Sunday, 1 January 2012

Disposable Photographs

by Jose

Toilet Paper is hardly an auspicious name for a photography magazine. Reflecting on the title of this new commercial and advertising magazine and the reasons why an editor would choose to imbue their publication with such clear derogatory connotations, I remembered what Eileen, a keen contributor to this blog, said to me at the Brighton Photo Biennial: “there is so much ‘disposable photography’ around…”

‘Disposable photography’. Eileen’s remark has been stuck in my mind from the minute I heard it. In fact, it has become a curse too because now I see trivial, self-indulgent images taken by self-absorbed citizen-photographers absolutely everywhere. The image-upload statistics on the internet, symptomatic of this malaise, are mind-boggling:
  • There are nearly 5,000 new images uploaded to Flickr every minute
  • Every 60 seconds there are 35 new hours of video uploaded on YouTube
  • Facebook is growing at a rate of 60 million new images per week – that’s nearly 6,000 per minute

The great majority of those images are disposable photographs which say more about the person who took them than anything else. To me, they are best described as snippets of triviality. This is what I struggle with as a humanist documentary photographer. For me photography is not about the person who took the image but about the world, that is, about stories that take us along new paths of understanding. The counter-argument is that photographs also function as visual mnemonic devices that encapsulate personal life experiences of those who took them. As such, they are also a document, albeit a private one.

Take, for example, Vice, a free lavishly illustrated print & online magazine about the on implausible topics, some of which are undoubtedly controversial – just have a look at the features listed on the home page. The printed version of the magazine, slightly less outrageous than the online one, is packed with photography which seems to have been sourced out of social networking websites. After much deliberation I’ve come to the conclusion that those immediate, unsophisticated, true-to-the-moment photographs that I see in Vice are perhaps a new kind of documentary photography which may well do away with the documentary photographer sooner than we think.

Disposable images are also slightly surreal, showing a lived experience – that of the person who took the photograph – but devoid of any contextual information to make sense of it. All that one can do is speculate about whatever was in the mind of whoever took the photograph. Pure surrealism then, trying to figure out the workings of the unconscious… Is this why there is a marked surrealist trend in contemporary documentary I wonder? You only have to look at the the dark, sinister photographs by Anders Petersen and Jacob Aue Sobol or the colour worlds featured in Dayfour magazine to notice that surrealist undercurrent. Is this the way we are being trained to see?

Perhaps the best thing to do with disposable photographs is what Stephen Gill did with his polaroids: bury them. Well, not quite; he then dug them up and made a book with them – Buried. See what I mean? These days you can even make a book with images you have disposed of.

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