In March, Magnum Nominee Sim Chi Yin – alongside Hilary Roberts of the Imperial War Museum and photographer and educator Anthony Luvera – led a study day at London’s Tate Britain on the topic of Ethics and Image-making. The three speakers reflected later on areas of questioning raised by the study day’s participants over a number of question and answer sessions, focusing in turn on representation and aestheticization in documentary photography, the curation of conflict images, and questions around collaborative practice. Only Anthony Luvera’s response has been reposted here. The original article on can be found on the Magnum Photos site.
Australian photographer and lecturer Anthony Luvera’s work often exists within the collaborative realm – including his ongoing project on assisted self-portraits. Here, he responds to this question:
What is the point of collaboration, and how does a collaborative approach relate to issues of representation?
Photographers are storytellers. We speak about the world through the imagery we create. In doing so we hold power to shape narratives and influence preconceptions and understanding about the people, places and situations we depict. One of the ethical dilemmas a photographer has to contend with is speaking on behalf of other people, particularly when they have little or no first-hand experience of the lives of those represented. With this in mind, the use of collaborative methodologies to enable subjects to become active participants in the creation of their representation can be seen as an appealing way to seek a salve for the problems of representation. However, collaboration does not guarantee more ethical conduct, an honest approach, or more truthful work. So, what then, is the point of collaboration?
Inviting people to be participants, actively informing or co-creating representations of themselves, rather than passive subjects, can serve a number of purposes. It can enableaccess and insight into their lives and the habitat and the socio-political forces that shape their environment. It can enable rapport to be developed, trust to be engendered, and for the participant and artist to become familiar with each other. It can be used as a means to locate, infiltrate, observe, organize, consult, listen, and converse. Throughout this process, learning from failure, reflexive decision-making, reasoning, and adjustments can take place. By enabling the participant to develop technical skills to photograph and write about their lives, degrees of distance can be bridged by the artist and this can enable the artist to elicit more, or different, information that might otherwise be inaccessible or influenced by their direct presence.
One of the challenges of undertaking a collaborative practice is articulating the dynamic of the dialogical process and co-production that gave rise the creation of the work. That is, the time spent inviting people to take part, the conversation that ensues, how relationships are developed, how equipment is used, and how issues such as representation, consent, context, and authorship are addressed. There are no guarantees about the ethics or honesty with which the artist navigates these dialogues, particularly when a description of this process is provided without the contribution or inclusion of accounts by participants.
“As a symbolic act of emancipation that seeks to forge collective subjectivity, I would argue collaborative photographic practices do not enable a utopian negation of the problems of representation”
– Anthony Luvera
While the display of photographs and other materials created by participants may appear to give an unmediated or more authentic view of ‘reality’, what it effectively does is assert the subjectivity of the participant more directly in the artist’s representation of themselves as subjects. This affirmation of presence conjures a more resolute impression of ‘the real’ through the situatedness of the participant in a particular place and time, displaying their ‘having been there’, evidencing ‘this is how it was’. Handing over degrees of control, power, and ownership to the participant through the process of the creation of the work, a collaborative practice may be seen as a process in which ideological divisions between the photographer and participants are renegotiated. However, despite intentions to infer equality through a co-productive methodology, collaborative practices are unavoidably contained within a hierarchy. Distinctions can always be made between the artist and their participants, and dissemination of the work after its creation will largely be driven by the artist, albeit with degrees of consent and consultation with participants. Issues of agency, control, and power balance, cast a different set of questions for the outcomes of the work, and the accounts and documentation of the temporal processes that gave rise to its creation. What is the intention of the artist? How are the participants elicited and acknowledged? How does the methodology employed by the artist enable or limit the agency of the participant? How does the artist reflexively address their own assumptions, and challenge dominant preconceptions about the participant and the subjects of their imagery? Where does the artist disseminate the work, and how do these contexts affect the representation of the participant? How has the artist used models of documentation to make the questions, problems, constraints, and subjectivities explored throughout the duration of the practice explicit?
When considering the ethics and aesthetics of collaborative practices, rather than viewing the process employed by the artist as a means to uncover authenticity, reality, or truth, it is more productive to see collaboration practice as a way to harness and present a plurality of perspectives. However, as a symbolic act of emancipation that seeks to forge collective subjectivity, I would argue collaborative photographic practices do not enable a utopian negation of the problems of representation inherent in the act of speaking for another.