Musings on a Sontagian Sentiment

'The problem is not that people remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs' - Susan Sontag

Sontag’s sentiment regarding the relationship between memory and photographic practice effectively pinpoints the problematic nature of such a medium in either precisely or metaphorically representing our conception of the past. Photographs at once appear as a document of the past, liberating us from ambiguity and at the same time are precarious and capricious in their nature as a mechanical reproduction of reality. This essay will attempt to discuss the idea of memory within photography and the ability of the photograph to both aid and erode memory. The work of Peter Nitsch will be addressed in response to the idea that “photographs demand the projection of our personal recollections” (Batchen, G 2004, p. 97) and in contrast the work of Chino Otsuka advocates the idea of photographs as flexible in their representation of the past as Lefcowitz (2011, p. 239) argues the “mythologizing” and “approximate” essence of the visually recollected.

The idea of photography as an aid to memory was most seminally discussed by Barthes (1980) where he vehemently and most notably diagnosed the evidentiary nature of photography as the very noeme of the medium; “The name of photography’s noeme will be: ‘That has been’” (Barthes, 1980, p. 77). Barthes seems to be saying that photography aids memory in that it provides irrefutable evidence of a past phenomenon. It provides an account of history by which our memories are compared and perhaps corrected; “the unpredictable thrill of memory” (Batchen, 2004, p. 15) is replaced with the “dull certainties of history”. He furthers this by saying that photographs are a literal (almost physical) connection to the past (1980, p. 80):

The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations, which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.

It is in this way that Barthes, as evidenced in his reference of Sontag, seems to concur with the latter’s view of photographs as perhaps usurping memories. Barthes posits that “the photograph is violent” (1980, p. 91) not so because of its content but because it “fills the sight by force”. Likewise, Sontag draws attention to the likeness between photographs and memories themselves: both static, “freeze-frames” (2004, p. 113) of phenomena. She submits that “in an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form for memorizing it”.

Peter Nitsch’s body of work Early Memories directly addresses this idea of the ability of photographs to both prompt and persuade memory. Nitsch’s use of missing photographs removed from albums and replaced with descriptive text explores the idea of visual remembrance and memories connected with the photograph itself.

Nitsch’s work almost directly references Barthes idea of the evidential force, testimony and connection of photographs; effectively, Nitsch’s work represents the severance of Barthes’ “umbilical cord” (1980, p. 81), the darkening of his light as a “carnal medium”. The resemblance of his sentiment to that of Nitsch’s politic is uncanny; as Barthes further articulates (1980, p. 94):

What is it that will be done away with along with this photograph that yellows, fades and will someday be thrown out, if not by me – too superstitious for that – at least when I die? Not only “life” (this was alive, this posed live in front of the lens), but also sometimes, how to put it? – Love.

We can see, through Nitsch’s work, the precarious relationship between photographs and memory and the way in which the visually reproduced informs our perception of the past. The missing photographs serve to remind us of our reliance on photographs as evidence of not only what has happened or what has existed but to confirm or deny aspects of memory that may have been imprecise. As Van Dijck (2008, p. 58) posits:

They [photographs] were typically regarded to be a person’s most reliable aid for recall and for verifying ‘life as it was’, even if we know that imagination, projection and remembrance are inextricably bound up in the process of remembering.

It is this “process of remembering” that is the difference between photographs and memory and what must inform our understanding of photography’s ability to either aid or erode it. Van Dijck (2008) draws attention to the idea of remembering through photographs and photographs becoming memories of collective cognizance. However, in relation to this, he also advocates the idea that digital manipulation has given people the ability to ‘reinvigorate’, to improve, or effectively alter memories: “To some extent, the camera allows more control over our memories, giving us the tools for ‘brushing up’ and reinvigorating remembrances” (2008, p. 70). Batchen (2004, p. 16) posits that the difference between photography and memory is that photography “obeys the rules of nonfiction. Memory, in contrast is selective, fuzzy in outline, intensively subjective… conveniently malleable”. However, it is this “malleability” that Lefcowitz (2011, p. 233) deems as the link between memory and photographs: “Memories are of course open to distortions and corrections. But photographs too can involve distortions of reality”.

