Week 3 Reflection

Thoughts on Photography Consists of Collaboration: Meiselas, Ewald and Azoulay

This is one of the recommended readings for the week and I felt I should respond to it. It seems to me that the article illustrates a way in which critical thinking fails by straying from its basic premise.

On the first page, the author rejects the idea of the “male figure (photographer) roaming around the world and pointing his camera at objects, places, people and events, as if the world was made for him”.

It is not difficult to recognise a feminist critique, albeit a fairly aggressive one, of the modernist story of the photographer. Although photography has always had a better representation of women than other areas of activity, the criticism is valid. Dominant male figures like Don McCullin, Larry Burrows and David Bailey feed into the way photographers are portrayed and understood.

Azoulay’s text then moves on to explain that far from being the preserve of lone males, photography is actually an essentially collaborative activity. Meiselas and Ewald assume the existence of collaboration in their studies and a list of the ways in which collaboration was studied are provided.

This then rapidly progresses to the statement that “Collaboration is the photographic event’s degree zero, as photography always involves an encounter between several protagonists …” (pg 189).

I can see the progression of this line of criticism, from the objection to the photographer as the lone, male, figure of power, to a desire to that all photography should be collaborative and hence more inclusive.  But to assert that photography always involves an encounter between several protagonists and hence actually is collaborative is simply inaccurate.

It is inaccurate because it is possible to present many examples of photographic practice that do not involve any aspect of collaboration.

Street photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson, Bruce Gilden and Elliot Erwitt operated alone, because that was the most productive way of producing the pictures that they wanted. Street photography is specifically a non-engagement with the subjects.

Many landscape photographers travel to their destinations alone, their equipment on their backs. Their genre excludes human form as a preference.

William Eggleston drove the streets of Memphis alone, looking for the scenes that made his name.

If, as Azoulay asserts, photography is always collaborative, what are these major practitioners of photography who work alone, actually doing? There are two possible answers. One, that Azoulay’s assessment is wrong or, two, that these practitioners are not engaged in photography.

Whilst Azoulay might wish to challenge the work and the legacy of the practitioners I mentioned, to try to exclude them from the canon of photography makes no sense. Collaboration is a part of photography, but it is not all of it.

So why have I taken the trouble to write about this? Because it seems to me to be a particularly vivid example of how the freedom of critical thinking can be cast aside to exchange one orthodoxy for another.

The advent of critical theory opened up a whole field of new thinking, which challenged the established orthodoxies. These new lines of criticism gave a voice to many thinkers and groups that were formerly voiceless. That is to be welcomed.

Critical theory facilitates challenges to dominant discourses. In doing so, several dynamics must be borne in mind. A challenge or criticism to a discourse, does not make it go away. The discourse may remain defiant in the face or criticism. It may respond to the criticism but altering itself. It may be genuinely diminished by the revelation of its own shortcoming. But it is highly unlikely that it will vanish from view. It is most likely to remain in existence, perhaps with some modifications. By co-existing with its criticisms, a discourse occupies a new space, a space in which multiple discourses co-exist, each making various claims and claiming different adherents.

I would suggest that this is a healthy, diverse environment. Just as societies and ecosystems benefit from diversity, so too, do academies and intellectual arenas. As far as I can see, the early advocates of critical theory sought to replace dominance with diversity.

However, there is a temptation at work. Having dislodged a dominant discourse by the application of critical thinking, it is tempting to replace it with a new dominance. It is tempting to believe that having toppled a dominant discourse with a critical one, that critical discourse should become dominant. I don’t share this view. Diversity is healthier and more democratic than dominance. It allows greater variety of thought and provides a voice for a broader spectrum of people.

But it is always tempting to imagine oneself to be right. My reading of Azoulay suggests to me that this is the temptation to which she has succumbed. It would be perfectly reasonable and consistent with the spirit of critical theory, to be an advocate of photography as a collaborative activity, but still admit that other approaches exist and have merit. Azoulay fails to do this and claims the dominance of her own approach.

In doing so, she has denied the plurality and openness that allowed her to criticise the dominant discourse of photography. If a multitude of views can be argued surely, they must be tolerant of each other or they will be condemned to an endless competition in which the power of the advocate will decide the fate of the discourse.

(Featured picture by Susan Meiselas)