Exercise: The ethics of aesthetics

Brief

Read the WeAreOCA blog post ‘The ethics of aesthetics’, including all the replies to it, and write a comment both on the blog page and in your blog. Make sure that you visit all the links on the blog post.

Response

Below is what I wrote on the post as my comment:

Like the last few additions to this thread, I am contributing here as part of an exercise in section 4 of the Documentary course. My responses to the images are similar to many of those who have gone before me, so I will summarise here and attempt to add any new thoughts of my own.

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-15-28-24
© Alejandro Chaskielberg for Oxfam

My one-word initial reaction to Chaskielberg’s work was: “unreal”. This is a little problematic, since I presume the viewer is supposed to recognise it as a ‘real’ scene of real people – as others have noted, the highly stylised aesthetic (and the stiffness of the long-exposure poses) does get in the way of engaging with the content somewhat. It’s a project that works better with the accompanying text.

Blog-Action-Day-in-Turkan-012.jpg
© Rankin 2011 for Oxfam

My first thought on the Rankin portraiture was “dignified”. The concept of the day’s worth of food wasn’t initially clear to me but once I’d absorbed this information, and seen others in the series, the picture acquired a new depth.

Sudan7-300x205.jpg
© Tom Stoddard 2004

Both aesthetics contrast with Stoddard’s more ‘traditional’ approach of showing the horror of famine, albeit in its own stylised way – graphical, minimalist, b&w. My reaction here was something like “heartbreaking”.

The most enlightening contribution to the thread above was from Jo Harrison of Oxfam, who went some way to explain the photographic choices. Oxfam’s stated principles that its photography “must depict hope, dignity and a realisation that change can happen” have clearly been enacted by Chaskielberg and Rankin, but I’m still a little unsure of the overall objective.

Sympathy and empathy

The difference between traditional depictions of famine and these approaches brings into sharp focus the distinction between sympathy and empathy.

The traditional way to encourage donations is to elicit sympathy – the subject is ‘othered’, and depicted as a helpless, distorted variant of a human being (as in Stoddard’s image here), and the viewer feels pity and sorrow – leading to donation.

Oxfam seems to be experimenting with evoking empathy instead – showing how similar the subjects are to the viewer, not how different. The intended reaction seems to be more like ‘people like me are starving’. There is less urgency, and fewer visual indicators of suffering, making these images easier to ‘like’ than to respond to.

Creativity and actuality

The Mraz reference of the “balance between expression and information” reminded me of John Grierson’s definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”. Famine photography usually tends to downplay the creative and major on the actuality, while here it looks like the photographers are looking to push the boundaries of the creative.

Intent and context

I think the effectiveness of the Oxfam campaigns depend largely on two things: intent, and viewing context. If the intent is to urgently encourage donations, and they are e.g. bus shelter ads – they are too subtle. If the intent is to raise awareness of ongoing issues and how they are being addressed (as implied by Jo Harrison), and the distribution method is, say, magazine articles or an exhibition – then they could be seen to be more successful.

Sources

The ethics of aesthetics https://weareoca.com/photography/the-ethics-of-aesthetics/ (accessed 27/09/2016)

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