The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force; and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation. R. Barthes
Last week, after a tv news report, I came across a story about a Portuguese photographer/blogger who had this big project photographing “the ruins of our country” (abandoned buildings and so on). The conversation going on between the journalist and the photographer, Gastão de Brito e Silva, was irritating enough (though I can understand that the reasons for that may be extremely personal), but what really chocked me were the photographs themselves – their composition, style, overall aesthetics and consequent meaning.
To sum it up, aesthetically the photographs have that post-apocalyptic feel that a sort of digital post-producers and photographers value. I often find these aesthetics in amateur photography magazines, in photo-blogs and photo-sharing web platforms and in the discourse of a certain kind of photographers that are very keen on the latest technological achievement and in discussing the kind of material you have, prices and all that technicality. The final photographs tend to be a mix of black & white (or should I say “desaturated”) and vibrant tones, with highlighted objects or areas within the composition. This sort of aesthetic creeps me out, but still, that is not a problem, for one just has to avoid coming across such aesthetics.
In one interview, the photographer/collector of ruins, told how the project – the blog called Ruin’arte, started out as a photographic survey and went on to become something bigger, with exhibitions and so on. I don’t question his premise, I do agree it’s worth having a visual documentation of our architectonic heritage, nor do I care about his bad taste, but two aspects really bother me: firstly, regarding the discourse about the work, there’s a clear abuse of nostalgic feelings and of terms such as cultural patrimony, historical patrimony, patrimony, patrimony (you see the picture), that leads to a reverence to history that sets an authoritative tone which ultimately rests with the nanny state; secondly, there is the confusion with the role of this particular photographer, the issue coming down to the confusion between the characteristics that make up an artist and those that identify a photographer whose work is to “survey”. The question is: if you want to compromise, be a photographer that is engaged with a social cause and expose the so-called public atrocities to “our cultural heritage”, why this kind of post-production?
The so-called documentary photographer is attached to representation, he establishes a relation with its pre-photographic reference but guarantees nothing about its significance. Art, on the other hand, in which photography can be included, has no compromise with reality and it is not structured on an utilitarian function, like documenting or adorning, though it can also have one as such.
© Gastão de Brito e Silva, Mosteiro de Seiça, Figueira da Foz.
Documentary photography traded on the status of the official document as proof and inscribed relations of power in representation which were structured like those of earlier practices of photo documentation: both speaking to those with relative power about those positioned as lacking, as the ‘feminised’ Other, as passive but pathetic objects capable only of offering themselves up to a benevolent, transcendent gaze – the gaze of the camera and the gaze of the paternal state. But in its mode of address, documentary transformed the flat rhetoric of evidence into an emotionalized drama of experience that worked to effect an imaginary identification of viewer and image, reader and representation, which would suppress difference and seal them into the paternalistic relations of domination and subordination on which documentary’s truth effects depended. John Tagg, in “The Drama of Representation”
Some years ago, I saw a documentary by portuguese filmaker Manuel Mozos, called Ruins, which portrayed the inhabited man-altered landscapes and decadence of our country. At the time, and although I liked the photographic approach very much, I was not convinced by choices. Gastão’s photographs made me take a second look at Mozos documentary. After watching it I found myself wondering if a comparison between Mozos and Gastão’s approach to ruins could lead to some sort of conclusion about the characteristics of a documentary. Though they are very different objects, one particular thing stands out, namely that Mozos’ ruins relate to the present tense and Gastão’s ruins relate to the past.
It’s not an easy task to argument for this, or is it? Ruins has a sense of poetry throughout its 60 minutes. As I see it, this comes out mainly because it speaks about the echoes of the past, how the history once contained within buildings and spaces went beyond their physic presence and lives in storytelling, letters, memories, family albums, etc. Gastãos photographs of abandoned buildings seem to pretend to something else: to call for attention for the responsibility of the state to care for his children. In that sense, it pretends to be a document, to exist as proof.
Photojournalists and those who work with documentary photography are guided by a set of rules that aim to guarantee some ethics to their work. It’s only good that we question them and try to push forward, but what often happens when someone negates those “rules” is that the work, in this case the photographs, maintain their indexical nature to what is portrayed but fail in representing them.
What exceeds representations, however, cannot, by definition, be articulated. (J.Tagg, in The Burden of Representation)