a tool photographers can become engaged citizens who take responsibility for and action for change to occur. Larry Towel (a self proclaimed activist photographer) once said ‘It is our responsibility to do something because we live here’ (Towel,2012: xiv) when on the panel of discussion of human rights in New York City, Using Larry Towel as a activist photographer who captured some images and then actively took part panel discussion about Human Rights, we can clearly see that the tool of photography helped him become a engaged citizen. Although it is contemplated that self-sacrifice is a issue when photographers get involved with taking photographs in dangerous situations or situation where there is serious conflict, is it known to be believed that an engaged citizen will risk there lives in order to be socially engaged with issues that deeply effect them, using photography as a tool for engagement they are able to become apart of the process of change, ‘the ‘activism is more about the means than the change’ (Borge,2012:pxiv).

Although all the points made above are valid it is questionable to how reliable photography is as a tool for social activism/engagement, it can be confused or misinterpreted for documentary photography that has been manipulated or blurred into a biased viewpoint. The morality of the image can be questioned when looking at documentary photography ‘Critics have declared traditional documentary dead…emulating it’s aesthetic with images that are manipulated, staged and constructed’ (Borge,2012:xv), it is rare that traditional documentary photography exists in this era- a documentary image can be a tool for social activism/engagement however the majority of the time documentary photography is regarded as non-activist documentary as the images usual are manipulated, altered or captured from a biased point of view with results in misinterpretation and confusion, rather than obvious social awareness or activism. However on the on other hand it can be argued that documentary photography is not a tool for social activism, it is clear to us that documentary photography has a point of view however the point of view documentary photography has is not necessarily as strong or as certain as a social activist opinion/ point of view. Ultimately documentary photography questions whether the pure practice of photography is a reliable tool for social activism/engagement, if a large part of that practice i.e. Documentary photography is deemed as non-activist then it debatable as to how reliable photography as a whole practice is a beneficial tool for activism.

As we can see from the points made above using photography as a tool for activism has it’s pro’s and con’s, although the practice helps depict activism in it’s rawest form it can be argued that photography as a practice has a large majority of non-activist photographers and content too. If the practice was purely activist then there would be no question as to whether it is a valuable and reliable tool for social engagement, however as its used as a tool for other reasons it is debatable to what extent it forms a accurate depiction of social activism. Now that I have discussed it’s pro’s and con’s I will now move onto looking at work from various socially engaged practitioners.

The first socially engaged practitioner that I am going to discuss is a photographer who doesn’t state his name however is referred to via all of his blogs and webpages and posts as ‘More Altitude’ he is a glob-trotting community aid worker who works in emergency relief camps for international charities, he is also a traveller however most importantly a socially engaged photographer/practitioner who focuses on photojournalism and portrait shots. More Altitude posts work upon the things that he sees, the thing’s that he engages with and the rawness of his experience on his travels in relation to the socially engaged issues experiences and captures using the tool of photography. ‘As a rule I like to closely reflect what I saw with my own eyes’ (More altitude,2008) he likes to take photographs in accordance to what is being seen, latter in his posts he then outlines his despise for heavily edited photography ‘rather than a heavily edited image that is stray to far from reality’ (More altitude,2008). Based upon the photo essay/article that he posted on October 11, 2010 called ‘Nutrition program walk through’ we are immediately able to establish that his socially engaging photography addresses his concern for malnutrition in Niger. In a brief summary the article and talks about the effect of chronic and acute malnutrition in Niger, the link between malnutrition and diseases. Following this the article then goes onto explaining the ongoing suffering that this creates for adults, children and the suffering community, he describes the situation and the social issue raised in the article very simply ‘It is a viscous cycle’ (More altitude,2010). He then moves onto talking about the refuge/relief camp that is then set up to help these suffering citizens of Niger and the feeding center’s that are put in place to support the malnourished. The process of helping to aid the masses of malnourished is then described and the article ends on the note that although the center is moved on to the next place of most needed help there is a continuous delivery of support for the citizens thereafter.