Chino Otsuka’s series Imagine Finding Me addresses this idea of malleability and suggests individual memory as something written in pencil, not pen. Otsuka’s body of work excavates her own visual history by altering pictures of her youthful self – composting contemporary self-portraits into the frame. In doing so, she hints at the fabricated nature of memory, at the “illusory nature of a photo, which is not greatly different from the illusory nature of memory” (Lefcowitz, 2011, p. 237). Otsuka poses the question: can photography be an accurate record? She asks if the trust we afford to photographs, being a mechanical, mimetic process, is too much. We grant them truth as signifiers yet photographs, she posits, can be speculative and misleading. Batchen (2004, p. 15) - pertinently to Otsuka’s work – asks:

Think back to childhood. Can you remember it? Or do the images that come to mind resemble the photographs you have been shown? Has photography replaced your memories with its own?

Otsuka, in line with this, prompts the idea that it is only when we revise the photographs in our albums that we construct and perpetuate memory.

In response to the question of how photography can both aid and erode memory, it seems, from the aforementioned examples that this is predicated almost entirely upon our understanding, or definition of, memory. One could ask if photography is a good way of remembering things. Or, contrarily, if photography is a good way of representing finality or truth? Peter Nitsch’s and Chino Otsuka’s work address these questions respectively. Nitsch seems to concur with Barthes; both subsumed in their optimism of the photograph as a reference of history – of not only what has happened or what something looked like but to “restore what has been abolished” (Barthes, 1980, p. 82) and furthermore the “lacerating emphasis of the noeme” (Barthes, 1980, p. 96) is testimony to both Barthes’ and Nitsch’s belief in photography as inextricably bound to objective remembrance. Otsuka’s pessimism in the precision of both mediums is what prompts her politic: a harsh critique of both photography’s and memory’s notion of infinite ubiquity and permanence (Golding, 2000). Photography can both aid and erode memory simply because of the medium’s existence as autonomous from the viewer’s subjectivity. As Sontag (2004, p. 115) posited, “people remember only the photographs” and “memory freeze frames”. It would seem that people retain either their own memory of the phenomena or the camera’s memory. Whichever is seen as more objective and whether both exist identically, both are subject to malleability.


Reference List:
Barthes, R 1980, Camera Lucida, Vintage, London
Batchen, G 2004, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Princeton Architectural Press, New York
Golding, M 2000, ‘Photography, Memory and Survival’, Literature and Theology, vol. 14 no. 1, pp. 52-68
Lefcowitz, B 2011, ‘Memory and Photography’, Southwest Review, vol. 96 no. 2, pp. 231-241
Sontag, S 2004, ‘Memory as Freeze-Frame: Extracts from Looking at War’, Diogenes, vol. 201 no. 51, pp. 113-118
Van Dijck, J 2008, ‘Digital Photography: communication, identity, memory’, Visual Communication, University of Amsterdam, Holland




Media Commentary - Obama's Inherent Liberalism

A response to:

In this speech from president Obama, advocating the exemplary status of the United States economy, we see an intrinsic and seemingly inveterate liberal dogma. Taking place at a South Hampton Q&A, the president is asked to address the issue of camaraderie in society within the current political sphere. President Obama utilizes the opportunity to espouse several individualistic, utilitarian and economically centric ideals elementary to the heart of both America and Liberalism. Counter to this atomistic modus operandi, I wish to highlight an alternative: Anarchy. My primary concern is the juxtaposition of countering views on individual satisfaction, individual freedom, entrepreneurship and equality between these two ideologies.  

From the outset of President Obama’s speech, the undertones of Liberalism are immediately evident. Two key liberal ideals become discernable in the president’s first sentence. Firstly, is the term “individual freedom”. At the heart of Liberalist thought is the individual and individual happiness (Goodwin, B., 2007). This emphasis on the individual is achieved in a number of ways. The limits of authority are a formidable concern of the liberalist and the delimitation of society in which the state is allowed to act is of particular significance (Goodwin, B., 2007). But even more central to the ideals of Liberalism is the subordination of society as a whole in favour of the individual. The importance of negative liberty to Liberalist thinkers resulted in the conception of man as an individual free from social obligations (Goodwin, B., 2007).

Secondly, and in continuation, is President Obama’s reference to “entrepreneurship”. Liberalism promotes equality of opportunity and meritocracy. This denotes a competitive state of society in which individuals are encouraged to engage in self-improvement and to pursue material goals. Liberalists attempt to vindicate this with the idea that entrepreneurialism produces a fair distribution of primary goods (Goodwin, B., 2007). This notion co-exists with the liberal idea of justice through procedures: the idea that justice is not an arbitrary distribution of goods, but instead should establish a protocol by which individuals can pursue their aspirations (Goodwin, B., 2007). One may interpret the consolidation of these ideas as resulting in an advocacy for materialism.

