Photography, protest and politics (deliberate small’p's)

Shawn Sobers's picture

Over the next year I’m going to go back to my roots and make more pictures, both still and moving, as well as writing words (which I may do less).  As a political (small ‘p’) animal at heart, it is work that has something to say, or maybe more importantly work that asks questions, that inspires me most in terms of my own creative practice.  (I don’t force this upon my students, although they do at least have to have a focused idea they are pursuing!)

Below I have embedded an interesting and inspiring talk by David Hoffman about the role of the documentary photographers and the images they produce in moments of civil protest and uprisings.  He paints a strong rationale of the photographer’s need to document the times we live in, even when faced with possible personal injury and the threat of loss of liberty.  Hoffman gave the talk as part of a seminar titled ‘Who’s Afraid of Photographers?’ at the House of Commons in 2010.  For me he illustrates clearly the sentiments of rapper KRS One in 1989, when he directed his lyrics to the police in Who protect us from you [(c)1989. Original copyright remains]

“You were put here to protect us
But who protects us from you?
Every time you say “That’s illegal”
Doesn’t mean that that’s true
Your authority’s never questioned
No-one questions you
If I hit you, I’ll be killed
But you hit me? I can sue.”

Who’s Afraid of Photographers? by David Hoffman

See source at –

In photography the documentary tradition is just one way that protest and political ideas can be represented.  It is an approach of trying to mirror events as they happen, albeit a selected and mediated mirroring on the part of the photographer.  The genre of political photography that gets much less attention is work that is overtly constructed.  Like a painter working into a canvas, these photographers use actors, models, ‘everyday’ people and themselves as their subjects.  They carefully choose the locations, lighting and whole set design to construct an image that contains some sense of an idea, which the viewer can (hopefully) translate into an implied meaning when bringing their wider knowledge of the context into play.  I personally feel the most powerful work in any genre raises awkward questions for the viewer, rather than attempting to offer coherent answers.

Photographic illustrations such as the work of Jiri David who created portraits of world leaders who had their hands dirty with violent conflict – inserting his own tears into their eyes.  We never get to see these men in this way.  Only if they write their memoirs do we get told about their moments of vulnerability, long after the events which caused them. 

The work of Mitra Tabrizian whose photographs often depicts awkward alienation, being an outsider, and the artifice of everyday behaviour.  In the two examples shown below, in the first she depicts a scene that in one way looks like a typical 1970s television police drama with the black guy as the bad guy, but in this hyper-real deliberately artificial wooden representation, the certainties of who is doing what and why are blurred.  Frozen in this stagnated way, the police themselves take on their own menace.   Her second image below is titled City, London, 2008.  City Bankers suspended in animation, which in the midst of the global recession, the artifice and coldness of the construction speaks for itself.

The third photographer I’ve included below is Cindy Sherman and her self-portrait work exploring the subject of ‘centrefold’ adult models, (personal as political).  Sherman wanted to represent the moment just after the centrefold photographs were taken, when the model is no longer performing for the camera, faced with their own stark realities and personal conscience.  These images below use events ‘mirrored’ by Hoffman and other photojournalists as starting points, from which they then create a photographic illustration, representing visual ideas and question interpreted from real world moments and common media representations.

Over the next year it is these types of work, documentary and constructed, that I want to pursue in not only my analysis, but also in my practice.    In answer to ‘Who’s Afraid of Photographers?’, perhaps the answer should be ‘everybody’.   Photographers asking awkward questions, though not passing  judgment on the answers.


Publication date (from feed): 

Sun, 13 Mar 2011 22:30:36 +0000