In essence the article is a representation of the situation of social crisis, the use of wording is important however the series of images that he has used to support the text give the addressed issue somewhat of a substance and reality. More Altitude is a true representation of a socially active practitioner in multiple ways. Firstly his proactive lifestyle of consistently and constantly being at the forefront scene of the social issue, which in this case is in Niger looking addressing malnutrition, is a supportive point that ‘Social activism is more about the means’ (Borge,2012:xiv). Working our way from [fig 1.] we can see that photography has been used as tool to capture the issue of malnutrition by depicting the suffering of a malnourished child as the subject. The fragile body of the child is evident in the image through the bare bone body that holds the child up, the pain and the suffering has been capture through the eyes of the child in the center of the frame making it the focal point of the piece. The image itself is purely in-focus on the child and the background is completely blurred out, the subject matter/ the social issue can defiantly have been portrayed without the surrounding text/article, which in essence makes photography (the tool) a strong practice for social engagement. Not only does More Altitude document the social issue through the lens of the camera he then moves onto taking four or so more photographs which continue to support the addressing of the issue. In [fig.2] he has captured the process of the social change that will take place, the look on the child’s eyes and the composition of the subject within the image of the mother clenching the ticket awaiting her turn in the refuge feeding center depicts the hope for help  – the activist More Altitude is not only using photography as tool to address social issues he is also using it to depict social change which he is actively involved with- within the three weeks that the refuge center is set up. In [fig.3] we can see that the mothers lined up with there children in the refuge camp, I have found this image very interesting – More Altitude has captured the bright colorful colors on a image that shows social change and re-form which is undergone, photography as a tool here is aiding the representation of the change through the tonal values of the colours that are being directed into the lens. In [fig.4] and [fig.5] we can see that a close up frame has been used to depict the help and the aid that the children are receiving- More Altitude has clearly been involved with the journey of social engagement, not only did he use photography as a tool and means of addressing the social issue he also actively took part in the social change. Thus making photography a tool that enables us to address, document and show social activism from the raw eyes of the situation which clarity that shows us the true suffering of these children in Niger. Digital photography in this particular instance has been taken to a country miles from us, captured the social engagement and change and has been depicted worldwide using the internet and social media as a platform for dispersal and deliver. The approach taken by the practitioner More Altitude is hands on and fairly extremist in the sense that his whole life is dedicated to aid social change and help others.

In comparison to More Altitude the second practitioner I am going to discuss: Catherine Balet is much more subtly in her activist approach. Catherine Balet is a social activist portrait photographer in the same way as More Altitude, however the subject matter that Catherin focuses on is Identity. The series of photographs that she has taken in the form of portraits originally derived from realizing during the period of her travelling that the French Government were debating a controversial law in schools, this was to ban the representation of religious and political symbols and signs i.e. taking the right of expression away from students. In essence ‘the wearing of crosses and scarves had to disappear from schools, it just seemed paradoxical and confusing’ (Balet,2006:5). Putting this into context the French Government were considering taking away the expression of culture, of religious belief and of ancestral history. Catherine Balet describes how in response to this she started collecting pictures of ‘signs and labels, codes and icons’ from a school in Paris, which then went onto a European exploration of dress codes into schools in London, Berlin, Barcelona and Milan. In a nutshell she was collecting the identities of students based upon there appearance and exterior identity, she states ‘I felt like a anthropologic tourist investigating these tribal subdivisions and travelling at the intersection of individual history and collective memory’ (Balet,2006:5). The project then evolved into her shooting portraits 4×5 of young boys and girls who were in quest for identity through wearing consumerist brands or somewhat of a branded nature.

If we look at [fig. 6] it is apparent in the series of portraits that these young males and females are wearing branded clothing, which seems to evoke content of a sexual or derogatory nature. The branding of the clothing which has been captured by Balet has been photographed so that the focal point is the typography that is located is in the center of the frame, which outlines the text sexualized words or phrases such as ‘69’, ‘Pornstar instructor’ on a few of the t-shirts that the male subjects are wearing. However it is not just the male subjects that are portraying this message/identity, the female subjects are wearing clothing that are little more subtle such as t-shirts that say ‘hottie’ and ‘All men are macho’ however still refer to the same subject or nature. Catherine Balet has approached raising the social issue of identity through taking these portrait shots of these young males and females using photography as a tool to portray the explicitly of there clothing. Moving onto image 2 the representation of consumerist brands being represented by young people being brainwashed into thinking it is ‘cool’ to wear and represent these big branded companies is also apparent. Balet has used the same photographic technique in terms of framing, composition and surroundings to portray this group of people who like to represent and promote consumer brands thus promote there own identity as being apart of these brands. I would consider Catherine a Balet a socially engaged practitioner for the reason that the intent of her work has derived from a political issue, which has made her realize that the quest for identity in a world full of consumerist brands is difficult yet intriguing. Catherine Balet’s photographs can be considered a form of social engagement, the ideas behind her activist photography is evident after reading the text behind her ideology and her concept and the development of work has been derived from a political issue that she engaged with. However although this is all very true it is debatable to how far her work is portrayed as socially active in a visual manner. As a practitioner she is subtle in her approach the images/portraits that support her activist ideas are also subtle in there response as they could be considered to not have much substance or meaning at face value – the work itself can be interpreted in different ways thus the subject matter is not easily interpreted or pin pointed at face value. Although she has amerced herself and her beliefs about the importance of freedom and identity her portraits seem lost when it comes to raising awareness about a social issue, it seems distant from making any social change or social reform.

