Posts Tagged ‘Engagement’

At Aperture Gallery, Miguel Benasayag called for a kind of engagement freed from the messianic perspective that has more often lead to the bitterness and disappointment of « sad militants » than to glorious new mornings. (Download the French version here)

« Individualism, dominant today, causes us to believe in the existence of something called “the individual,” a sort of free electron that can (and must) wander about against the backdrop of reality without roots, elective affinities, or belonging. An era that has made the individual its default myth portrays society as a collection of simple, elementary units having no relation to the world other than that which their “full liberty” advises them to establish in the form of limited utilitarian contracts. This myth, which portrays each of us as a self-promoting entrepreneur with a certain endowment of capital to manage (for some, this endowment may take the form of a factory or stock portfolio, while for most it consists of labor power, time, health, and body), treats the individual as the site where a certain action potential develops (as CEO, politician, or citizen/consumer—the “consum’actor” typical of the developed countries of the northern hemisphere).

This belief in the individual as the subject of action—which, though structurally determinant in a cultural and anthropological sense, is not in fact very robust—is directly responsible for what I will call the obscurity of the age: although the challenges we face are relatively clear, the representation of the subject of a possible action is far less so. Although many of our contemporaries agree on the goals of defending the living, the environment, and culture against the destructive forces of economism, utilitarianism, and individual serialization, there is great confusion when it comes to specifying what sort of agent might engage in such action. In other words, the “obscure” character of the age is evident in the objective fact that, given the challenges that our societies face and the dangers and threats to life, there is no transcendent horizon. It is the “unhappy passions,” the passions associated with impotence according to Spinoza, that make an era obscure and disquieting. And the rarer the concrete possibilities for resolving the threats to life in all its forms, the more obscure the era will be for contemporaries.

In what follows, I will offer a number of hypotheses concerning the subject of action specific to the current era—neither individual nor centralized power but perhaps situation or multiplicity of interrelated situations—in an attempt to clarify what commitment in an obscure era is and in the hope of identifying instruments for action.


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Nina Berman was with us yesterday at Aperture Gallery. Here is the statement she wrote for the panel.

 » There is a mantra often heard today that “it’s not enough to be just a photographer.”   And to some extent I agree. The sheer number of images swimming out there, floating on flickr streams, devoid of context, sleeping in image archives, texted on phones, sold online, is mind numbing.  To break through the matrix and elevate an image or a body of work into the public discourse requires a shrewd ability to excel as both a creator and a broadcaster, a heady kind of engagement many photographers would rather avoid.
In the 20th century, the analog century, those working in photojournalism, could be content to follow more narrowly focused career paths.  A relatively elite group of American and Europeans photographers covered the world for a handful of influential agencies and international magazines.   Back then, publication day was an event with magazine cover stories reinforced by similarly themed TV coverage.  Magazines devoted multiple pages to visual storytelling, giving photographers weeks, sometimes months to produce.  For most photographers good play in a magazine was often enough to feel they had effectively communicated.  Whether such communication had resonance, and for how long, can be debated, but what is without question is that long form documentary photography is no longer funded in the media today.   The only exception to this perhaps is conflict/disaster reporting (Egypt, Haiti) or more typically, the military embed, a type of photography so inherently limited and limiting as to make one question the enormous amount of resources allocated to its production.

As media outlets for narrative photography dwindled, the art market was similarly, but for different reasons, becoming less enamored with photographers as creative observers of the world beyond, and more impressed with photographers who construct ideas into sets or scenes, which they then turn into photographs, the photography being almost secondary, a means to realize (commoditize) the idea.    For an eloquent exploration of this trend, read Paul Graham’s lecture “The Unreasonable Apple” at the MOMA photography forum February 2010.


So what’s an engaged photographer to do? Some photographers are assuming dual roles as human rights investigators, indigenous media educators, and funders of projects they then film.  Others are becoming elaborate production outfits following a road map that looks something like this:  choose the subject, scramble for funding, photograph for months or years, publish the book, build the website,  (maybe an interactive one with crowd sourcing) make the film or a multimedia spot, partner with a relevant NGO or start a foundation of one’s own.  This is quite an undertaking and can leave the photographer nearly broke.  In a grant making culture that eschews photographer fees as a luxury line item, or requires prescriptive metrics of success, the photographer can be forced into assuming the narrow and uncomfortable role as a selfless “do – gooder. “ Or worse, the work ends up being appreciated not so much for it having being made, but for its value as a fundraising tool or other similarly utilitarian purpose.

