The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at www.theonlinephotographer.com!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Moral Confusion

To begin with, check out the first response to the posting "Daguerreotype of 9/11" below.

The commenter's reaction certainly surprised me. On further reflection, however, I think his (or her) reaction was an example of a type of confusion on the part of viewers that has regularly bedeviled photographers throughout the history of the medium. The reaction seems to be that the act of photography implies a moral stance or implication, and is thus an immoral or moral action in and of itself.

Sometimes, of course, it does—to some degree or another. Again, I think the only true examples of "immoral photography" I'm personally familiar with are certain types of pornography, specifically when a crime is committed in order to create a picture of it. (Even there, ambiguity exists—is it immoral because it's being photographed, or is it immoral because it's a crime to begin with? There must be different shadings in different situations.) News photographers of various kinds and in a number of eras have drawn fire for showing something shocking or regrettable. The standard complaint seems to run more or less like this: "How could you just stand there and take a picture of that? You should have done something to help." Three photographs that come to mind that have drawn this kind of criticism are a news photograph of a mother and baby falling to their deaths from a burning building, a picture of a man with a shotgun to his neck moments before he committed suicide, and the picture of the burning Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest the Viet Nam war.

The source of the reaction seems simple: ordinary viewers know that to take a photograph you have to be proximate to your subject. Thus, they know that the photographers were "there." And if they were there, the logic seems to go, they should have acted to change the situation, somehow. (It's partially a wishful "I" statement on the part of the viewer, to wit: "If I had been there, I would have taken action.")

I should add here that I have a finely honed, or at least well-developed, moral sense, and in the early days of my involvement with photography I reacted strongly to a variety of photographs from a moral perspective. I recall walking out of a Mary Ellen Mark lecture once, because I felt the pictures were exploitative. And I still abhor the work of certain photographers on moral grounds. In certain limited cases, I think that an appeal to base motives or criminal tendencies in viewers is sufficient to damn a picture or pictures. For example, the appeal to necrophilia in Joel Peter Witkin's work. In other cases, I get a sense of something ugly in the photographer; an example of that would be another photographer whose work I can't stand, Jock Sturges, whose pictures seem to express a clammy, fawning pedophilia.

Jerry Spagnoli, Untitled, September 11, 2001: Is the "morality"
of this picture indivisible from the technique used to make it?

So I'm not immune to a moral response to photographs. But is it really true that Jerry Spagnoli's picture of the burning towers in the New York cityscape is "shameful" just because it's a Daguerreotype? What's the underlying assumption here: that every time someone uses an archaic or alternative technique, there's something precious or self-conscious about it that means the photographer expects approval based solely on the nicety of the technique? Would this same picture be more "moral" to the commenter if it had been made by the same view camera but with ordinary film—or is the very act of setting up and using an obsolescent view camera enough to make it immoral? Is it somehow not immoral to take a picture like this with a modern snapshot camera like everyone owns?

The fact is, somewhat unfortunately perhaps, that photography is almost never implicitly moral or immoral, intrinsically. I believe it can be used for immoral purposes, but I also have learned to be suspicious of people who think that those "immoral purposes" can be contained just in the picture, and are discoverable just from the picture, and that they are therefore justified in condemning the photographer based solely on the evidence of the picture.

For the most part, I think that when this tendency is analyzed, what we discover is that the viewers are approaching the picture with certain assumptions, and that those assumptions cannot be proved by just the picture. For example, when a photojournalist takes a picture like the burning monks, most often there is nothing that he or she can possibly do to help. For instance, the photographer may be behind a police line, or physically restrained, or be close to whatever is happening but not close enough. A photographer taking a picture of a baby falling from a building, for instance, has to have good reactions just to shift the camera and take the shot in time—he would never have time to sprint over to a location underneath the falling baby in time to make an attempt to catch it. The viewer of the picture who assumes he "should have tried" is simply expressing a generic sense of pity and regret, the equivalent of saying "Aww, it's too bad something couldn't have been done to help." But they're expressing it in terms of hostility to the photographer.

Likewise, there is nothing intrinsic to Jerry Spagnoli's picture that indicates that he thinks the smoke is pretty and picturesque. That's just the viewer's assumption, based perhaps on how that viewer approaches other, similar pictures. I think that at most, the photographer here might be accused of a certain insensitivity, for not realizing that his obsolete technique might be interpreted as this commenter has interpreted it. But that's all. There is nothing more moral or immoral about the picture than that. More sophisticated viewers should be on guard against confusing the picture of something or the act of taking it with a definite stance on the part of the photographer toward what the picture shows.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Featured Comment by Jason Greenberg Motamedi: Historically Daguerreotypy may be an ideal technique for the represention of death.

