In an attempt to clarify the scope of the Dirty Suzie project, I have been reading around photographic theory. I have just finished reading a paper by sociologist Howard S. Becker entitled Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography, and Photojournalism: It’s (Almost) All a Matter of Context on the theme of genre distinctions. Becker is well-known for the clarity of his writings, and has been active in varied areas of sociology such as criminology and sociology of art.
Initially I though the paper would be helpful in examining issues of intent and attempted objectivity in photography, but ended up being shocked by many of his statements.* His conception of art is one shared by a fair few academics, and so hopefully my critique of it will have a larger scope than just this paper.
He claims that the differences between photographs of different genres do not really lie in the photographs themselves, but in the way they are presented. To a certain degree it is reasonable to believe this, especially as a sociologist, as these genres are social constructs. However, it is my opinion that these photographs are not neutral within the context of linguistic structuring – the contents of the image itself forms meanings through a constructed visual language.
He goes on to state that the context-based difference between otherwise identical “art” and visual sociology is that art photographs
…[Withhold] the minimal social data we ordinarily use to orient ourselves to others, leaving viewers to interpret the images as best they can from the clues of clothing, stance, demeanour and household furnishings they contain. What might seem to be artistic mystery is only ignorance created by the photographer’s refusal to give us basic information (which, it is likely, the photographer doesn’t have).(Becker)
This is a brazen and spiteful claim that seems to stem from intellectual elitism and misunderstanding of the aim of the artist. The real power of the image in art is that it leaves an interpretive window that the viewer can negotiate within. A picture of a street child by a visual sociologist may tell the viewer exactly the circumstances it was shot in. We can immediately position the demonstrative intent of the image and categorise it neatly. However, it is the ambiguousness of the under-determined art photograph that forces the audience to position the street child simultaneously in a 3rd world country and a western ghetto, as protagonist and victim, and to form their own significance out of the images unique relationship to their life-experiences. The artistic photograph manages to come in under the ideological radar â€“ not didactically spoon-feeding the viewer â€“ while hopefully making the viewer aware of the operation of their own assumptions.
Finally, Becker seems to think that sociologyâ€™s reluctance to use photography as a tool just stems from its aping of more â€œscientificâ€�? subjects who shun photographs, and a methodological purism. He points to visual anthropology and a few recent visual sociologists as signs that it can be effectively wielded by the savvy sociologist to pass information about society. He does not argue against sociologists who claim photography only provide a framed, subjective perspective on an event, but claims these same sociologists fail to
â€¦Take the next step, which would be to see that every form of social science data has exactly these problems, and that none of the commonly accepted and widely-used sociological methods solves them very well either.(Becker)
While it may be true that there are inherent problems with attempting objective exposition of a society, these sociological methodologies go as far as possible towards engaging with them, while acknowledging their weaknesses. The photographic image involves a level of emotive charge that is as much its strength in art as it is its weakness in sociology. The ease of reading of a photography speaks of the operation of deeply conditioned assumptions. In pointing to the similar weaknesses in accepted sociological methodology Becker seems to be saying “It’s already broken, so photography won’t do any harm.”
It is the problem of attempted objectivity within any fundamentally fictional project that has urged me to disclaim the documentary intent of Dirty Suzie:
â€¦The documentary style is just a normative convention: Like the white-painted walls of a gallery, we attempt to create a emotively/ideologically/contextually neutral space which actually doesn’t exist. Use of such conventions in effect just brushes evidence of a subjective photographer under the carpet. Likewise, the whole Anthropological endeavour has not really survived in the light of post-modern theories (I.e. Anthropology as construction of Fiction), and seems oh so anachronistic.
As artists we are creators, and producers of meanings and new signifier-signified configurations. Unlike tottering, safari-hat-wearing Victorian gentlemen, we do not have to try and pretend we are objective, but can actively engage in our so-called “subjects”. We must not be afraid to get stuck in and leave our mark!
After all, â€œit is always the instantaneous reactions to [the photographer] that produces a photographâ€�?1 in the same way that our recording of a subculture will no doubt have an effect on its constituent community.
* After a brief explore of Wikipedia, I realised that my surprise at Beckerâ€™s opinions was perhaps less warranted. It turns out that Sociology of Art is in no way engaged with the discursive body of art theory, but concerns itself with describing what society calls art.
1 Reprint from U.S. Camera Annual 1958, U.S. Camera Publishing Corp., New York, 1967, p. 115, in Tucker and Brookman, p. 31