The photography exhibition that accompanies this website celebrates the exciting new photography developed on the MA Photographic Studies programme. Each photographer has developed their practice through their own particular personal, political, social and aesthetic passions. These projects are the outcome of a year or more of working to development, delving deeper into photography as form of expression and social practice; defining and refining the work as it develops, advances and leaps forward.
Today we face the accumulated global world of social media practices and what might be called the ‘challenging’ new ‘social environments’ in which we live. It is within this turbulent contemporary world that any project finds its destiny, its purpose and understanding. To ‘be understood’ may be a virtue (even if its reach is limited to certain parts of the world), but to challenge what understanding is, is of crucial importance too. It is in that spirit, that the projects here embody an inspired desire to tell stories anew, to show us something in ways we have not seen.
I offer below my brief thoughts on the contemporary question and situation of photography to participate in this process, some words to accompany the brilliant heterogeneous projects of the student works presented here. In so doing I put myself alongside these ‘students’, as a compatriot of learning, to remember that we must all learn and re-learn our thinking: to refuse old solutions to new problems, so that at least the study and research of photography does not stagnate into clichés or stereotypical solutions.
The Aftermath of Contemporary Images
As our perception of what we call ‘the world’ is ever more defined by the global mediatized photographic images that represent it, the inquiry into what and how we might speak otherwise through photography is an increasingly necessary task. The modern electronic version of photography means one can do different things with it, but how many actually ever do that? Beyond the newly established formats of social media imaging, who is it that enquires into what photography is or does in contemporary culture today? It seems that contemporary art is one of the few spaces left that is still (just) marginally open to such experiments and questions of what and how photography can be renewed, but also what to do with it other than satisfy commerce.
With the emergence of the old ‘new technologies’ of photography and film in the 1930s, the German critic, Walter Benjamin, was quick to register their social impact. He suggested a rapid transformation in the modes of storytelling and its relation to cultural experience. Benjamin forecast a decline in the ability of people to communicate their experiences. We might say today that Benjamin was wrong, that the newer ‘revolution’ of social media has enabled a far greater capacity for people to record their experiences: through camera phones, computers and diverse camera lenses attached to bodies, machines or even barely visible satellites and drones.
The explosion of photographic devices during the last two decades, the constant evolution (we live in the era of the constant update) and networking capacity has irrevocably changed the way we see and record things. These technological changes are combined and integrated within and as part of today’s dramatic social historical changes. Yet Benjamin’s fundamental question about storytelling remains important, despite all the vast subsequent technological changes. In his view the stories we tell about the present are – or should be – linked fundamentally to our own personal experience. With the popular participation in new technologies Benjamin saw a breach in the traditional links between storyteller and audience, in a veritable shattering of cultural tradition and the notion of communities that sustained them. For him this was a positive effect, invoking a new aesthetics and politics of destruction that would enable new radical forms and practices to emerge.
It was a later German thinker, in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War Two, Hannah Arendt, who revised Benjamin’s ideas. To her mind, storytelling was more important than the destructive avant-garde impulse that Benjamin had championed. In an age of catastrophe, she argued, storytelling is not to be dismissed just because it is divorced from the personal experience of the viewer (as Benjamin had), but rather, storytelling can be generated precisely within this gap, producing a new imagination between those who wish to tell stories and those who receive or wish to participate in them. In this sense, it is not only the format of stories (fairytales, narrative cinema, novels, etc.) that are to be challenged, but the idea that the viewer must know the story in advance. Arendt’s notion of storytelling, no longer simply based on personal experience or ‘personal observation’, opened up thinking to new possibilities, new tactics and forms of relating experience. Stories must take new forms and narratives that challenge the viewer idea of what a story is. This is, I believe the kind of work that you see here in the different myriad forms of practice presented in this exhibition. Whether it is the use of archives, constructivist and descriptive processes, analytical forms, explorative spaces, bodily dynamics, or enigmatic scenes: these are the new vocabularies of contemporary research in photography. Enjoy the work!
David Bate, Professor of Photography, University of Westminster