Something weird is happening in the way I relate to images and, therefore, talk and write about them. In part, this is the result of a complex internal process, somehow related to exercises aimed at letting the mind wander in different directions. On the other hand, I’m aware this is also the result of the classes I’ve been teaching on semiotics and all the preparation that comes with it.
Inside the classroom, as I make the usual exercise to talk about images that affect me and, in that process, articulate concepts, terminologies and whatnot, I’ve been finding myself ever more lost for words and rambling to such an extent that students cannot but get confused and puzzled.
Photography is not a form of communication. That, of course, doesn’t exclude that component from certain typologies of photographic imagery. What I mean by this statement is that photography, as any other form of visual representation, is first and foremost an expression and, therefore, its meaning exists beyond its value as sign. Photojournalism, bound by its informative finality, depends on a certain type of construction that implies the use of natural and direct signs, but those conditions don’t necessarily apply to most realms of photographic imagery. Things exist in the world, whether or not their significance enters a shared dimension. Students let me know they follow this logic of mine, where they get paralyzed is when I ask them to talk about their experience with images, how they let themselves be affected by them, what they experience as punctum, etc. Apparently, It hurts me to stay, they feel nothing. I’m sure this is not true and the class conditions created that simulactum, but, still, it’s puzzling… fear of sharing, of being vulnerable or emotional? Once I say reality is all that is independent from our cognitive processes and rational thinking, all hell breaks loose.
Today, as I once again evoked Robert Zhao Renhui’s artwork in an effort to talk about aesthetic qualities, truth, soul, authenticity, etc, we found ourselves debating how landscape and technology affect the way we see. When I evoke sight is not to describe what’s outside the body (around or in front of us) but to reference one’s inner images and the collective unconscious. As I keep wandering about images and all the connections I experience thru them, I get the feeling that I’m approaching the moment where I need to decide to stop teaching in certain academic contexts. In my world, everything is connected. Students want me to be concrete, precise, and I can’t. Whatever they ask me I want to say (and I often do) yes and no. They laugh. In part, some understand my thought process and even empathize with it, but the question is: what good is it doing?
Robert Zhao Renhui, from the series A Heartwarming Feeling, 2010.
As we were looking at Zhao’s images projected on screen, I realized I was the only one affected by them. Abstract imagery is a complex territory. It’s almost impossible to describe how stains, colors, forms, affect us, how they move us. We talked about the way screens now control most of our days and, therefore, most of what constitutes sight. Immediacy, rapid movements, spectacular dynamics, hard lights, harsh contrasts, points, lines, shapes that appear too concrete, too determined by their functional meaning. As sight (the realm of thoughts, ideas, imagination, etc.) gets informed by what fits into a screen, maybe our depth of field and the way we venture into unknown landscapes, infinite thoughts and horizons, gets compromised. Maybe, just maybe, that also affects this growing intolerance for the grey areas, the silence, the discomfort, the not knowing.
Not seeing our image reflected in the world around us is troubling. I’ve experienced this a lot, but never in such an intense manner. I know this is usually a symptom and I am warned, but on the other and I can’t avoid questioning what’s happening around me and trying to understand why this alienation is getting more intense. One answer I found is that it relates to the decision to stop being exposed to the media and also drastically reduce time spent on the internet. Now, when I go online to get a quick sense of what people are doing, saying, sharing, etc. I feel like an outsider.
Given that technology and the simulacrum of a public existence is very much at the core of what’s happening in photography, I think this is all connected. When I chose to change the way I use the internet, I did it in order to make better use of time, hoping that would also help my mental health. It did. What I wasn’t expecting was how it shined a light on other aspects of my being and the way I relate to images. Today, as my dogs hit the sand at 6 in the morning and ran around a desert beach, while we felt the sun rising over the hills, I felt overwhelmed with joy, a fleeting joy, a brief hint at the sublime. As we moved away, it disappeared, as it should. Inside the classroom, as I tried to convey the enormity of such aesthetic experiences and how beautiful they are, I failed…