I realize this sounds quite odd, but in the 19th century post-mortem photography was common, and photographers were often called to make house visits to "secure the shadow" of a family member, particularly children.

Susan Sontag has pointed out that photography, particularly in its early years, served as a "memento mori", a reminder of mortality. In this sense I think a Daguerreotype an ideal reminder of not only indvidual mortality, but a memento mori of a nation...

Secure the Shadow
'Ere the Substance Fade
let nature imitate what nature has made

—Advertisement from a 19th Century Daguerreotypist

42 Comments:

Blogger Photoburner said...

A more recent controversy occured in China, a photog stationed himself near a pothole hidden under a puddle and waited for bicyclists to hit the hole:

http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_1399668.html

7:30 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I was surprised that he had the presence of mind to make something as demanding as a Daguerreotype while all that was going on.

Making a Daguerreotype is a very deliberate action.

8:21 AM  
Blogger MJFerron said...

Tough call. I hate to put a limit on things but remember in the back of that photo, right where it gets pretty, there are many hundreds of people who are going to lose their live in short order. Some are already in excruciating physical and mental pain.

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have met and talked to Jerry, although it was just a few months prior to the events depicted in his Dagurreotype. He is very thoughtful and articulates a finely tuned sense of this technique as a truly documentary tool. He maintains that the incredible permanence and singular nature of the dag can instantiate events with a solidity that seems sorely missing in a world of pixels and throw-away newsmagazines.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"remember in the back of that photo, right where it gets pretty, there are many hundreds of people who are going to lose their live in short order"

Come on, think this through. What has that got to do with the photographer? He hasn't caused it and he can't do anything about it.

The same is true of every other photograph of the burning towers. What makes some pictures allowable and disallows others?

--Mike

8:57 AM  
Anonymous paul said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention Kevin Carter, probably the most poignant example of a photographer being tragically attacked by the public's ignorant "morality."

9:09 AM  
Blogger Robin Dreyer said...

I have to make a quick comment on behalf of Jerry Spagnoli, who is a friend of mine.

The daguerreotype is the means by which he has chosen to interact with the world as an observer, a documenter, and an artist. This is what he does. He was present for this event. From the top of his studio building in Chelsea there wasn't anything he could do about what was happening, but as a person seriously engaged in making images of our time for a future audience, what made sense to him was to record what he was seeing.

This is no different from what was done by several people who happened to be near the World Trade Center with video cameras, not to mention all the superb Magnum photographers who were in New York for a meeting and all headed downtown with cameras that morning. And it's certainly no different from the brilliant record created by Joel Myerowitz (with an 8x10 view camera) of the aftermath. Together they have all helped create a visual record and memorial of what happened that day. Jerry's daguerreotype is part of that continuum. Personally I get chills every time I see it and I'm certainly glad that his presence of mind didn't desert him that morning.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous John said...

The pothole story is interesting. The photographer had at least four options:

1 Take the photos.
2 Stand near the hole and warn people.
3 Go to the authorities.
4 Do nothing.

#4 is what presumably everyone else who knew about the hole did. #3 is probably ineffective, or at least slow. #2 saves a few people that day, but what about the next day/week/month?

#1 was clearly the most effective approach.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

The story of Kevin Carter is greatly more complicated, although you're right that he did suffer the knee-jerk outrage I'm describing. For those who are interested, here's a link to Scott MacLeod's essay about Carter:

http://www.thisisyesterday.com/ints/KCarter.html

--Mike

9:26 AM  
Blogger Albano Garcia said...

Mike,
You forgot Kevin Carter and his famous vulture picture. He received letters even from Japan regarding his picture. He already had depressive and drug problems, and finally commited suicide. I recommend the excellent book "The Bang Bang Club, Snapshots from a hidden war", by Greg Marinovich, survivor of the group of south african journalists. It's also a great source to know more about South Africa's recent history.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Albano,
That link is broken. Could you try again?

--Mike

9:40 AM  
Blogger Geoff said...