The energy, commitment and potential for social relevance of this kind of multi tiered engagement can be powerful, but I am also wary of an oversimplification of the photography and narrative in the process.

In the end, for those working in the tradition of investigative documentary, the challenge is still the same as it was for Larry Fink, Donna Ferrato, and Robert Frank, to name a few. How to make work that is complex, relevant, beautiful and mysterious, has the power to communicate and transform, even shake the world a bit, in a way that has long lasting resonance.

For most of my career, my area of engagement has been the United States. I use my photography as an extension of my responsibility as a fully participating citizen, a role I take very seriously. I choose topics, ideas, places, that have  personal and emotional meaning and consider how they intersect with the broader political and social landscape.

Beyond the making of the photograph, it is the engagement with the subject, often people from widely divergent political views and backgrounds that most inspires and challenges.  Photographers have a unique ability to cross borders and within the red/blue divide of the United States, there are many borders, both literal and figurative.

I do not consider an audience when making the work, but I spend considerable time strategizing how and where to engage an audience once the photographs are made.  For instance, following the publication of Purple Hearts, my book of portraits and interviews with wounded veterans from the Iraq War, I traveled to high schools with one of the subjects.  It was in those classrooms, speaking to students who were being recruited for military service, that my work became complete. »

– Nina Berman

photo credit: Keke Keukelaar

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This video accompanies photographer Nina Berman’s haunting book Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq (Trolley: 2004).  Berman will be joining Monday’s round-table addressing “What is Engagement Today?” at the Aperture gallery. Shot in the hospitals and homes where severely wounded soldiers recover, Berman’s images, and her accompanying interviews with her subjects, transcend a cold cataloguing of war damage and mutilation, instead probing deep into the psychological reactions of the men to their injuries.  Some speak with pleasure about their personal accomplishment—“I went and made something of myself,” says Pfc. Randall Clunen—while others admit that they have more questions than answers. Perhaps most powerful are the words of soldiers whose speech is slowed by physical and mental injuries sustained in combat. A woman interjects to clarify one soldier’s slur—“Talking ‘bout his wife; she’s left him now.” In a media climate where, in the words of Pfc. Robert Acosta, most people “just see ‘one solider wounded’ and they’ll forget about it as soon as they change the channel,” Berman’s subjects take you into their confidence, forcing you to engage before you can look away.

– Kate Redburn

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Propos recueillis par Thomas Lemahieu pour le magazine en ligne Périphéries

Philosophe et psychanalyste, Miguel Benasayag est aussi un ancien combattant de la guérilla guévariste en Argentine, où il a passé plusieurs années en prison. Depuis son arrivée en France, à sa libération, il réfléchit inlassablement aux moyens de rester fidèle à l’exigence de liberté et de solidarité des luttes révolutionnaires passées, tout en tirant les enseignements de leurs échecs et de leurs errements. Dans Du contre-pouvoir, co-écrit avec Diego Sztulwark, il observe l’émergence d’une nouvelle radicalité désireuse de changer la vie. Et clame que, si on veut préserver la vitalité de ces mouvements, il ne faut surtout pas ressortir du placard les vieux schémas révolutionnaires… C’est à la révolution dans la révolution, à la puissance contre le pouvoir, au savoir contre l’information, que Miguel Benasayag nous invite : il ne faut pas, écrit-il, se préparer à prendre le pouvoir, attendre de grands soirs en obéissant à des « maîtres libérateurs » ; il faut, dans l’immédiat et sans attendre de lendemains qui chantent, chercher tout à la fois la puissance et la connaissance. Avec humour et clairvoyance, il passe en revue pour nous ces idées qui sont autant de « clés » précieuses pour tous ceux qui cherchent, à tâtons, à penser de nouveaux horizons. « La résistance alternative sera puissante dans la mesure où elle abandonnera le piège de l’attente », lit-on dans le « Manifeste du réseau de résistance alternative » lancé par son collectif « Malgré Tout », et dont nous publions par ailleurs quelques extraits.

– Pourriez-vous nous faire votre biographie, en tous les cas politique ?

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Photo de Louis Monier/La Découverte

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