I aim to research the challenges of curating photographic work with an historical context, bringing together ideas of seeing and looking, the spectator, and to respond to the epistemological question ‘how do we know what is real?’
By researching this particular exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, and then the wider Incite Project by Tristan Lund, I will examine not only the methodology of the curator in his interpretation of the material, but in how the exhibition as a whole positions itself in the ontological discourse of the transition from analogue into digital, and how this alters the viewers perception of an image. My methodological approach will include evaluating theoretical literature on the subject of perception and the ethics of photojournalism within the paradigm of contemporary curating.
In February 2017, Victoria Art Gallery in Bath hosted a temporary exhibition curated by art consultant and curator Tristan Lund, entitled ‘History through a Lens: Iconic Photographs from the Incite Project.’ This short report looks to highlight the interpretation and identity of these culturally significant images, the perception of the intended audience, and the expressed role of the curator.
Incite project was ‘A live collection of issue-driven photographic prints, motivated by current political and social concerns that are still within our power to correct’. (Incite.co.uk, 2017) The exhibition was a display of iconic images taken throughout history, which in some way had changed the perception of those moments in time for the world. Displayed chronologically throughout the dark background of the gallery space these visual representations of violent conflict and human empathy through professional and amateur journalism were framed by their relationships between seeing and believing.
Lund worked with contemporary conflict and issue driven photographers, often requesting and assisting in the printing of their images for the first time. His interests in this project lie in the relationship between photography as a transient image for media reproduction and as a physical work of art. One such piece in this exhibition was Falling Man, an image taken on 11 September 2001 by photojournalist Richard Drew as he documented the direct aftermath of the NY terrorist attack on 9/11. The image was widely used in the media, despite being one of the few images taken that day which actually showed human suffering and death.
The idea as to the amount of suffering one needs to show in order to avoid compassion fatigue is a subject debated by contemporary historians and critics from a wide array of disciplines. In an article published five years before Falling Man, by Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, details of a telephone survey in the USA to residents in Atlanta overwhelmingly showed that the public believed that ‘the mass media played a primary role, through both negative coverage and content that allowed avoidance and that respondents readily blamed the media for their personal desensitisation and avoidance strategies.’ (N. Kinnick, Katherine. 1996)
In contrast to the idea of avoidance to human empathy, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California a gelatin silver print of a small family unit taken in 1936 during the Great Depression stands out amongst these exhibition prints for its historical accuracy. Lange was working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting rural poverty and the exploitation of migrant labourers and came across ‘the hungry and desperate mother’ (Barnet, S. 1993). Yet an interview with the subject of ‘Migrant Mother’, Florence Thompson, when she was eventually tracked down and identified years later, contradicted Lange’s story of events that day, stating that she had recorded many details of the encounter incorrectly and Thomson believed ‘she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.’ (wiki/Florence_Owens_Thompson, 2017).
Lange reminds us that it is not only the visual representation that is under the control of the photographer. In journalism, ‘accuracy isn’t the same as truth – it’s possible to give an entirely accurate account of an untruth’ (BBC Academy, 2017) and this also speaks for curators. Looking to documentary photography and photojournalism and their ‘perceived value as critical tools to advocate for political and social change’ (Kennedy and Patrick, 2014) the curator of Incite Project, Tristan Lund is drawn by the mediums accessibility as an art form and the immediacy of the response it can generate from the viewer.
Hoare, AJ. (2017). History through a lens exhibition, Bath. [Photograph] (AJ Hoare’s own collection)
Barnet, S. (1993). A short guide to writing about art. 4th edn. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers.
Hoare, AJ. (2017). History through a lens exhibition, Bath. [Installation photograph] (AJ Hoare’s own collection)
Incite Project. (2017). Incite Project. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.inciteproject.com/. (Accessed 22 October 2017).
Kennedy, L. and Patrick, C. (2013). The violence of the image: photography and international conflict. London: I.B. Tauris.
Kinnick, K.N., Krugman, D.M. and Cameron, G.T., 1996. Compassion Fatigue: Communication and Burnout toward Social Problems. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 73(3), pp. 687-707.
Osborne, Peter. (2010). Infinite exchange: the social ontology of the photographic image. Philosophy of Photography. Vol 1.
Riboud, M. (1967) Demonstration against the Vietnam War, Washington DC. [Photograph]
New York: Magnum Photos
Wikipedia. (2017). Florence Owens Thompson. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Owens_Thompson. (Accessed on 23 October 2017).