After thinking about this stuff for some time, I've come to the conclusion that the only thing you can be sure of about a photograph is that, more or less, what's going on in front of the camera occurred at some point. That's it (and in the age of digital manipulation, even that can't be gauranteed with anything approaching certainty). Making assumptions over and above this, perhaps overly simplistic or reductive, notion generally only gets you into trouble.

Take Duane Michaels' work for example. Most of the interactions in his work are fairly innocuous, to hear the circumstances described after the fact, however by virtue of the titling they reveal a sinister element -- but one that has nothing to do with what was actually going on in front of the camera when the shutter was released.

Different people will assume different things from a photograph. It's not the photographer's responsibility to try to take all of the various possible interpretations into consideration. They have the responsibility to decide for themselves whether they should take the picture or not. The (near infinite) different things people might draw from the resulting work tend to say more about those making the observation than they do about the photographer.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Albano Garcia said...

Here is the photo

And the book:
http://tinyurl.com/nzxqk

Regards

9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are actually a lot of similarities between this image and Sturges' work. Implicit in this photograph is a cloying nostalgic appeal to sentimentality which is, if anything, in many ways similar to, but perhaps even more dangerous and damaging than what you describe as "clammy, fawning pedophilia".

Of course, if you take the approach that photographs don't intrinsically communicate a message (where have I read that before?), none of these examples matters anyway....

10:24 AM  
Blogger Adam Richardson said...

Actually I find this photo does the exact opposite of create "cloying nostalgic appeal" - because of its method and appearance it jolts me out of my familiar way of looking at the photos of this event, which have taken on a certain sheen of sameness.

It also places the event in a continuum of other tragic events, by giving it an appearance that we associate with "the past", an effect that will be different for different people I suppose depending on one's political leanings or personal connections with the 9/11 attacks.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Jason Greenberg Motamedi said...

Historically Daguerreotypy may be an ideal technique for the represention of death.

I realize this sounds quite odd, but in the 19th century post-mortem photography was common, and photographers were often called to make house visits to "secure the shadow" of a family member, particularly children.

Susan Sontag has pointed out that photography, particularly in its early years, served as a "memento mori", a reminder of mortality. In this sense I think a Daguerreotype an ideal reminder of not only indvidual mortality, but a memento mori of a nation...


Secure the Shadow
'Ere the Substance Fade
let nature imitate what nature has made

-- Advertisement from a 19th Century Daguerreotypist

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Coolmac said...

I'm always surprised when people equate Sturges work to paedophilia. I remember when he briefly joined the photo.net community, and was driven away by the internet equivalent of a village mob with pitch forks and burning torches. Of course he doesn't receive nearly as much criticism in Europe, as this sort of thing seems to be a mostly American thing.

However, I can at least understand why some people are uncomfortable with his work. That someone can question the morals of Jerry Spagnoli for taking that Daguerreotype however, demonstrates the posters complete and utter lack of understanding to why some of us take photo's in the first place.

11:33 AM  
Blogger NIMBY said...

To be taken as a stab in the dark but I wonder if the reason for concern, in the case of the Daguerreotype, is that it is perceived as an "artistic" medium rather than documentary (these days). The morality comes into play when it is considered the photographer was using the suffering of others to make his art.

I would like to point out, that this is only my theory, and I do not initially take this stance. Although I may if I think about it long enough.

In some ways this argument for morality has been going on a very long time. The mother in Dorothea Lange's highly regarded photo was one example, where as years passed the image was looked at more for its photographic prowess than the message it was supposed to be portraying. The same too can be argued for the huge bulk of work containing the homeless etc. - although not of course on the scale of 9/11.

It is impossible to think that images of 9/11 will ever de-sensitise us, no matter the time period, to a point where any image will become more relevant as a photograph than of the subject.

It is painful to look at such images, but accusing the photographer of immorality in his looking may only be deflecting our pain. I can only assume that he felt his duty as a photographer was to document it using the medium he had previously chosen for his photographs. In the cold light of day, there was little else he could have done.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Jim Natale said...

Two observations:

1) "In certain limited cases, I think that an appeal to base motives...in viewers is sufficient to damn a picture or pictures.... In other cases, I get a sense of something ugly in the photographer..."

Well noted, MJ. Often these days, ugliness for ugliness sake is celebrated. Even that CAN be artistic, and if that view is someone's "thing," then so be it. However, at some point, when that approach becomes prevalent, and it begins to crowd out other modes of seeing, it becomes pornographic in the broadest sense of the word, even when there's not a bare bum in sight.

