Locating the potential of socially engaged photography

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Many of the most complex and exciting elements of contemporary photographic practices are invisible to audiences. They consist of relationships, compassion, patience, and listening. They consist of really challenging oneself, as the artist, to give up conventions within the art-making process that subtly reinforce oppressive social dynamics.

We have an opportunity to talk about an expanded practice in photography that focuses on the process. What are the structures and methods that allow a contemporary ethos of self-awareness and human connection to blend with traditional photographic approaches? When does photography become a socially engaged act? When does photography create real social change?

Implicit in these conversations are challenges to artists to make invisible project structures, relationships, and decisions available to a larger audience. At the same time, audiences are challenged to evaluate, appreciate and criticize these elements as part of the work itself, not as auxiliary to the work.

We organized this panel and this paper because it feels urgent that we as a photographic community develop language and intellectual conventions around these ideas. We need common understanding. And so we’d like to say welcome—thank you for your time and your curiosity, thank you for your experience and expertise.

Here are a few ideas to push off from.

The Invisible:

As practitioners of this kind of work, we are interested in the elements of an expanded photographic process that are invisible, and difficult to communicate or explain to a broad audience.

There are many intangible elements (e.g. brainstorming, moments of mutual discovery, design by consensus, and relationships) that often feel the most important, and the most vibrant, but they are also the least accessible to anyone beyond the artist. Speaking to the artists represented here, and others in the field, it seems like they are also the moments in which people feel they are having the most impact.

There is a gap between the experience of making this work and the audience’s understanding of the process. We need to communicate what’s going on in these projects so that the people who support this kind of work—through funding it and through absorbing it or looking at it or experiencing it—can invest in the lengthy research and development process of a project and the non-visible components of it.

How do you articulate your expanded photographic process? How do you describe your collaborations? And what, for you, is the part of your work and your process that feels the most vital, the most exciting, the most important?

Can we create a lexicon to describe an expanded photographic process?


When a photographic project contains non-tangible components, what criteria can we use to evaluate those components? Could we use:
•  an aesthetic that describes ethical integrity
•  an aesthetic that describes structural beauty and complexity of the project
•  quality of relationships
•  quality of every component in a project, and how all those pieces fit together—i.e. from every email sent, to every tweet, to every image, to every piece of documentation, to whatever is the main event of the project: are all those pieces equally good and are they cohesive? Do they all serve the same goals?
•  political impact
•  personal impact, breadth of people impacted

Points of exchange:

One way to map a project’s structure is to identify the points of exchange in the work. This implicitly asks, What are the incentives for each participant to do any and all actions that advance the work? What are people getting out of this? And what are people putting into it? What is this work really made of? What makes it happen?

For example, you might have only one exchange in a project—someone poses for a picture, and the artist gives the person a copy of that picture in exchange for their time and compliance. Or, that might get slightly more complicated—someone poses for a picture, signs a release form giving the artist the ability to use it in any context, gets a picture in return, and also gets a relationship with an artist and the ability to see their image in a new and interesting context. It could also be an unequal exchange—the process of analyzing the exchange might reveal that the artist gains much more than the participant, and the assumptions that the artist makes about what the participant gains are inaccurate.

The exchange could also get much more complicated. Teaching could be involved—an exchange of skills and knowledge. Money could be paid, or in kind donations made. Books could be distributed, or exhibitions could be initiated that benefit multiple people in multiple ways. Many small exchanges of food, time, hospitality, social capital, cultural capital, financial capital and other goods, services and knowledge might take place over years or decades.

So how do we acknowledge these points of exchange in projects? What can we learn from understanding them in different artists’ work?

A spectrum of collaboration:

We have identified a few spectra of collaboration going on in photo-based social practice work.

Simplicity of collaboration vs. Complexity of collaboration
Short duration vs. Long duration
Few collaborators vs. Many collaborators
Few points of exchange vs. Many points of exchange

Could these spectra be helpful in discussing and understanding different structures and processes manifested in this kind of work? What other spectra can we create that would be more helpful?

When does a project really challenge social norms?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when and how do image-based projects truly create social change? Photography comes from, and occurs within, a set of social systems. Just as the photographer cannot be truly objective or outside of the situation he or she depicts in a given image, the photograph itself is not objective. Photographic creation and distribution implicitly reflect society at large.

So if we as photographic artists are trying to use images to challenge the status quo, the social impact and social critique we create gets much bolder when it takes place in all aspects of the project, far beyond what is “pictured.”

To propose a significant shift toward more socially-engaged practices in photography and art is to propose significant shift in our culture as a whole. There’s a wonderful paragraph about this idea in A User’s Guide to the Impossible (Minor Compositions, New York, 2010, p. 12).

To dismantle and reinvent institutions or systems we have to start at the roots, with the culture that supports them. Culture is the material substratum of politics, the muddy foundations upon which it is built, but these foundations can’t be changed in the same way that you can undo a law – they are transformed by infiltrating them at the molecular level, through the fault lines, pores and gaps, burrowing away like an old mole opening up millions of potential north-west passages. Luckily for you, that’s where you are already. 

To put it another way, many photo-based social practice projects challenge the status quo within their structures. The very bones of the project imagine new social forms, new power dynamics, new social relationships on individual and institutional levels.

We are interested in a photography that emerges from the fault lines.
This essay is from the PHOTOGRAPHY AND SOCIAL PRACTICE broadsheet, published May 2014. To read or download please click here.

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