Images that demand consummation Postdocumentary photography, Art and Ethics: Ine Gevers

This essay looks at the position of documentary-style photography within postdocumentary discipline. Her choice of title is interesting – images that demand consummation, and I understand this to mean images which are not self contained narratives (in the documentary tradition) since it has been shown that such images are motivationally misplaced and do not inspire critical action (Sekula, Rosler, Solomon-Godeau). The idea that the viewer has to engage with the image (and very often text) and is given the space in which to do so is what informs postdocumentary. In this way, the images form part of a wider discourse, an exploration of the unknown through questioning the known (or assumed), an exploration of the general through the personal.

The author discusses the crisis of aesthetics, where its function has shifted from one of ethics of perception to the current situation where images saturate the world and are no longer questioned but used to control and manipulate, to enforce stereotypes and often to represent or stand in for realia:

“Aesthetics is threatening to colonise our gaze. Its function of promoting perception oriented towards knowledge and insight is proving to be its opposite: it gets in the way of our view, it makes us experience every break as an irritation, conjures up barriers and creates deep abysses between people.”

I like the use of the word colonise here, since it harks back to the issues of racial subjugation and control that I looked at during the last module. In citing some examples of the hegemonic (WASP) world view that was promoted around the time of photography’s inception and used the ‘objective science’ as it was then termed, to create, emphasise and reinforce ideas of the other, Gevers mentions the early images recorded by neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne:

As well as other early images of epileptics and ‘lunatics’ taken in asylums:

Ostensibly produced in the name of science, as Gevers points out, the photographs were used not just to show reality, but to explain it, and to reinforce the medicalised, deterministic distinction between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’, ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’: “‘Objective’ means that the other, through the recording of his disease or ailment, is relegated to just a syndrome.” In exactly the same way as people were reduced to racial or ethnic ‘types’, however, this medical view of humanity is rarely held to question, since as Lennard Davis has pointed out, despite neoliberal trends of embracing difference and individuality everyone wants to be ‘normal’ when it comes to bodily functions (The End of Normal).


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