2) I'm surprised the comments on Spagnoli's photo have taken the turns that they have taken. Then again, I'm constantly re-amazed at what people react to in photography. Perhaps it's a function of the original's small size, or the limitations of internet display, but the untitled Sept. 11th photo does not seem, to me anyway, to be particularly successful.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Colin [auspiciousdragon.net] said...

And if the varying comments here don't convince that there is no intrinsic message in the artwork and that we have absolutely no idea what the artist intended, I don't know what would.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Pål Norheim said...

This discussion is interesting, and has many aspects. What surprises me, is that nobody mention (or compare that particular daguerrotype with) the pictures that at the time had the strongest impact: the video images sent simultaniously from CNN, CNBC etc. Everywere in the world (also in Norway, from where I`m writing) we stared at them. And they were repeated again and again, in slow motion, and often without sound.
These images were the main "information source" at the time, but they also served those responsible for the attack; they must have known this in advance. Consequently, in a moral context, who is to blame, if anyone – TV or a photographer, slowly making his daguerreotype image?

This is an old, and well known dilemma. Televison, and to some extent also the news papers, and now also the internet, are always "useful idiots" (wasn"t that Lenins words?) for terrorists hijacking planes, kidnapping people or blowing up something: without these dramatic images the actions would indeed have had very little impact. Specially "live" televison is, indirectly, and for the most part unwillingly, co-responsible for a lot of distruction in this context, whatever the intentions of the TV companies, their editors, journalists, and photographers.

This doesn`t imply that problems connectetd to terrorism (or other cruel forms of warfare) would dissapear i TV wasn"t there, but that is another issue.

However, getting angry, in this context, at someone making a daguerreptype, is an indication of surprisingly delicate moral feelings.

3:36 PM  
Blogger bjorke said...

I'm sad that none of the posters seem to realize that Jerry Spagnoli had a long history of making daguerreotypes of the WTC.

http://cgi.ebay.com/WORLD-TRADE-CENTER-PRE-9-11-SPAGNOLI-DAGUERREOTYPE-2_W0QQitemZ320025955431QQcmdZViewItem

sold on ebay just Monday for $2400+ and is one of many PRE-9/11 images he made of the towers. The smoke dag was made from a location Spagnoli already had photographed the towers from on many earlier occasions, as part of this ongoing work.

It is a fallacy to equate this with the Chinese pothole shooter, however. It's not at all as if he had his kit set up waiting for a jetliner.

The original poster, assuming he wasn't just trying to be pointlessly provocative, is apparently clueless about the surprising and intention-confounding nature of photography.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's my 2 cents.........

I feel that if a photographer makes a beautiful picture of an ugly subject his moral sense may be at fault.

But if he makes an ugly picture of an ugly subject then he is using photography's documentary powers as they should be used. Opening the viewer's eyes to the real horrors of the world without filtering them through his perspectives.

Take James Nachtway vs. Gilles Peress or Sabastio Salgado vs. Don McCullin. I find McCullin's and Peresses' pictures ugly and horrifying and Salgado's and Nachtway's beautiful. I see the beauty of these pictures first and the horror second.

I saw McCullin lecture at ICP in New York this year and witnessed a man tortured by his role as an "exploiter" of innocent people involved in most of the world's major conflicts of the last 3 decades. I found his comments enlightening and chilling at the sane time.

I watched the Twin Towers burn and collapse into rubble from the roof of my house 5 years ago and I never picked my camera up once during that entire awful day.

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Posterity will have no way of knowing all the horrible feelings of the actual eyewitnesses to this event, unless they write them down and publish them. And if in fact they do this, is the act of recording post-fact somehow more morally righteous than taking a photograph during the event itself? Thank goodness a few people did take the time to record this event photographically so that future generations will have some basis for getting a relatively unfiltered version of what happened.

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My problem with this isn't to do with the apparent "moral aspects" merely with it just being not that great a picture. It suffers from Alt-Process Sows Ear Syndrome. Take a fairly mundane photograph and then hope that the gee whiz novelty of a funky process will somehow elevate it to something else (these works are often accompanied by some kind of notation about the difficulty and rarity of the process - a good sign it fits into this category).

Try converting the image to plain greyscale in photoshop - it's pretty boring. Even the terrible subject matter doesn't quite succeed in elevating it to a photogrpah that "works" - which the events of that day did to even the most grabbed of shots by a tourist with a disposable camera.

I think you actually have to work pretty hard to make a photograph of the evens of 9/11 that fails.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Pål Norheim said...