As is now discernable, Liberalism revolves almost completely around the individual. Whilst Anarchism also advocates negative liberty and an elimination of dependence, in contrast to liberalism, this is achieved through the abolition of authority and belief in the natural unity of individuals in an ideal society (Goodwin, B., 2007). The underpinning ideals of Anarchism sharply contrast those of Liberalism and in turn, those advocated by President Obama. Whilst the aforementioned ideal of individual freedom could be perceived as a common goal between the two ideologies, the underlying respective perceptions of this idea could not be more different. And the ideal of entrepreneurship is simply idiosyncratic with Anarchism.  

The difference in perception of individualism between Liberalism and Anarchism can be surmised in two parts. Firstly, contrasting the withdrawal and self-differentiation of Liberal individualism, from an Anarchist perspective, individualism is perceived as self-fulfillment within society (Goodwin, B., 2007, p. 37). To anarchists, freedom is defined as contrast with authority, as opposed to contrast with other individuals. In fact, co-operation with other individuals is a key element to Anarchism, with natural co-operation instanced in the family and social co-operation instanced in the division of labour (Goodwin, B., 2007).

Secondly, and more importantly, is the juxtaposition of utilitarian individualism and expressive individualism (Bellah et al., 1985) between the two ideologies. As is evident in President Obama’s speech, the emphasis on the ability to “open a whitewater rafting company” or to “open a new restaurant” represent the epitome of Liberal dogma: individualism is perceived entirely in terms of economic and utilitarian value. The President continues to say: “That is the well-spring of our wealth and how well we do”. From an Anarchist perspective, individualism is realized not through economic and utilitarian pursuits but instead through creative work. This approach is guided by the notion that each individual has an innate desire to express themselves (Bellah et al., 1985) and that it is axiomatic that every individual should be pleased with their work (Goodwin, B., 2007).

In addition to varying views on individualism, Anarchy also advocates an almost polar opposite conception of equality and justice. As previously mentioned, Liberalism promotes a society based on equality of opportunity in conjunction with meritocracy resulting in a competitive, materialistic social state. Generally, any form of substantial, leveling justice (i.e. equality of outcome) is refuted by Liberalists with the fear that it will hinder both liberty and individual opportunity (i.e. entrepreneurship)(Fowler, R. B., 1972, p.746). Anarchism refutes this by advocating equality of satisfaction whereby justice takes place in the form of distribution of primary goods based on need and to those who can benefit most from them (Goodwin, B., 2007). One could safely assume the implementation of equality of opportunity within Liberal society, given their apparent obsession with the individual and merit. However, from the Anarchist perspective of co-operation, equality is a necessity: co-operation cannot succeed among unequal individuals (Goodwin, B., 2007). Therefore equality of satisfaction is a logically natural resolution and inherently correct as opposed to equality of opportunity, which is implemented only on the premise of competitiveness and consensual government.

As is now discernable, Liberals’ pre-occupation with themselves has resulted, firstly, in a hyper competitive, consumerist and atomistic society whereby success and satisfaction is measured only by material accumulation. Secondly it has resulted in a seemingly paradoxical state of existence: Freedom of choice is personified by the consumer, i.e. freedom is spending money. Utilitarian individualism means working to gain money. Therefore, you work to spend money, or, you work to be free. According to Liberalism, we are all slaves to the grind. Anarchism, the dark horse of political ideologies might free us from this monotony; the attraction of self-fulfillment within society, satisfaction in non-economic, non-utilitarian, creative means (Goodwin, B., 2007), and equality of satisfaction that may free us from the Liberal grind is undeniable. Unfortunate is the stigma surrounding Anarchism, just as unfortunate is society’s apparent content with opening whitewater rafting companies and restaurants. Unfortunate is society’s content with Liberalism.


Reference List:
Bellah, R., Madsen, R., Sullivan, A., Swindler, A., and Tipton, S., 1985, Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life,. University of California Press, Berkeley
Fowler, R.B., 1972, ‘The Anarchist Tradition of Political Thought’, The Western Political Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 738-752, viewed 28 May 2011, via ProQuest Database.
Goodwin, B., 2007, Using Political Ideas, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., West Sussex




Profile of an Australian Photojournalist: Adam Ferguson

Adam Ferguson is one of Australia’s most foremost and successful contemporary photojournalists. His career, whilst still somewhat young, has been adorned with several of the world’s most prestigious awards and publication in the world’s biggest media outlets covering news stories on almost every continent. Despite this success, Adam’s entry in to photography happened almost completely by chance and his pursuit of photojournalism even more so. From humble beginnings came Ferguson’s desire to change the world and now, in the sweet spot of his career, a pursuit of genuine stories and an understanding of “belief in a lie” have punctuated his evolution into the go-to guy for Time magazine, National Geographic and The New York Times.

