QUESTIONING THE WORLD
For a century, analogue photography has been the privileged medium through which the world was viewed. Nothing, or almost nothing has escaped the medium, from faces to landscapes, family events to historical tragedies, from planets to animals, from the infinitely large to the most infinitesimal, from all that we share to what the human eye is incapable to see. It is thus that from the private sphere to political movements, photography wrote the visual history of the twentieth century.
Some twenty years ago, technology evolved and, little by little, silver particles were substituted by pixels, to the extent that today, digital technology is predominantly employed in the production of pictures. Technological advancements are not necessarily synonymous with aesthetic change and, to this day, new images are greatly related to older ones. Digital imaging finds itself in the same situation as photography was in its beginnings, when it had only paintings and drawings to use as a base reference. Different in its processes of production, what we mistakenly refer to as “digital photography” borrows from the rules of composition, transcription modes, vocabulary and narrative structure of traditional photography. This will be the case until the day that perhaps a completely new aesthetic will be born from the spectacular production of an enormous number of producers of images. Because, what has fundamentally changed is the number of image producers – each – one can say even if it is wrong – is a photographer. The value of technology has vanished, so that very simply, images can be circulated and shared instantly. The consequences are significant, starting with the fact that we doubt more than ever – and luckily so – the presupposition that photography conveys a sort of “truth” or “objectivity” in its representation of the world. We would not therefore confuse the real with its image. The practice of imaging has become largely recreational, obligating professionals, in order to distinguish themselves, to more clearly define their projects, objectives, and the challenges of their practice.
Indeed, each person, through the use of a cell phone that has become more and more automated, can become a “photographer”, and this is slowly shattering the way in which we perceive, read and interpret photographs. If the dependence on a pre-existing reality was the foundation for “photo-realism”, the experience of being easily able to manipulate and transform, even make a snapshot amusing, underlines the stylistic difference between an author concerned with developing a feeling and millions of amateurs that take pleasure in exchanging easily snapshots, visual jokes and fun.
This situation produced a number of pessimistic critics saying there is nothing left to do, that “all has been photographed, all has been done…” But such an attitude disregards man’s ability to create and renew. It perpetuates the idea that what establishes an image is its “subject”. Yet, we are seeing more clearly that the challenge is in the choice of a point of view and of the linked aesthetics. In photography, more so than in any other form of visual expression, the point of view is first and foremost physical: the choice of distance and high or low angle of the shots will have an impact and will produce meaning, stating what the creator of the image is feeling and wants to convey. Therefore, not only does the camera operator capture an image in the moment that he sees it, the image also says how he perceives it. Photography is no longer a tool for easy replication, but a means for questioning.
It is in confronting different points of view, in comparing aesthetics, and in appreciating the succession of choices made within the same topics that we are able to shape indispensable questions about the contemporary world. In placing different works by finalists of the WMA Masters – that range from documentaries to the conceptual – side by side, we quickly come to a series of questions surrounding the notion of “Mobility”, the chosen theme for both the analysis of the social situation and thinking about the meaning of the produced images. This social query, particularly relevant in our current world, spans such issues as the migration phenomena linked to the economy, to armed conflicts, to ecological disasters, and to the personal destiny of millions of men and women, while probing both contemporary situations and the future of humanity. Once more, photography appears to be one of the most pertinent mediums to lead an exploration of a social theme because the artist has a wide possibility for the choice of the kind of representation which will, for the artist, make sense and be possible to share with others. There is not one aesthetic better than another to deal in the social realm, but it remains essential that the visual coherence, the internal articulations of shapes as a grammar, builds a manner of narration that is understandable to the majority of the viewers.
For a long time, the capturing of social themes through photography was dominated by what was called photojournalism, which produced extraordinary visual stories and icons that marked the twentieth century. But these images often became stereotypes that, in being repeated, lost their impact and their meaning. Paradoxically, it is the crisis of the print media, and its effects on the professions of visual information, that opened a larger field for the treatment of social subjects. Picture authors, previously thought to be artists because of their aesthetic choices and to whom the press would not lend a page, became legitimised when representing social themes. This recent development has also opened new fields, especially with the exhibition and the book, and is breaking the conventions that sought to exclude photography from the “true” art world because of its realism.
Technological developments from the beginning of the twenty-first century deeply modified the status, production processes, reading contexts and function of the image. If the exponential growth in the number of shots taken – accompanied by the rapid destruction of many of these images that are simply considered useful in the immediate – make more and more difficult the perception of an image’s contents, then this is confirmation that the image is a central concern for our society and its future. Photographed images are certainly no longer, in their fixed form, the chief tool of memory (we can and should question the nature of memory and also its role in our societies and for the future). Images are no longer “proof” of any essential testimony. They do, however, continue by nature to be rooted to reality and can be useful to interpret and question it.
Artists do not have the ability of finding solutions or answers to the world’s problems. The most talented of them have always known to pose questions, ahead of their contemporaries – the pertinent questions surrounding society in which they create and produce. This is still the case.