One implication of what I said above (comparing TV live coverage with the daguerreotype in question) is that moral intentions play a minor role in this kind of situations. The American TV channels were obviously totaly against the attack, but they were at the same time, unintentionally, playing the attackers game.

Jerry Spagnoli simply "shot" pictures of the WTC that day, as he had done before. The word "shooting", however, indicates that photography/video is not, and has never been an innocent act.

Televison was involved in an immediate and powerful way, with their live images and repetitions, hours, days and weeks after the event. Still photography in the 21. century doesn´t play the same role, in general, as moving images do. But some of the still pictures may have a bigger impact on how we look at the past, then the simultanious "live" audio-visual coverage. This will only be clear long after the events have taken place.

Nobody can control the future impact of a picture, but the actual issue demonstrates that everybody (potentially) has a responsibility that goes beyond "good intentions". And the word "shooting" demonstrates that taking (and looking at) pictures in many situations must be seen in a context with not only human, artistical, documentary or cultural, but unfortunately also military and political implications. This has been clear since early in the 20. century (in Europe since the 1. world war).

To transmit live TV coverage of the events of 9/11 implicated a lot of things at the same time:
1) Competition against other TV-companies (the commercial motive).
2) Information to the viewers (what news channels are supposed to do).
3) A way to show how horrible it was (moral intentions).
4) Fulfilling the attackers`dreams of what 9/11 was supposed to be (the un-intentional part).
5) Fulfilling the neocon`s dreams of THE BIG OPPURTUNITY for implementing their plans (probably also unintentional).

The last two points implicate that without live coverage, the attacks would have been a failure. And without the TV-images (where not only the Twin Towers, but also the "heroic fire men", the pain and the tears in the faces of the relatives of the victims had a prominent role), it is hard to see how the current White House administration would have been able to get approval of their war in Iraq etc. etc.

This implicates that the TV-pictures at the same time served both the attackers, and the neo-cons who used this as an oppurtunity to attack Iraq.

Still pictures is a different question, especially when they occur after the event. They may serve a myth about the past (supporting one ideology with implications today, or tomorrow), or they may destroy that myth, or even replace it with another.
Pictures that are published post-factum, may have a huge, but inpredictable impact on the future.

I would be surprised if the actual daguerreotype changes the way we look at the past in a fundamental way (but who am I to predict this?). At least it is a different view of the event, and perhaps it can help us to reflect on how we interpret the past. But in the current discussions about photography, where some people say they simply want to "take a picture", and others, perhaps more ambitiously, declare that they want to "make" a picture, we still need to consider the inherent implications of "shooting" a picture, with this neutral and wonderful instrument that we call a camera.

7:51 PM  
Blogger m. said...

"The original poster, assuming he wasn't just trying to be pointlessly provocative..."

I suspect they were just a little closer to the actual events than many of uswere.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Martin B. said...

I tend to disagree with Anonymous for a variety of reasons.

First, he equates ugliness with truth.

Second, he confuses "prettyness" with beauty. I believe there is such a thing as terrible beauty, especially if it presents the awfull truth.

Third, He believes a photograph can be "unfiltered". I quote :

"Opening the viewer's eyes to the real horrors of the world without filtering them through his perspectives."

If photography is considered as an medium, then by essence it filters reality. Both photographer and viewer add a layer of interpretation to the image. Without interpretation a photography is meaningless, it doesn't "exist" as a photograph. My cat probably thinks my prints are just flat pieces of paper, even if I took pictures of mice...

Taking a picture is an extension of seing, a way of witnessing and I don't believe that witnessing 9-11 was an immoral act.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"The word 'shooting', however, indicates that photography/video is not, and has never been an innocent act"

That's what I said to the doctor after he gave me my shots, before I went kayaking to shoot the rapids, after which I intend to shoot over to Burger King for some fries. Or maybe I'll just go shoot some hoops.

--Mike, who finds your premise here extremely shakey (if not shot to pieces....)

10:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is this any more immoral than any other documentary photograph? Aside from the discussion that it generates, documentary photography clearly serves a purpose that needn't be debated here. As one example, without photographs of the concentration camps in Germany, how would later generations (including mine) even begin to comprehend what happened in WW2, let alone counter the baseless arguments of holocaust deniers? To this day, some people deny it ever happened. If an image of a horrific event demonstrates some form of aesthetics (clearly subjective in any case), then we might value it as more than just documentary. Such a photograph is more likely to be seen by many people, more likely to be preserved, which is the reason to document such an event in the first place. This photograph has such value IMO.

