The Responsibilities of Photographers

Larry Herman, centre in brown jacket, at the first National Photography Symposium, Manchester, 2009

Guest opinion:

Larry Herman explores the crossover of politics and photography

Several years ago I had conversations with a couple of photographers and a painter about issuing a manifesto, publicly declaring our political views as to how photographers (& painters) could work in an overtly political way. We wanted to polemicise against those who advocate variations of that liberal totem: “art for arts sake”. We wanted to expose those who produce work that is ostensibly liberal and perhaps even thought of as being left wing, but is, deceptively, very conservative. The few discussions we had floundered, became confused and would have only befuddled our intended clarity and unity and the idea for our new manifesto rightly died away.

Our heartfelt drive to say something about obvious contradictions, primarily among photographers who define their work as documentary, has intensified with time. It’s now much easier to debate these things because hardship is not just happening somewhere “over there”. It’s impossible to remain aloof and declare that change is impossible and people will always remain stoically politically quiescent. Even the most steadfast pessimist can’t hide behind usual walls of complacency. It’s always been true that it’s ideas that humanity has had to confront. Many more people have been forced to accept that the generations now alive are also profoundly absorbed in a continuing battle of ideas.

Since the great crashes of world stock markets in 1987, people in highly industrialised countries have sensed economic catastrophe, the condition already afflicting most of humanity. Many of us know the apprehension that comes when the familiar world, we inherited, no longer exists. It’s apparent to more and more people that the way the world is economically organised is not working. Few people, now alive in the world’s industrial heartlands, have ever experienced such profound foreboding. Nevertheless, many photographers insist in pretending, not to notice. There are those who photograph flag waving Americans as eccentrics, while there are others, like me, who are reminded of 1930’s Munich.

Art always gives expression to some aspect of the epoch in which it is made. It was demanded of generations of painters that they had to “bring to life” bible stories for the millions who were kept in illiteracy. Icon painters reflected the needs of rulers who conjured up superstition to keep people in order and the icons they painted remained more or less the same for generations. Roman sculpture generally glorified that Empire’s self view of its superiority. Abstraction is an attempt to give artistic form to scientific developments in subconscious thinking and André Breton, collaborating with Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky among many others, gave revolutionary expression in the arts to the political  and scientific upheavals in the first few decades of the 20th Century. Their Surrealist Manifesto still remains among the most influential documents in almost a hundred years.

It’s patently obvious that no one can understand an artistic movement without beginning with a dissection of the economic and ensuing social relationships. Producers of art, in all its forms, must reflect the prevailing social relationships ultimately determined by that extraordinarily tiny band of people who own and distribute all the wealth that humanity produces. 

A couple of years ago I was at a conference of photographers and I asked a question of a photographer about choosing to use colour or black and white. An irate photographer shouted out, from the audience, about the irrelevancy of such a question; that choice of using colour or not must be explained only by “that’s what the photographer wanted to use”. I reject this dismal variation of “art for arts sake”. All of us must defend the work we do! 

Other examples of the insidious anything goes maxim are all around us in our neo-liberal culture. I saw a photograph in a book a few months ago of a naked women with the single word caption: Laredo. The photographer didn’t even bother to include the women’s face in his image. Laredo, Texas is a major entry point, into the United States, for destitute Latin Americans looking for work. When I was in Laredo I photographed a long line of hundreds of Salvadorians, southern Mexicans and several other nationalities waiting to board buses at two in the morning. Already, they had been traveling for many days and were about to begin the last part of their hellish journey with a cramped twenty - six hour ride to North Carolina to bring in the tobacco harvest. 

Intentionally or otherwise, too many photographers still hold onto economically and socially debilitating precepts of the iniquitous neo liberalism and the confusing and reactionary philosophical underpinning of post modernism that so powerfully pervades our societies. What is the function of photography for those of us who are repulsed by its use as an entertainment. What do those of us who produce overtly political photographs say to those whose glib work is only meant to befuddle? What do we say to those among us who, with a click of their eyes, blithely support a system that degrades humanity? Photographers must ask themselves, what do we want next generations to know about this one? What is it that’s important about our time and what is its legacy?

I’m not writing about the right to photograph this or that and it’s never a question about a producer’s skill or artisanship. What does a gorgeous print of the proverbial rotting log on a forest floor, captioned: My Third Wednesday Night Dream, have to do with explaining the predicament of humanity? Or, for that matter, what is the profoundly misogynist photographer of a naked women, bound in chains, in this year’s BP Portrait Award meant to do other than to continue the reactionary attitude towards women as sexual objects, devoid of intellect? That image will most certainly contribute to the prevailing violence many women endure.

In our imperial epoch, that has already lasted more than a hundred years, there has been continuous war. Perhaps more importantly, because of its implications for the future, is the unprecedented mass movement of impoverished rural people into the brutality of towns and cities. For the first time in human history more people live in urban areas than in the countryside. We should reflect on the tumultuous changes in Britain, in the ensuing decades, after this happened in this world’s little corner in the mid 1800’s. We also know that the only constant in history is change!

Of course, I’m not suggesting that every working photographer must document war or migration. There are thousands of ways of rendering our tumultuous times into images. Culture is everything we learn, from how we move our bodies when walking, what languages we speak and the the sort of food we prefer. Everything that’s not generally instinctive is culture. The responsibility of photographers is to intentionally record the tumult surrounding us and resistance to it. Perhaps some previous generations faced greater change than ours, although it’s hard to say which ones. The poignancy of old photographs is not in the eyes of the long dead, but of hands reaching out to us pleading: now it’s your turn to do things better!

Social and political change comes from resistance to oppression. It’s not the degradation that people are forced into that defines our world, but it’s the many forms of resistance to it that is paramount. That’s precisely what politically motivated photographers must record to help define our time and show the future what is now being done. What do we activists, who use cameras, have to say to the likes of Sebastião Salgado, the Brazilian photographer who consistently uses his cameras to make gorgeous pictures of people as victims? Compare his work to that of the Colombian Rodrigo Moya. I recently saw his 1966 photograph of Venezuelan guerrillas in a forest. Moya’s photograph is full of determination and resistance and certainly not because the five people in the image are carrying weapons.

Malcolm X wrote that the media are so powerful in their image-making role, they can make criminals look like victims and victims look like criminals. It’s imperative that overtly political photographers record our times. There is no one else who will tell those media, museum and gallery controllers that there is a different world than the one they portray. We must hand over to next generations images of a people who were not passive and who were part of huge change. That’s why the work we do is a necessity. We must work forensically, wherever and however we choose to point our cameras. The relevancy of our work is not assured by its frivolity or even beauty but is directly related to what we choose to photograph.


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Photo: Larry Herman, centre in brown jacket, at the first National Photography Symposium, Redeye, Manchester, 2009. Photo Paul Herrmann

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