Aesthetics Or Anaesthetics

Since I have chosen to define my practice as activist photography, I will need to look at critiques of other activist photographers in order to discover discourses relevant to my work.

SebastiĆ£o Salgado is a self-professed activist and the criticisms of his work have been aired extensively on this course already. The principal criticism is that Salgado places aesthetics before an objective representation of his subject matter. So according to the critique, an image like the one below loses its integrity as a documentary or campaigning image because it is excessively styled.

I am not aware of similar criticisms being levelled against Lee Miller for her photographs of the Nazi concentration camps as they were liberated in 1945.

It is certainly possible to level criticism against Miller. This is a photographer’s picture, she has got in close and filled the frame. But in doing so, she makes the corpses identifiable. Is it right to create a powerful picture at the expense of identifying sons, brothers and husbands?

Salgado and Miller both, no doubt, have the best of intentions. Both are doing their job and producing the best pictures that they can in arduous situations. But have they gone beyond an objective account of the suffering of others to indulge themselves in aesthetics?

I am not going to attempt to answer this question, only to defend the right to raise it. The answer will be different depending on audiences and intentions. The Salgado picture might be a powerful icon for charitable campaign to relieve the plight of the people pictured. The Miller picture would be perfectly at home in a text describing the horrors of the concentration camps. There are also many situations where both pictures would be inappropriate.

In terms of evaluating my own work, I should be aware of the criticism of over-aestheticization. There is a time and a place for the ascendency of style and equally a place for the objective photograph. If photography is a language, it has its idioms just like spoken or written language.

In evaluating my work, consideration should be give to the context in which it will be seen and the nature of the audience. These are criteria for judging whether an image should be included, just as much as it’s technical and compositional qualities.

[Featured image: speaker at an Extinction Rebellion protest, Horse Hill, Surrey, 2019]