Aftermath and Aesthetics

Following on from my writing on photojournalism I reviewed the suggested reading on the “shift from action-based and highly visceral kind of war photography towards ‘aftermath’ photography.

The so called ‘late’ style of photography is a concept David Campany proposes, in his article ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problem of ‘late’ Photography”, that came about in the advent of portable video equipment and the resulting loss of photo-journalists on the frontline of events. He considers the shift in use from the still image to the moving image as being due to fact that in the modern world the moving image was more impactful and coherent amongst the never ending myriad of of media we are presented with along with the idea that moving images are more of the here and now as apposed to the sense of memory or past associated with the still.

As for ‘late’ photography itself, described as a style of imagery which encapsulates stillness in its form. Often devoid of people and actions, showing only what remains post event. Campany refers to the collection of images shot by Joel Meyerowitz of Ground Zero shortly after the fall of the Twin Towers and during the start of the clean up and recovery process. Campany highlights this collection as an example of ‘cool photography’, forensic in the aesthetic, static and sombre. The photographs become a record of what exists ‘now’ rather than what happened ‘then’.

Referring back to the points raised in the previous exercise on photojournalism, the photograph here is playing to its strengths of being a memory or a ghost of the past. It gives the viewer the sense of experiencing the scene and by association the event, for some a way to reflect on and process the happenings in their own time and to appropriate the images as their own. Campany refers to this point of photography being associated now with memory, and how it not only assist in conveying an event both visually and conceptually, it can also be a hinderance in the way it presents what is often regarded as fact, leaving little for interpretation or consideration and preventing discourse beyond what is presented.

One other issue Campany raises is the development of the ‘late’ aesthetic. With the growth and recognition of aftermath photography, and its banal, slow compositions, the images themselves became renowned not only for their content but also for the way they were captured. Meyerowitz said that what he saw told him how to shoot it, yet Campany pulls reference to his previous works to see the similarities in his composition suggesting a singular voice with composition at the forefront of the photographic process.

Whilst I agree with Campany on this thought of the differences of the visual mediums, I do also feel that he fails to mention one of the key drivers behind any corporate entity, which mass media is one of the largest and most influential, is profit. Not only do we age to consider that the ability to be first on scene generally results in having the exclusive story and first to broadcast which in turn drives engagement but this must also be achieved with the minimum cost possible. When assigning work one would imagine that the ability to assign one journalist with a set of equipment is considered a saving to the bottom line, especially when, as Campany points out, still can be pulled from the video to dual purpose the role. Likewise with the assigning of the photographer to the aftermath they have the ability to drag the story out with a reduced cost and risk comparatively thus ‘late’ photography enables that.

The issue of the aesthetic goes back to issues raised in citizen journalism. The distancing of the subject from the viewer caused by creating a photograph into a work of art. The agenda of the photographer to be recognised for their work over the content of the work. And the appropriation of the style to lend credence to otherwise unrelated work. As photography moved from ‘the’ medium of communicating current affairs into the medium of capturing the banal, the shift from the content to the aesthetic and technical skill of the photographer grew.

As with many forms of media, I feel that the issue of visual aesthetic pleasure over the content of the media has grown and become the defining characteristic. As the democratisation of the mediums developed so did the proliferation of content. As the medium grew so it’s forebearers developed and defined the medium creating millions of detractors looking to capture a little of the limelight afforded the few ground breakers. Creating derivative works that diluted the medium and contained little of the intended original context and purpose. Even today we see this now with film, as the social norm shifts towards short bites of entertainment with Tik Tok and Instagram, we see millions of copycat creators copying and rewarding each for the technical achievements. If anything the context and narrative of a creation will only be seen if it meets the aesthetic standards before anything else.

Overall I still agree with my points in the previous article. I believe that photography has its place in a mixed media world to form part of the journalistic and documentary communication of events, ideas and concepts. But, as stated in that article, it is with the support of the context and narrative that it forms the message we communicate, that we must utilise the tools and skills available to build a coherent and understandable message whilst ensuring we are reflective and resourceful in seeking points of view that will help us to maintain checks and balances on the goals of the work.

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