As two other well known examples of documentary photographs that transcend simple documentation, consider Ansel Adams' and Dorothea Lange's photographs of Manzanar. These photos remain in print today in numerous publications. Was it immoral of either of these photographers to document the lives of Japanese Americans during the war? Was it immoral of them to do so with their customary sense of aesthetics or with their personal style?

11:38 PM  
Blogger Pål Norheim said...

My comment above had, according to Mike, an
"extremly shakey premise".
Well - I will try to make it more solid.
Obviously, when we talk about "shooting" pictures in a broader sense, this normally does not have any military or political implications. But in this context, and specially the above mentioned TV broadcasting, I think the word "shooting" is indeed meaningful.

In Europe, terrorism has been a lasting experience - perhaps for 35 years (from Baader-Meinhof in Germany to Brigada Rosso in Italy, Black September from the Middle East conflict, the IRA in England and ETA in Spain etc.) It has become obvious for a lot of observers that FILMING the event is a crucial part of the event. In the USA, terrorist attacks has happened only a few times, and on 9/11 indeed on a very big scale - but it might be a new and strange thing to think of the media as a part of that "theater" (that is the word people use in Europe when talking about these connections) since this hasn´t happened often in the USA up til now.

Back to photography. I will try to put it simply: the more a picture is, or has become a symbol or "icon" of something or somebody, and the more the subject is close to some political or military issue, the more this picture get involved in the war, with more or less direct ideological, political or military implications. Obviously, if you "shoot" strawberrys" with a macro-lense, this is not likely to happen.
Does this seem weird?

I do not say that it is impossible to say something that goes beyond the people fighting, the propaganda, etc. (getting closer to the truth, perhaps?). What I am saying is that intentions only carry you to a certain point, and from there, you have to think again about some possible impacts of your picture, if somebody wants to use it as a weapon in some ideological or military warfare. But to predict the implications of a picture is obviously extremely difficult, especially now, with the internet and the fast speed around the globe.
Again, Mike, does this seem weird?

12:08 AM  
Blogger Dierk Haasis said...

Simple question to those not wanting the photograph in question [and similar ones] being taken:

You'd rather not have any graphically representational material about 9/11 [or other man-made catastrophes]?

I don't think the world would be any better - but could actually be worse - just by not taking a photo. The famous half-burned, crying Vietnamese girl after a Napalm attack? Several executions from several military man, politicians or terrorists around the world [no, the beheading of American citizens by islamic terrorists/insurgents wasn't the first on record]? Footage of Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Dachau and other murder pits? A dying soldier in the Spanish Civil war?

Could it be that those taking [great] exception to this kind of photography - regardless of the technique used, because that really doesn't matter to them or anybody else - only have a problem with their own voyeuristic notion? That the depicted is telling them what they couldn't do?

Eventually it is the complainer who asks himself a question - and is probably to craven to step back from himself, analysing what's going on and concede his own immorality?!

1:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm ... (lots of "hmm" in this discussion). I (a new anonymous) reacted positively to the original post, but have followed what ensued with interest. Bjorke's comment "I'm sad that none of the posters seem to realize that Jerry Spagnoli had a long history of making daguerreotypes of the WTC" made my view swing round 180 degrees. I like this blog, Mike.

It's the "making a daguerrotype" aspect that puts the real wobble into the situation, I think, amplified by worries about "does it / doesn't it matter what the artists intentions might have been?". Simply: some people are permanently suspicious of the motives of Alternative Process People: they suspect nostalgia, disengagement from the modern world, skill fetishism, aestheticism, elitism (everything Art Schools, oddly, now preach against); so, a daguerrotype of an iconic disaster is Proof Positive -- "Aha! Gotcha!!".

This discussion makes an interesting companion to the discussion of the Thomas Hoepker image of 9/11 (see Alec Soth's blog, for example). Photography shows us what things look like, but nothing is what it seems, eh?

3:48 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Pal,
I'm not taking issue with your larger points, which are well considered, just with the idea that the word "shoot" links photography to malice or violence. That's all.

--Mike

6:23 AM  
Blogger CKWork said...

There seems to be something missing here in the "why" of the taking of this photo, and a suggestion (by some)that there was a pre-meditated motive which is somehow distasteful. I can't answer that, but I do know it would have been nearly impossible for me not to have got out my camera in the face of such an event.

