Interview with John Roberts, author of Photography and Its Violations

“Photography violates, precisely, because social appearances hide, in turn, division, hierarchy and exclusion.”—John Roberts

John Roberts, Photography and Its ViolationsThe following is an interview with John Roberts, author of Photography and Its Violations:

Q: What do you mean by photography and its violations? How is photography violated?

John Roberts: Well, the title is deliberately ambiguous. By violation I do not mean the capacity of photography to objectify its subjects, nor am I referring directly—although it is implied—to those cultural and political forces lined up against its interests. Rather violation refers here to what photography is able to do in an expressly productive way, given what I call in the book, its social ontology or “unquenchable social intrusiveness and invasiveness.” By this I mean, what makes photography worth returning to as a philosophical and political problem is, in fact, the thing that has always threatened its desire to be thought highly of as an art or would be “objective” medium: namely its unstable and destabilizing character. That is, photography is not just a medium of report or an aesthetic transformation of the world, but a specific act of disclosure, in which its rebarbative powers—of disruption, denaturalization and the ruination of self-identity—secure photography’s infinite capacity for truth telling.

Hence when I talk of violation I’m addressing how photography’s intrusive “pointing to” opens up a space of conceptual reflection on the relations between the photograph’s subjects and objects and the social world in which they are embedded. As such, my understanding of violation takes an interrelated form: violation is what the act of photography does in the world as a consequence of the fact that photography’s relationship to its depicted subjects and objects is an effect of power relations and material interests external to the act of photography itself. The truth-claims of photography, therefore, are a condition of this conceptual articulation. As I say: “Photography violates, precisely, because social appearances hide, in turn, division, hierarchy and exclusion.”

Q: Isn’t this a defense of photographic objectification through the back door though?

JR: By defending the violating force of photography I am not thereby defending the power of the photograph to represent without consequence. Rather, I am arguing that violation is what is immanent to the photographic process, and therefore, if the photographer is committed to photography’s rebarbative powers, he or she must at least recognize this as a constitutive aspect of the social legibility of the photographic act. Thus the photographer is always faced, given the circumstances under which he or she photographs, with an ethical choice: to secure or advance photography’s truth claims on the basis of these powers of violation of the diminishment or veiling of these powers in order to either project those in power or to “protect” the integrity of persons without power or the right of reply. But in a necessary dialectical move, it is precisely those without power, who, in their subjection, are able to speak to—to violate the self-identity of—those with power.

There is, therefore, a high political and cultural cost to be had in uniformly (even righteously), protecting those without power, in the name of their autonomy as photographic subjects. The appearance of those without power disappears from view, a fundamental violation in itself. Thus there are two issues here: firstly the need to recognize that representational intolerance (intolerance of the humanist protection of the subject as “other”) is part of the truth-claims of photography, part of its social legibility, and secondly, that such intolerance, is always, contextually, conjuncturally, a political judgement on the part of the photographer in front of his or her computer or in the dark room. Thus, whatever political content accrues to the photographer’s powers of violation in any given social context these powers of violation are not in themselves a univocal progressive force, as everything needs to be made “visible” at all times in the interests of a brutal disclosure. On the contrary, what in some circumstances might need to be made visible at all costs, in other circumstances may need to be occluded or veiled, made apparitional or allegorical, as in the rejection of direct representation of violence by a number of photographers in Rwanda in 1994. Thus “pointing to” undoubtedly comes with certain responsibilities to the other, but these responsibilities can only be vestigially governed by an undivided respect for the autonomy of the subject of the photograph. For if it is violation that produces worldly knowledge, then it is the truth of violation that has to be honored when this violation produces images that subvert or weaken the dignity of the other, as in Ernst Friedrich’s extraordinary collection of photographs of WW1 German frontline survivors with half of their faces blown away, which he includes in Krieg dem Kriege (War Against War) (1924), or the image I chose for the cover, Dmitri Balterments’ Grief (1942), which shows the aftermath of a Nazi pogrom against a Jewish village in the Soviet Union. The agency of the photographer, first and foremost, therefore, is to be responsible to the truth of this tension between representational intolerance and its limits.

Q: Isn’t this just an old-fashioned commitment to documentary photography? However, we no longer live in an image culture where such documentary values have any valence.

JR: Yes, classical documentary no longer exists in its traditional political forms. This has much to do with the current neoliberal settlement, which has been the driving force in the new dispersive conditions of image production and reception under digitalization and network culture’s compression and attenuation of cognitive (and political) attention, what I call the expansion of the “non-symbolic”. But it also has much to with the critique of representation-as-truth since the 1970s, which has weakened the social bond between documentary practice, political critique and political praxis; the radical critique of representation since the 1970s has found a ready reception in the neoliberal valorization of multiplatform image production and continuous image flow.

