The Political Image

This is why the Syrian cameraman believes that he will not be killed, because his death is happening inside the image. It seems that this is a war against the image itself. The Syrian regime fears the image to the point that any mobile phone equipped with a camera becomes the key target to be chased after and shot at by the regime’s thugs.1

In his 2012 work “The Pixelated Revolution”, Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué investigates the conflation of the image through a systematic interrogation of a disturbing phenomenon: Syrian protestors filming their own deaths. Through photography, moving image, and an accompanying lecture-performance, Mroué examines a series of online videos that appear to show the murder of civilians by snipers. Each video is raw, frenetic, and shot using only the cameras on mobile phones. In each video, the person filming dies.

Through these tragic clips, Mroué identifies the inseparability of the image, the event, and the photographer. He bestows onto the image the same mortality as the Syrian protestor. This is not the 20th century war photography of glossy magazines. This is a living, breathing consequence of violence. This is an image that is not composed, pre-meditated or anticipated. It is vibrant. It is mortal.

Photography, it would seem, is changing. Political upheavals, natural disasters, and self-organising political movements are now witnessed through the unmediated eyes of the participants. This rise in citizen journalism marks the end of the traditional photojournalist who can no longer be trusted to convey the actual life of the city and cannot be expected to understand the minutia of events on the ground. This is a healthy shift. Not only does it reflect an emerging democracy in the witnessing of events, it entrusts a greater responsibility on the viewer to consume and synthesize the information in the process of forming an opinion. This is, of course, problematic. With a flood of first person, non-verifiable information, the potential for misinformation is obvious. However, is it any more fraught with moments of contagion and corruption than contemporary news media?

In 1968, John Berger stated “Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious.”2 This statement, made decades before the advent of social media or the emergence of the citizen journalist, contains a distinctly 21st century attitude about image making. It suggests that the witness is as important as the document. It suggests that the process of being present, of actively recording an event, is photography. This may seem obvious today, but it must have existed in sharp contrast to the ideas about photography at the time in which there existed a simple and brutal disjunction: the event and the photographer. Today’s obsession with self-documentation has removed this divide and provided an unexpected and highly productive consequence. The event and the photographer have collapsed into one, indivisible entity.

This is a political advancement in the understanding of the photograph. The photograph, an object containing the event and the photographer, represents realities that are non-linguistic. It reflects social, political, and aesthetic contemporaneity. It is necessarily impermanent and therefore subject to violence.

In October 2014, 11 undergraduate students from the University of Technology Sydney Bachelor of Design in Photography and Situated Media (PSM) travelled to London to participate in a workshop led by Amnesty International to investigate recent violent events in Gaza. The students collaborated with their peers in the MArch Urban Design degree at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. Led by researchers from Forensic Architecture at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths and lecturers from UCL, the workshop poured over volumes of photographs, video, satellite imagery, eyewitness testimonies, and social media postings with the goal of piecing together the exact timeline of a series of attacks.

The workshop took nothing at face value. Photographs of destroyed buildings revealed the perpetrator, not only the victim. Satellite images revealed time and duration, not only a macro overview.

This exemplifies the future of the study of the image: a diverse group of individuals from a variety of disciplines united in the task of discovering the potentially unknowable. The complicity of the image and the event is the territory in which we must operate.

The work of the 2014 PSM graduates from the embodies these new values.

It is intensely personal, influenced by life, and indistinguishable from the hand that created it. It is optimistic, glaringly honest, and confronting. Each step in the process is scrutinized, debated, and at risk. Three years of intense conceptual rigour and critical attention manifesting in photography, moving image, performance, and installation. The result is a collection of projects that defies classification and encourages further questions.

PSM is committed to evolving with the image. We will seek out the conflict, we will acknowledge the crisis, and we will be active agents in change. This is our subtext.  

  • Originally published in the exhibition catalogue for "Subtext"

  1. Mroué, Rabih. “The Pixelated Revolution.” Documenta 13. Kassel, Germany. 9 June – 16 Sept. 2012. 

  2. Berger, John. Understanding a Photograph. Reprint edition. New York: Aperture, 2013, p.25. 


© David Burns, 2024