Aftermath and aesthetics

I read through the essay today ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problem of ‘late photography” by David Campany.  The author discusses aftermath or ‘late’ photography and more specifically ‘Reflections on Ground Zero’ by Joel Meyerowitz, who was the only photographer given access to ground zero post the event, he went on to pull these photographs together in a book called ‘Aftermath’.

Its a hard and tragic topic, so many lives lost. Like a lot of people I remember that day very clearly. I was at home and put on the news, the whole event literally unfolded over a number of hours live on television. I sat and watched the news all day, I couldn’t do anything else, I was transfixed to the TV screen, I wanted it all to be over….I also didn’t want it to be real. All of the live footage was of course video, the still images would come later. The whole thing caught on video, the first then the second plane. When that second plane hit, it went from a tragic accident to something else entirely and I can’t say that anything has felt the same since.

I take on board what Campany is saying about photography taking a back seat now to video as far as consumption by the public, we seem to be drunk with the quantity of video content, its everywhere! The traditional hard-copy newspaper could be seen to be less relevant, although news is still consumed through portable devices like smartphones and tablets. So maybe it has just shifted.  The problem is if you film everything, you may as well film nothing. That’s my point of view anyway! Sometimes photography can say more in one image that endless video content, it can encapsulate a whole event or emotion.  I liked this extract from the essay below:

“It is not that a photograph naturally ‘says a thousand words’, rather that a thousand words can be said about it. This is why television and film tend to use the still image only for contrived and highly rhetorical moments of pathos, tension and melancholy.”

I was interested to read about  Campany’s view that Vietnam was the last great ‘photographers war’. I’m not sure I would agree with this entirely but it does bear some weight to the argument for sure. I think post the Vietnam war photojournalists were expected to be able to produce both video and photography content and write up material too.

I recall seeing the photographs by Sebastião Salgado of the burning oil fields in Kuwait, this was after the first Gulf War had ended.I guess this would be a prime example of late or aftermath photography and supports the idea of ‘contemplative…and aesthetically beautiful images of place of devastation’ as described in the course material. It is also an after effect of geo-politics and our thirst for oil. The photographs that Salgado produced were (in my opinion) incredible: Sebastião Salgado’s Kuwait: “A Desert on Fire”

I felt this was quite a powerful extract from the essay and an interesting way to view the photographer of late photography:

“One might easily surmise that photography has of late inherited a major role as an undertaker, summariser or accountant. It turns up late, wanders through the places where things have happened totting up the effects of the world’s activity.  This is a kind of photograph that foregoes the representation of events in progress and so cedes them to other media. As a result it is quite different from the spontaneous snapshot and has a different relation to memory and to history.”

So looking back at my answer to whether I agree with Susan Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses. I would still agree with what I said about society becoming desensitized, however we are not born desensitized, it is a trait which is most definitely developed over time and possibly with age, perhaps with the more you see? Or perhaps the more you see the more horrified you are, you take action to change something. It could depend on the individual really. If I am totally honest I’m not sure what good horrific images do, apart from documenting atrocities as historical evidence of the human condition.


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