Adam first stumbled upon photography as a 20-year-old whilst living in Coffs Harbor, NSW where he met a student of the Queensland College of Art (QCA). “I got enthralled by this guy and his cameras so I had this crazy idea that I would be an extreme sports photographer”, says Adam. He then immediately applied to QCA admitting that: “I didn’t even have a camera, I had no photographic experience. I shot a portfolio for the course in a day, put in an application, then kind of forgot about it”.

It wasn’t until Adam was accepted to QCA and began his studies that documentary photography grabbed his attention when a first year lecturer persuaded this idea and Adam left the university library one day with an armful of books: “One was Salgado’s Uncertain Grace, the other was Trent Parke’s Dream/Life and… I had a Henri Cartier Bresson retrospective”. It was less than ten years later that Adam won his first World Press award.

It was in his early career and with a World Press award already under his belt that Adam quickly made a name for himself, primarily by his very in-depth and slightly offbeat coverage of the war in Afghanistan. Whilst his hard news pictures were shown on the front page of newspapers world-wide, his own exploration was more concerned with personalizing those involved: “I had made a pretty stern attempt to humanize the soldiers, to dispute the glory in war and to show these people as slightly confused young men. I feel like I have achieved that in a lot of the responses I have received”. It was because of this that, surprisingly, the US military began to adore Adam’s work, and his time embedded with troops began to increase substantially. Adam admits “It got to the point where I became a little bit famous. I went from struggling and fighting to get embeds early in my career to years later where the public affairs people would be kind of kissing my feet”.

Adam’s personal anti-war politic meant that his own agenda often didn’t align with those surrounding him however, he found a peculiar, contrary effect from his most photographed subject: the US army. “Ideally, I would like it if the military hated my work but they never have. They have always loved my work. And that is a little bit confronting.” However, it wasn’t until 2011 that this precarious relationship with the armed forces got the better of him when an American marine was shot dead by a sniper less that 5 metres away from the photojournalist. “We were pinned down in the mud getting shot at and I had a moment of looking up from behind my camera and thinking ‘what the fuck am I doing with my life? I’m not a soldier and this guy is dying right next to me’”.

This event led Adam to question not only the narrative he was telling about the war but also to rethink his ambitions for storytelling in the future. His career working for the largest news outlets in the world has obviously had a substantial effect as the photographer articulates his idea of truth in the media: “I work in a journalistic sphere but photography is complicated”. “I find it strange that in this day and age the word truth is thrown around so often. And document is thrown around so often. There is no truth in it, it’s a lie, it’s art at the end of the day”. It is clear that whilst Adam’s photographs have had arguably the largest effect on public perception of the war in Afghanistan, even he questions the existence of honesty in the medium.

It is in this way most that Adam Ferguson has evolved as a photographer since leaving the library with a Cartier-Bresson book: a realization that photography alone perhaps cannot change the world. Adam insists that art is polyvalent, that creating a photograph is totally subjective and when a photographer goes into an environment in a journalistic capacity, they record something which is completely steeped in our own bias. However, he furthers this by saying that “The validity in what we do is... witnessing a situation and we create a photograph that serves as a document which says this event took place and we put forward an interpretation of that event. And regardless of that interpretation it can never be disputed whether that event took place because we have photographic evidence.”

Ironically, it was Adam’s pursuit of long format journalism and personal vision that lead National Geographic to ask him to return to Afghanistan for his current project on war dogs. Speaking to me from a hotel near the US Air Force Canine Training Squadron in Dallas, Texas, Adam recounted the tentative decision to take on the assignment. “I had 48 hours of turmoil before making the decision that I would put my war boots back on because I felt like I had worked so hard and done so much of that kind of work in Afghanistan and the pay off was that National Geographic recognized that work and wanted to put me on a big story”. A year later and Adam was preparing for the last day of shooting before heading to Nat Geo headquarters for the final editing process.

For the future, Adam remains optimistic that he can further his career whilst pursuing his goal of making longer, more refined stories. Interestingly, he seeks to do that in his home country where he aims to photograph in a lucid way; with no expectations from a client. At the same time, he is content with the prospect of shooting for outlets but without losing sight of the ideal medium: “I’m hoping National Geographic will love the war dogs and give me another assignment” but “I think what is important about good, honest photography, or constructing a lie that you believe in is to steer that eventual conception of an event in a direction that you think it should be steered in”.