So there is no getting away from the political and cultural realities of this shift. Yet, despite this, we should not confuse documentary practices with documentary culture, nor should we, in turn, confuse documentary culture with the social ontology of photography. That is, the social ontology of photography is much bigger than the historic legacies and the particular forms of documentary practice, and therefore, has a productive part to play in the new network conditions of digital production. This is because the infinitely intrusive and destabilizing character of photographic violation invites us to think of the social function of photography more creatively from the local and global position of the non-professional producer, rather than from within the shifting fortunes photographic tradition itself. Photography may possess many professional and instrumental modes and functions, (micro-scientific, aerial-topographic, pornographic-affective, state-coercive, commercial-appellative), but its primary function rests on the mass production of the infinite reproduction of social appearances and relations on an egalitarian basis, obviously vastly extended in the age of the smart phone. Hence, we need to be clear about the irreducible sociality of this process: the social-relational function of photography precedes photography’s documentary modes and traditions, even if the social-relational function of photography draws on and adapts these modes and traditions. However, this process of socialization is not democracy. This does not mean that photography is now a mass democratic form, as if the popular production of photography was directed towards the scrutiny of public institutions and ruling ideologies. Mass (digital) photography is no less subject to the conventional modes of self-display and self-validation, as commercial image culture itself. But in its ease of production and in its capacity for social exchange it is wholly egalitarian in practice and ethos.

Q: But how does this connect precisely with what you call the destabilizing character of photography?

JR: Well in light of the above we need to shift our perspective, and look at photography as a kind of social substance—in the Spinozan/Hegelian sense—through which people encounter the world. That is, photography in its various social-relational modes is one of the primary means through which individuals inhabit, experience and reflect on the world in which they find themselves, but also equally important, experience and reflect on those worlds in which they don’t find themselves. And this is crucial in understanding how the demise of documentary practice is quite separate from photography’s powers of socialization. Despite the neoliberal destitution of public culture, despite the retreat of documentary practice, and despite the expansion of the non-symbolic as a condition of the media image’s reified flow and popular photography’s reflection of the dominant culture, the egalitarian “excess” of photography remains a living force globally, arising where there is a collective need for the social document (a local struggle; a demand for self-representation; a commitment to equality; or the need for counter-narratives and everyday interventions into mass culture’s destruction of the symbolic).

The social ontology of photography then is the space which photographic professionals and everyday users of photography share, albeit in uneven ways and towards different theoretical ends. Consequently, this is why the photo snapshot is not just unassimilable to the histories of documentary practice—and therefore challenges us to think what documentary culture might mean today—but to the dominant aesthetic accounts of photography, that would reduce photography to art alone, as in the expansion of the staged, figural image over the last 30 years, and the rise of the large-scale post-production museum photograph, in other words, everything that Michael Fried celebrates in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008). Accordingly what remains challenging about photography’s social-relational function is its fundamental indifference to the aestheticization of the medium. For, if there is a political and ethical cost through protecting the “other”, this derives, in part, from the eagerness with which photography is willing to submit itself to aestheticization and figuralization. The actual and symbolic violence of the world is placed at a distance.

Q: But in defending violation in these terms aren’t you licensing the worst aspects of Internet culture, with its obsession with the gruesome and prurient invasion of photography into lives?

JR: As I have just mentioned, representational intolerance is not just a license to show”what cannot be shown” without thought of context or situation. Similarly photography’s principle of violation is not an open invitation to the “worst” as the heightened power of the photo-document’s truth-telling powers. So violation maybe a constitutive force of photography’s social-relational function, but it is always subject to the responsibilities of discursive framing. Photography’s violation is posed between the exposure of the body to the truth of abjection and to its defense against such intrusion. This is paramount. This is why we should be careful here. To drive the social ontology of photography solely through the demands of representational intolerance is to hystericize the politics of representation and photography’s powers of violation. As I say: it is “turn the whole world into a vast mortuary and hospital.” Yet if we readily accept the strictures against violation then we also accept the notion that the effects of violence are unrepresentable, and we thereby concede symbolic ground to the perpetrators of state violence. And this means that those photographers who expose such systemic violence are left with less opportunity to mediate the effects of violence, critically and politically, than before. So representational intolerance is not something photographers want to give up easily, for photography’s inhuman violation of the integrity of its subjects is central to its ethical and political charge. Without this photography loses all sense of its interruptive and counter-symbolic function in the world.

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