This is part one in series of posts adapted from a paper titled Representing the Unrepresentable: Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange that I read at the Aesthetics of Catastrophe symposium at Northwestern University. Each post stands alone, but the series is best read as a whole starting here.
September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Rwandan Genocide, Global Warming, the Genocide in Darfur, Pollution in China, the Collapse of Yugoslavia and Balkan War Crimes, Global Poverty, Local Poverty, Conflict Diamonds, Rape in the Congo, and the Israeli invasion of Gaza. These are just some of the recent larger issues that face contemporary life in the west. They are also the subjects of countless photo essays that work to seek some kind of public impact and or political change. The faces of these issues in America are largely based on photographs that present the immediate manifestations and visual evidence of problems that are inherently political in nature. Photographs too easily deal with the consequences while leaving the complex nature of their causes invisible and out of the frame.
Large scale human events emerge out of histories and systems that traverse the globe in messy, complex ways, involving political interactions and structures that we may barely recognize, even though we are directly witnessing the results of their machinations. The photographs of these issues that perform as witness for the public are also created and distributed by systems and structures that are largely invisible, but are responsible for shaping public perception with significant political consequences. At the same time, rapid developments in photo technology have unleashed the production of photographs in numbers that are unknown but that must be in the trillions.
In Wim Wenders' beautiful, epic, 280 minute film Until the End of the World, Dr. Farber has made an electronic machine that can electronically project images directly into the brain, effectively restoring sight to his blind wife. She is able to see with a pair of electronic goggles wired to her head, transmitting video images into her visual cortex. This is an incredible development for her. The characters spend much energy and time bringing video of their shared lives so she can catch up on the visuals that she has been missing.
They soon discover that the machine is also capable of the reverse process. Images can be recorded directly from the brain and played back on a screen for the viewer to watch in real time, making it possible to record one's dreams and then watch them back while awake. Soon, most of the characters find themselves completely addicted to looking at images from their dreams, spending their days watching ghostly pictures on static filled computer screens, peering into real world depictions of their mysterious inner lives while the world outside increasingly threatens with isolation, mass destruction and environmental collapse. When the film was first released in 1991, this seemed like an esoteric tale. Now a mere 18 years later, it is prescient in its understanding of how images can captivate and take us over.
The rapid development of digital technology has made possible the making and distribution of photographs on a scale and in a volume that was inconceivable mere decades ago. We are arriving at another version of Wender’s film, one where we can consume images on a monitor continuously, unconsciously seeking out those images that reinforce our own social, psychological and cultural understanding. Instead of the dream becoming manifest in the real, as it does in the film where dreams are transmuted into pixel data and ultimately images on a screen, we have the real being converted into a flood of images that are disconnected from the political realities of their origins and used to perform in service to other political entities and distribution engines, whether they be magazines and newspapers, social media, governments, individuals, media outlets, or any other entity that finds a use for them.
Rather than informing, a process that often must involve a formal restructuring of information, these images too often reinforce and reify stereotypes and stigmas, even when doing so with the best of intentions. We are entering a period of time where we are collectively joining a kind of waking dream, producing and consuming images at a pace and in a volume that defies reflection. We are swept along, directed by social, cultural and business concerns that, through a process of rewards and punishments, continue shaping the foundations of the way we understand our world. To create new political outcomes in our image making, we must direct change not only to the images themselves, but also to those structures that shape and deliver them.
Continue reading with Part Two.