October 8, 2020
It’s probably true to say that most people – I haven’t measured it – feel that we live in dark times. Just mention the environment, war and militarism, structures dissolving, poverty, global development goals never met, lack of political leadership, erosion of basic norms and ethics, corruption, sexism, the US/Western world falling slowly but surely apart, COVID, nuclear weapons and fears for what the future will bring – you name it.
While the media of course love all these things, we can also not say that it is just the media that convey bad news to us all the time. While lots of positive events and trends are ignored by them, the net character of the global situation – and in many countries – is that it was better yesterday than today and that we are far from sure where it will move in the mid-to-long-term future.
Please keep this in mind if you continue reading. Because what I shall argue is that art in general – including art photography – shall, of course, be expressive of its time and place but that it must also – to a larger rather than smaller – be an indicator towards alternatives. That is, look into good futures, create hope, express resistance…
Why? Well, not because I have a deep or surprising philosophy about what the essence of the arts is. Even less do I attempt to tell what other artists should do – but simply because of a more practical-political reasoning: The more we are exposed to violence, death, destruction, crisis, doomsday-like images, news, debates etc., the more we may come to see it as ‘normal’ and loose hope, the less we shall be willing and able to struggle for the desirable world, the good society, the common good or, say, Luther King Jr.’s beloved community.
That is, we stop believing in alternatives – in TINA, There Is No Alternative. Because we cannot see them.
And when we stop believing in a better future and the possibility that things can change – and that “we, the peoples” can change them – then we play exactly the role in that dark corner where the people and structures of power want us to be: The voting cattle that have no demands, ideals, criticisms, hopes and alternatives but are happy being “protected” even to the extent of losing our basic freedoms and being “guided” by elites who, to call a spade a spade, couldn’t care less about the citizens but care all about their own interests, benefits, privileges and profits.
It is in this perspective that I shall argue that the arts have a responsibility, even a duty: To open our eyes about the world we live in – really live in – and often how cruel it is, yes. But also to explore and share visions of the world we could be living in and help its audience to get going, take action to shape those better futures…
Yes, I put “future” in plural – “futures” – because there is not one pre-determined future for our country or for the world as a whole. There are countless alternative worlds possible. Authoritarian leaders build on TINA – There Are No Alternatives. I would like us to build on TAOA – There Are Only Alternatives.
By that I mean that the only impossible future is to continue doing what we have done the last 300 years in the West, particularly after 1945 and after the end of the first Cold War in 1989-90. That cannot continue and the Corona tells us that there will be no going back to “normal”.
There will only be progress toward The New Necessary Normal (NNN) or there will be no future. The Danish philosopher, designer and cosmopolitarian – also known for the aphorisms called Gruk – Piet Hein – expressed it with haiku-like simplicity many years ago: There will either be Co-Existence or No Existence.
These are things I have thought of before, because I am also a peace and future researcher. I’ve done research and teaching as well as some activism for peace and not just against militarism. But this complex of problems got very clear to me when recently I visited the leading art photo fair in Sweden if not in all of Scandinavia, the Landskrona Foto Festival.
Beyond any doubt, it shows high average quality, considerable diversity, many and highly topical themes – all the attributes defining fine curatorship.
So what was my problem?
Well, that at least 40% of the exhibited works focus on war, genocide, massacre, concentration camps, the suffering of particular groups of people, refugees and other ‘damned of the earth.’ And that much of the rest is either expressive of de-politicised themes, identity issues or experimental photography, constructed, stage-set or hybrid, and quite formalistic.
And it’s all pretty lifeless! No humour, satire, no attempt to depict beauty, conviviality, happiness. Or make the spectator think about peace and other positive values.
I mean, what is the point of displaying yet another series of (documentary) images of skeletons from history’s various massacres in the narrow, dark prison cells of a Citadel?
Is the assumption, perhaps, the – naive – one like the one surrounding Hiroshima and hibakusha films and photos, namely that by showing them the audience will be appalled and become more critical of warfare and other types of violence? (There is no evidence that it has such an effect – people are more interested in Hiroshima than in today’s nuclear dangers and war risks which are higher than at any point since 1945).
Is it part of the broader “violence industry” in which we also find the museums of wars and massacres and the Holocaust? But hardly any peace museums?
Or is it that it hits us emotionally and gets an “automatic” mileage, a little like if a photographer takes portraits of celebrities rather than non-celebrities, then she or he becomes famous more easily?
Why are there so many more images in this world of destruction than of construction? Of various kinds of violence than of peace?
The very important World Press Photo contest is another example. Just look at the photos on the link.
It’s filled with violence and suffering – and I am relatively sure that those who run these contests and festivals are not even aware of that bias or have discussed it. As if reality or the imagination or the creative impulse could not also be expressed through images of beauty and peace?
Now, when it comes to the World Press Photo, it of course reflects – more than other photography would – the general obsession in the media with negative, destructive and simply ‘bad’ news.
It should be obvious to any thinking human being that there are also good things happening in this world – people getting education, peoples being liberated, refugees returning home and building a new life successfully, reforms and societal developments that create better living conditions for millions, human stories of love, help, compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, etc. (But that is more difficult to find and convey – whereas supposedly you get a lot of emotional mileage by depicting the skeleton from a massacre).
But all that doesn’t qualify as news. Good news are bad news. Photojournalists catching such images would hardly get a job or become famous.
We have – amazing, deeply impressive – war photography. But did you ever hear about peace photography? Cooperation photography? Reconciliation photography? Or, photography depicting the common good, progress and welfare? Or the nonviolent struggles for that all over the world?
In this particular sense, all media contribute to creating the feelings of hopelessness and of “it-doesn’t-matter-whether-or-not-I-try-to-take-action”. Passivity – giving up. Or the end of democracy and the vibrant, dialoguing society.
In its consequence, it gives those in power a free reign. And by doing so also ignores the essential ideal roles of the media – and their photographers – as public educators, as critical “fourth estate” that operate to secure diversity and do their best to practise objectivity and reveal the abuse of power. And so too the press photographers – and the World Press Photo.
Perhaps we have come so far down the mental slippery slope of globalised depression that war and destruction is considered (un- or subconsciously) to be more ‘realistic’ and significant or ‘normal’ and everyday-like than peace, love, cooperation and beauty?
We live in an age influenced much more by images than by texts and even sound – also because everybody has become a kind of photographer.
What the hundreds of images we more or less consciously perceive during a day through all sorts of media tell us about the world is extremely important in shaping our worldview.
Well, you may say, it’s always been the case that the negative dominated and fascinated us, hasn’t it? Perhaps.
But if so, let’s become a bit more peace-creative, positive-conscious and re-balance it all!
Quite a few years ago I wrote to the HQ of the World Press Photo and, in friendly terms, pointed to the problems I have discussed above, albeit in a shorter form. I said I was willing to discuss it all, face-to-face or by mail. Neither the original letter nor the reminders moved the people there to reply.