A History of Violence or: How I Learned to Stop Trusting Photography and Start Seeing

by alum Daniel Johnson, from the 2015 issue of "All the Best, Alice." All images by Daniel Johnson.

We’ve read over and over again about technology changing everything, the end of photography, and how the sky is falling. And it’s mostly true. Things have changed, and they will continue to change. But we have passed the time where you could have a conversation just about cameras and photographs. As photography becomes more and more a part of our daily language, there’s more of a need for us to really begin to question the power of photography.

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With distance no longer a limiting factor in the creation of communities, where an image lives digitally really changes how an image is digested. Context has now become one of the main catalysts in the democratization of content. What’s really changed is the way we look. And that we’re always looking. Yes, photographs are everywhere, but so is everything else. Instagram, for instance, started as a photo-sharing app, and now it’s hard to imagine the service without text posts or videos.

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Our digital lives are rich with content. We have tapped into a persistent rush. I think this makes it especially important to think about what photography is doing for us. The engagement that we have with a photograph is limited to a few seconds before we’re moving on to the next, liking, reblogging, or favoriting. The tricky part isn’t just that photography is constantly in transition, it’s that the platforms are too. The technologies that build contexts are in a constant state of flux with updates and upgrades and OS changes and new hardware, and on top of that most of us are still using outmoded systems to judge photographs like view cameras and 8x10” sheets of film are still relevant to photography today. We’re a part of an image-literate society with a value system that’s about as nuanced as the difference between a grunt and a groan. And somehow we still think it’s OK to rely on photography to relay the extremely delicate and complicated realities of people around the world.

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Let’s talk photography. While mostly recognized as immediate and technological, photography is a process that materializes in steps (especially today’s digital images); the photograph isn’t complete just because the shutter closes. Everything that happens after a photograph is made, the writing and rewriting of data, image manipulation, sequencing, printing and framing is just as important in the creation of the photograph as the technical process that actually made it. This is one of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school that really changed the way I thought about photography. My expectations changed, beauty and truth were decentered, and I became more interested in the why and how of a photograph than the what. Photographs were no longer just photographs but facades supported by systems like culture. They couldn’t be the autonomous images I once thought they were. They were markers of status, indicators of prejudice, manifestations of racism, reflections of narcissism, and symbols of sexism, among other things. Photography had lied to me. And now, I could see the seams, the pixels, the noise, the structures and patterns that held the images in place.

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I believe that there are times when photography, in spite of its failures, still really means something. The photographs coming out of Ferguson, MO, following the shooting of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown, for example, are one instance where a set of photographs was able to capture our attention in a way that really mattered. But even those images were subject to the limitations of photography. The same photographs, once placed into the world, were only a couple words away from portraying looters rather than nonviolent protesters. The narratives built by these images depended heavily on external information, information that could not be communicated through a photograph. The reality that the photograph projected was limited. It could not show the whole story. It did not show every angle. It was specific only in its lack of specificity. The cold war of image that played out on the national news front underlined the violence that is implicit in photography. This is a violence that is about control: a deep historical violence that privileges those in power and others everyone else. The subjects of the photographs are powerless to assert their personhood; they are subjugated. The real violence in these images was not what was shown but what was taken.

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“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” -Susan Sontag