A Social Documentary
This is the second book on Zambia by Peter Langmead in which he continues to argue that the preservation of the nation’s social history is more important for Zambians and for global heritage than the persistence of Western post-modern indecisiveness about whether documentary photography is important or to be trusted.
Like Postcards from Zambia, The Zambians is an independent view of Zambia from a foreign perspective, perhaps more correctly from the view of a foreign but resident ‘development consultant’, as derisory as that title may be. Certainly this book is not, and can never be, the view of a Zambian. It can even be argued that a Zambian photographer would be biased himself, self-censoring images he does not believe Zambians want to see, as much as foreign photographers may be biased in showing what they believe foreigners want to see, which may result in dysfunctional donor decisions.
Dr Langmead’s photographs are different because he was not paid to document Zambia and he is personally driven to show images of the people of Zambia within a normal distribution of humanity, and not as Africa is erroneously captured and published by Western media, as a war-torn, disease-ridden, starving continent. The text follows.
The most iconic book in documentary photography is Robert Frank’s The Americans, published in 1958 at the dawn of the ‘bigness’ of the American dream. This book The Zambians is intended to be analogous: Zambia in the flower of its development. The Americans, by its title, cannot have been photographed by an American, and it was not: Robert Frank was a 24-year-old Swiss émigré. Proposed by Walker Evans, now a legend of American photography, Robert Frank was awarded a Guggenheim scholarship to take photographs of American life at a time when the American Dream was considered by some to be at the height of its ‘scope’, and specifically not of the poor, and not an extension of the documentation of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) that ended in 1943. I imagine that the perpetuated misery of the FSA era in the United States was not entirely different from the American and European simulacra projected onto Africa today. Rather than adopting these simulacra, Zambia is moving into its age of spectacle and wealth, and so the title The Zambians is appropriate.
It is more important now to understand photographs and interpret them. In the beginning there was light, and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Fox Talbot worked out how to capture it, simultaneously creating the first issue of photography: whether it produced a realistic copy of an object. Here is the anomaly: Brian Walski, a photojournalist, manipulated an image that was published on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on 2 April 2003; he was summarily dismissed. In 1982, National Geographic had done something similar, moving a pyramid to improve the design, and rearranging camels, for the cover page. This is about ethics and shows that photographs can be less than truthful. Some notable publications, The Economist for example, argue in favour of such manipulation, with an accompanying admission of fakery.
Beyond tweaking colour, contrast and clarity, manipulation can be extended to completely faking images, famously ‘The Loch Ness Monster’. But do amateurs, or professional photographers, on average, fake images? If they are photographers, they are out taking photographs. I do not believe a statistically significant number of photographers are adjusting photographs beyond superficially. And then, can they publish them meaningfully in newspapers with aware and alert editors, where they can do intentional damage? I do not think so; on balance, I believe what I see in ordinary photographs because statistics says I should, while being aware that a few percent may have been changed significantly.
Philosophers have been arguing about the depiction of truth and reality, and have no conclusion. They also argue about whether photography is art. Ironically, a photograph is considered more artistic if the photographer adapts the mechanical-chemical image in some way, perhaps as a montage or through the digital manipulation so scorned by many in the press. Ironically as well, the public considers that to be cheating, in addition to disrupting claims of honesty and truthfulness.
When the photograph was taken, whatever physical subject is in the photograph was there in front of the camera, whatever the date, the season, wherever the place. Some people think of the image as a window through to that vista or scene. Others erroneously get themselves confused about the process between taking the photograph with the camera and the finished print. The fact is, as Kendal L. Walton points out in Transparent Pictures, a drunken photographer still gets the photograph of the dinosaur, while the drunken artist fails, and no amount of imagination can create a fictitious image in a camera, only in front of it, like the Loch Ness monster. The practical story is this vista or scene is printed on paper or electronically. Where the paper came from, and how the image was printed on paper or seen on the monitor, is irrelevant to the analysis of the image, which continues to be an image of that physical vista or scene, or person, or dinosaur, at that time of the photograph.
Great events in photography
The arguments of whether a photograph is truthful, or whether it is art, really pale into insignificance when what really mattered for the development of photography was the capacity for mass reproduction; that is photographs being used in newspapers and magazines with the development of half-tone printing in 1880, which is part of the electro-chemical-mechanical means of printing photographs by printing press still used today. The unfortunate truth of demand for imagery in publications, however, is that few photographs are used and not necessarily fully consumed at that. Alternatively, photographers often print one to ten enlarged prints for sale, claiming to destroy the (digital) negative to increase the value of their photographs. This conflicts with the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s recognition of one of photography’s greatest assets in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
The other great development was documentary photography, concurrent with the flourishing of magazines like Life and the Illustrated London News. Presently, documentary photography has a bad name, somehow extending from post-modernism and its multiple dualities. The apparent problem is that the images in documentary photography, and necessarily its denied sidekick, street photography, can be interpreted in any way by their viewers. But interpretation of all photographs is subject to the education, knowledge and experience of the reader, malevolent, post-modern or otherwise, and, in my judgement, there is more value in recording the present for posterity, call it social history, which often goes visually unrecorded in Africa, because otherwise it will be forgotten. There is another issue here, literature is country-specific by attitude and humour; I believe photography is as well.