Although both practitioners are considered as socially engagement/social activist it is distinguishable that there approach to activism is somewhat different. More altitude’s images seem to be far more raw to the eyes- the capturing of the suffering and the uncensored explicitly of the struggle that is voiced in the photographs create a larger emotional impact on the audience, the use of a shock technique is evident within More altitudes work. In comparison, Catherine Balet has taken a more subtle approach the images that she has produced in response to the activism that she is passionate about seems not to use a shock technique but moreso just leaves the audience with a question in mind as to what the subject matter of her portraits are portraying. For the reason of feeling a sense of disengagement with Balet’s images and the use of a successful shock technique it is evident that More altitudes approach is much more effective. It also seems that More altitude is fully amerced in the activist lifestyle- his commitment to traveling around the world and being a aid worker along with being a socially activist photographer conveys his desire for social change and active hand in social reform. In comparison to More altitude, Catherine Balet seems to take more of a backseat when it comes to making social change, although she raises awareness within her images it seems that the she has almost stumbled across her ideas and opinions and taken them halfway thus not fully amercing herself as a socially engaged practitioners. The subject matter of More altitude work is of a worldwide/world known subject matter of malnutrition, being a socially activist practitioner is vital in raising awareness of the situation, as the subject matter is familiar to all worldwide one may consider More altitudes approach to socially engagement much more successful in comparison to Balet’s work which seems to touch on a small European issue. Although this may be the case it is not to say that her work is less creditable as a form of engagement but moreso that as a socially engaged practitioner More Altitudes work seems to be more effective in its response to the issues that are being outlined.

In support to this essay I as a socially engaging practitioner have used photography as a tool for social engagement to address the issue of the misrepresentation of products that are portrayed and marketed as healthy by consumer brands to the audience, I consider this to be a social issue that affects the entirety of society and a worldwide community. In order to connote the true nutritional value of the products that are portrayed as ‘healthy’ I decided to take five products [fig. 7] and represent the quantity of one raw ingredient in each product that is damaging to the body/system, I did this by photographing the product next to the raw ingredient on a wooden chopping board in a domestic kitchen environment. The product and raw ingredient was composed in the center of the frame making it the focal point of the image, the use of a plain kitchen tiled background gave the simplicity necessary for the issue to be addressed in its rawest form. I then presented these images to my audience and recorded their response to the image content. As suspected 92% of the audience were shocked and taken-back by what they thought was a ‘healthy’ product in their eyes. As a socially engaged practitioner I feel as though my issue with big branded companies and the misrepresentation of ‘healthy’ products was a successful portrayal, the reason that my work was successful was due to the application of the shock tactic technique learnt from More Altitudes approach. Although my images were not on a comparable level of rawness to More Altitudes image I feel that the technique was successful applied in correlation with the subject matter. I also feel that using un-edited photographs similar to both socially engaged practitioners was a beneficial tactic, my audience responded that if my photographs were manipulated on Photoshop heavily then the overall reaction they would have to the series of images would be of a smaller impact.

In conclusion I think its worthy and valid to say that photography is a essential and much-needed tool as a platform of social engagement if used in the correct manner. By correct manner I feel as though it is important that socially engaged practitioners continue to portray such social issues through raw un-edited and non-manipulated photographs. Photo editing is deemed as perverting the raw experience and raw content of the situation at the time, it is deemed as a form of exaggeration and leads to misconception thus a misrepresentation of issue at hand. Without photography as a platform/practice for social engagement we as citizens of the world would be less wiser to the happenings on the planet we live on, without knowing the what is going on in the world around us it makes it impossible to improve ourselves as human beings -not only as individuals however more importantly as a community, through helping others and helping each other, raising social awareness is ultimately the most efficient way in pushing for social change and ultimately having the goal of socially reform in mind as a end target/resolution.

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Balet, C. (2006) ‘Identity’, 1st edition, P89, Steidl Publishers, Düstere Street. 4/ D-37073 Göttingen

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