Why? Because its what I do, and have done for most of my life - photography is my way of making sense of the world. I can't explain it (or feel the need to), but if I am forced to refrain from photography at an event I feel uncomfortable, and after the fact, as if the event hadn't even taken place.

If, occasionally the pictures I take give me an understanding or appreciation of what I've seen I may share them.

I guess this is no different to those who play music or write poetry primarily for themselves. It is a way of understanding their world.

For me photographing something is no different to talking or writing about it. Would those who object to the image prefer that 9/11 be ignored entirely?

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Daniel Sroka said...

MJFerron said: I hate to put a limit on things but remember in the back of that photo, right where it gets pretty, there are many hundreds of people who are going to lose their live in short order.

That is exactly why Jerry's photograph is so important. This was a horrible tragedy, one that is very hard to come to terms with. I want every artist to use whatever tools and talent they have to help us see, think, and hopefully deal with this tragedy.

Jerry used the tools and talent he possesses to try to come to grips with horror. He should be commended for his work.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Dibutil Ftalat said...

The photo is disturbing. The use of "archaic or alternative technique" makes it even more disturbing.

There is nothing in the picture about the artist except the fact that he was in the right place in the right time. And was conscious enough to proceed with the "archaic or alternative technique".

Appreciating a disturbing image is a tough call but I appreciate the artist who was brave and cold-hearted enough to bring it to us.

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

I have a different idea about why some people object to images like this.

Mike suggests that much moral outrage comes from people whose reaction is "How could you just stand there and take a picture of that? You should have done something to help." He quite rightly points out that often, nothing can be done to help.

I wonder if, instead, people aren't thinking "In the face of this horror, how could you have been so detached and cool-headed that you were able to attend to the technical demands of taking a good picture?" This is a different objection: it accuses the photographer of being callous, not unhelpful.

This theory explains why it could be viewed as more "moral" to take a snap with an automatic camera, but less "moral" to make a Daguerreotype of the scene. Making a Daguerreotype is much more demanding, so the observer assumes that the photographer was more detached, dispassionate, and generally not overwrought while working.

I think this accusation is understandable, and a consequence of the real shift that comes with hoisting a camera in how one relates to a scene. The wielder of a camera is in some sense no longer fully part of a scene, but stands apart from it as s/he records it. If the scene is a human tragedy, the act of setting one's self apart in this way could be seen as callous and uncaring.

It's a theory, anyway.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"The wielder of a camera is in some sense no longer fully part of a scene, but stands apart from it as s/he records it. If the scene is a human tragedy, the act of setting one's self apart in this way could be seen as callous and uncaring."

I hear what you're saying, and you've got a point, especially if you're talking mainly about how viewers PERCEIVE the photographer. But you ought to read just the teaser pages on Amazon about the book "The Bang-Bang Club" that Albano Garcia recommended to get a good idea of how photographers aren't really "apart" from the scene physically or emotionally. It's about four "brother" photographers who roved around documenting the unrest in South Africa under apartheid between the release of Mandela and the first pan-racial elections. Of the four, one of them was killed and another committed suicide. Which says it all. I would claim that being a photographer is more about engagement than detachment. Viewers of pictures often don't (can't?) understand that as well as takers of pictures do.

--Mike

3:09 PM  
Blogger Player said...

I didn't realize the picture depicted the burning twin towers until I read Mike's editorial. I didn't know what I was looking at.

Should "art" have restrictions?

5:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, in light of cameras with face recognition software (i.e. Fuji S6500fd), auto framing (Casio EX-Z1000), pixel diet (i.e. HP), revive shot (casio), perspective control, pre-shot, advance shake reduction (many), face beautification software (development by Dr. Leywand, Rehovot, Israel), tourist remover (futureLAB)– and the general disability of most digital cameras to properly record the primary image file the ONLY way to honestly document an important event is by so-called obsolete technology

2:53 PM  
Blogger human_factor said...

I am interested in the moral responsibility of a photographer. It was asked to me by a veteran photographer; when one is torn between capturing a critical event which in that situation the photographer can give assistance but opted not to give one because she or he has to click the shutter and which for him the event is a much awaited one.

I would like to share this situation: one night, we were in a photo walk when suddenly, one of the photographers said, "Hope we can see a stabbing incident"! Well how would you comment on that, and what could we be possibly thinking towards the person..

1:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home