Subject and interest
There was a man who decided that he would try to understand photographs. He was derided as an amateur by some professional photographers but he was the first person to define a photograph, and that was before some important findings about his mother, who he was looking after. Roland Barthes’ revelation was that an image has a subject, which he called studium. Everyone can look at a picture and say what the picture is about; this is the subject. But even if you are not an expert, there may be something about the image that particularly attracts your attention. This is the point of the photograph, the punctum, which is what attracts you more than just the subject. If you show the photograph to someone else, she may not see the same thing. On the other hand, if you are a roads engineer, for example, you will scan a picture of a road to ensure the road is being made properly. If it is, then, because you have seen many such photographs, you will likely dismiss it, because it has no value to you, and has no punctum, or no point. So it is clear that the value of a photograph is dependent on the education, experience and knowledge of the viewer or user.
Adoration and icons
Roland Barthes is famous because he desperately wanted a representative photograph of his late mother. Taking all the photographs of his mother that he had, he worked backwards from her old age to when she was a child. He was looking for something that captured the essence of his mother’s character in his mind’s eye. Of all the pictures, there was one, taken when she was a child in a conservatory, with her brother. For Barthes, this was the picture. This says some important things: first, the picture that captures essence is scarce and, second, its interpretation is only valid for a particular individual, and has little or no value to anyone else. In economic terms, he would be prepared to pay for that one picture, where nobody else would. This is his iconic photograph.
The generalised characteristics of icons are that: the image has the appearance of the person; it is an object of veneration; it has causal origins; and its authenticity is ‘reproducible’. This accurately captures Barthes’ relationship with this image; further, a large number of people have such photographs. The bit that Cynthia Freeland omitted in her Photographs and Icons, perhaps by definition, was just how scarce iconic images are, but we all know what they are and probably we also have a few.
The image itself
There are hardly any iconic pictures in public circulation and only a few in public exhibitions; so, now let us look at the rest of the world’s photographs and why they may be important. The saying is there are no new photographs: the blind woman or man, the people in the underground, signs, and others; they have all been taken by famous photographers of the past. If you take a picture of a blind person, it will be compared with Paul Strand, Lewis Hine, Gary Winogrand, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and others. This of course is irony by default - it has been done before - in its most unintellectual form.
People are unavoidably misguided by their nations’ simulacra, which, in the West, generalise that Africa is starving to death or dying of disease or from war. The statistical evidence shows this is nonsense; so, whatever happens, this view cannot be allowed to prevail in the absence of photographic records of the social histories of Africa, and the rest of the world, which are mostly nothing like the Western bourgeois view.
A number of art critics insist on eloquent composition, perhaps some dynamism, perhaps some rhythm and repetition, appropriate colours. In today’s context, most artists will compromise these features to demonstrate tension, imbalance, disharmony and a good measure of irony. Many think the English are dull, do not smile, do not enjoy themselves and do not like sex, and that it always rains in England. So, take photographs of English people, smiling, enjoying themselves with their many children on a sunny day, in colour. This is irony and is exactly what Martin Parr did in The Last Resort. The image is still the result of a photo-mechanical-electronic-chemical process. If you take your camera to the beach on a sunny day, you can take similar pictures. If you did not know about irony, would your pictures be art? Or is it someone else viewing and valuing them that makes them art?
There are some notable facts about photography. The photograph was the first form in the history of mankind that could capture a slice of time. Photography has always been debated as somehow comparable with ‘art’, but an artist’s painted portrait may take months, with daily layers of artist’s impressions affected by the weather, his observational skills, his disposition at the time, the disposition of the sitter as well, so that a portrait is a composite of slices of time and interpretation. In addition, better paintings are constructs of sketches and not necessarily what is in front of a painter at a slice of time. The reality is that photography is not comparable with painting and never has been: it generally records what is in front of the lens at a particular slice of time.
Second, the photograph is always taken on the very edge of time, quite literally at the end of the human universe. As soon as it is taken, it starts to be history and becomes a record of memory, for the photographer, who now has a reference to an event and is helped to recall both before and after the photograph, which always has meaning for him. There are two aspects to this, one is the physical but static surroundings both inside and outside the frame of the image; the other is the dynamic corridor of time that the image slices.
In the latter case, if the camera was to remain stationary at the location, action continues to occur inside and outside that framed window and would be captured in a never-ending video. Atget’s shoes are sold over time but the shop continues to exist in its captured form until it changes; and the shoes have lives that can be imagined but not seen, that are now forever attached to their image in the shoe shop, and to social history by style and fashion. If, on the other hand, the camera moves with the image, as it might in Three Men on a Bus, the cover of my book Postcards from Zambia, for how many minutes or hours does that combination of elements exist before a similar image can no longer be taken, before and after, from any perspective? So the photographic image records an event which is bigger than the image frame and extends to earlier and later than the time that the image was captured. Of course, at the time the image was captured, there was neither future time nor future, only conjecture and prospect. It is easy to forget that there was no future at the time the image was taken, that everyone in an 85-year-old photograph is dead, and that you, and what is around you, were not here! That the image is there at all, leads to questions of who the people were and who their children are; I find this very interesting. It is curious that nobody points this out of dead Rembrandt’s many self-portraits, and I am really not sure that this is in any way relevant, particularly since such a record was never otherwise possible before photography. I am very happy with my photograph of my late father flying his Blenheim in WWII, taken by his colleague unknown to me, who was a friend of my father’s.
The bell curve represents the normal distribution of human conditions. For me, this sensible statistical concept contradicts the apparent belief that photography can only meaningfully document the miserable for the pleasure of the elite and suggests that, in the population of photographs, there should be a full range of images from abject misery to absolute joy. Without this concept, it is not clear that the reading of photography is a function of the photographer’s, or reader’s, perception of the world, instead of a function of photography itself. There are many examples that photography does not only cover misery: the already mentioned Martin Parr’s ironic pictures of happy Englishmen in colourful sunshine, where the sun never shines and the men never smile, come from a normal distribution of English photographs, which is consistent with the idea that photography is as country-specific as literature.
The mobile phone
Where are these photographs of Africa that are described by the normal distribution but are seemingly absent from the worlds’ museums and exhibitions? Critics of photography focus on war, and poverty and starvation in Africa. If photographs of Africa from the Western press are collected and exhibited, they would illustrate the West’s illusion of a continent of suffering.
There is another world that tells a brighter story, a massive collection of normal photographs, taken by ordinary people, all around the world, with their mobile phones and compact cameras. It can be expected that these represent normal humanity, probably mostly of wives and children, and of friends and events. Ordinary people do not photograph wars, disease and death. These are the photographs that explain more than four standard deviations of the normal population of human condition, 97.5 per cent, leaving the misery of war, starvation and disease to the 2.5 per cent at the left end, which is a more reasonable estimate of the proportion of photography that is explained by misery, and very small.
The tragedy of this story is that these ordinary photographs will likely never be printed and will never be seen in public as a representation of social history. In terms of pure volume of photographs, these outweigh the number of transient panoptic photographs used by the press, donors and visitors to justify their neo-imperialist beliefs that Africa is starving and dying by any other means. The reality is that there are many photographs on mobile phones that will remain invisible forever but demonstrate Africa is normal.
And to leave a thought; those wonderful, modern and artistic documentary photographs by Sebastião Salgado of cattle in Sudan: the cattle are worth many fortunes more than nearly every generous individual is worth in the West.
To return to Robert Frank’s book, The Americans; the captions of the photographs are very brief. This can be interpreted to mean that nobody is interested in the subject of the picture or that readers already understand everything about the photographs, perhaps implicitly or arrogantly. Or, of course, that the reader can interpret the image in any way her education, experience and knowledge allows. By the absurd evolution of the West’s simulacrum, of gross national suffering in Africa, it is clear that more information must be provided with documentary photographs to limit this misinterpretation, at least to a less misleading level.
The media may not be providing meaningful information, or are wilfully misleading their readers. Freedom to interpret images without guidance licenses communication failure; ensures the reader misinterprets the picture within the constraints of his education, knowledge and experience, and the persuasive persistence of the media-driven simulacrum; and it fails to give the photographer credit for having intent to communicate a message. When photographs matter, the result may be dysfunctional decision-making found in much donor, development and aid activity. Although including captions with photographs potentially helps overcome this communication failure, captions can be used in misleading and ambiguous ways, for example raising money for development and aid projects in Africa with photographs of fly-ridden and sick-looking children.
In a country with as few households as Zambia, everyone knows everyone else, somehow. At an exhibition of photographs from Postcards from Zambia, it was evident that viewers wanted more information, like, ‘where exactly on the Itezhi-Tezhi road is that bit of forest (pp36-37). So in this, I will not be following The Americans, or nearly every other contemporary book on photography besides, because I prefer John Szarkowski’s rendering of provenance in Looking at Photographs (1973), which I consider to be more intellectual and interesting. And the issue is now less about the photograph and more about the photographed.
Postcards from Zambia, The Americans and Looking at Photographs are black and white or duotone. This analogy to The Americans is in colour. Black and white remains popular in serious photography and many ask why. Barthes’ analogy is loosely that it is photographs without clothes on. This is not far from the truth and the reason is quite simple: colours have emotional character; blue and green are cool, red and orange are warm, so a colour image can lead to ambiguity, or conflicting and disruptive emotional interpretation, thus confusing the message. Colours also control the way in which the eye views the image.
The conclusion then is that, despite all the potential for a photograph to deliver a truthful impression of the scene in front of the camera, the subject may be constructed to be misleading, and often is in commercial photography, the caption or text can misplace the image, and the colouring in a photograph can communicate an inappropriate emotional context. This combination of characteristics in these photographs reflects quite well mankind’s disruptive and dysfunctional behaviour.
Lusaka, June 2013