¶ … age of globalized images and new media, including social media, visual culture is universal. Even traditional news media, such as photojournalism, provides a window into multiple worlds and offers an opportunity for individuals from diverse backgrounds to offer unique social and political commentary. The result is a virtual and actual prism: and a prism may be rendered artistically in literal form as with facets of reflective substances like glass. A prism also conveys particular metaphorical qualities, providing a rich and multifaceted medium. It is "the visual crisis of culture that creates postmodernity, not its textuality," (Mirzoeff 4).
My art project builds upon the found objects of our visual culture culled mainly from The New York Times. The use of this particular newspaper is personal for me, as it is the medium I used to improve my English. Yet as an artist, I found myself drawn much more to the images and especially those of foreign correspondents and their photojournalistic portfolios. Photographs of suffering, such as of war or natural disaster, present ethical problems that the artist must address. It is impossible to look upon a graphic image of children crying and people dying and not wonder whether the person taking the photograph is doing a service in reporting the phenomenon vs. taking a more active role in the scene.
There is another ethically problematic dimension to photojournalism, which is explored in my project. That additional element is the crude and questionable juxtaposition between photojournalistic images of global suffering and the advertisements placed on the same page. Adjacent to images of starvation and poverty will be images of Rolexes and Jaguars, for instance. It has come to my attention that the news media comes across as being insensitive in this way, and yet there is also the underlying reality that conveying the truth about the world is an essential part of creating meaningful change.
This art project is dedicated to the understanding of the paradoxes of visual culture. What is visual culture? Mirzoeff defines visual culture as that which is "concerned with visual events in which information, meaning, or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology," (3). Using Mirzoeff's definition narrows the notion of visual culture considerably. Visual culture is not the broad category it might have been pre-Internet. Instead, visual culture depends on consumerism, and on the use of specific tools and technologies for its creation, dissemination, and interpretation. Thus, an Internet meme is a part of visual culture because it depends on the medium of the Internet and cannot be taken out of its context. The images of photojournalism such as those I use in my work likewise cannot be taken out of their essential context. They are images of war and devastation that have been repurposed to underscore the paradoxes of visual culture itself.
In terms of photojournalism, or any type of journalism, itself, the great Foucault grasped the paradox of visual culture well. Carnevale and Kesley cite Foucault as commenting that the work of the journalist is to "grasp what is happening right now," in the power of the moment in which all things are possible (1). Likewise, Foucault clarifies that he is "nothing but a neophyte," which I am as well (cited by Carnevale and Kelsey 1). Manipulating the images of photojournalism to convey a personal aesthetic impression of the state of global affairs is a postmodern commentary on not only visual culture, but also the art and science of journalism. Finally, the reason why images take precedence over text is summed up well by Mirzoeff's ...
My work is heavily influenced by that of Jacques Ranciere. Ranciere used archival images, mainly of worker or labor organizations in the late nineteenth century. Using these archival images, Ranciere "reexamined the dividing lines between the modern and postmodern," (Carnevale and Kelsey 257). The images themselves were taken in a realistic, straightforward, and therefore very modern context in their historical epoch of the nineteenth century. This was the modern era. Ranciere does what Foucault calls "foreseeing the past," in that the artist takes these emblems of the modern past and fuses them with a postmodern critique. At the time the images were taken in the modern era, there was a sense of utopianism in the labor movement. Art itself creates utopias, notes Ranciere (Carnevale and Kelsey). Marxist discourse and other idealized worldviews were evident in the source material and source of the visual culture of the labor movements. When recreating these images, and reassembling them in a postmodern way, the artist creates an abstract prism with which to view past, present, and future realities. This is exactly what I intend to do with my work, as I also take images and repurpose them for artistic, political, and aesthetic functions. As Ranciere notes, it is not really possible to separate the spheres of art and politics in the postmodern era. We have become too self-conscious, and too aware of our role in the world. There has been a "critical awakening" or "raised consciousness" from which we must work; art is unavoidably political. At the same time, politics has ironically become an art form that can be honed and manipulated using visual imagery and its attendant technological tools (Carnevale and Kelsey). In my work, the tools I use include a camera phone, which I believe is critical because it adds a personal dimension. The notion of the "selfie" taken with the camera phone is pervasive in our self-centered and egotistical culture, which is the very same culture that allows for the voyeurism of photojournalism. Especially when it comes to wartime photojournalism, there is a paradox between the need to see, know, and understand the realities of what happens in conflict zones and the selfishness inherent in appreciating the images. Susan Sontag touches upon this paradox in her work Regarding the Pain of Others. This book has been instrumental in helping me formulate my ideas and theories.
A central theme in my work is the theme of political, social, and existential displacement with a focus on the Middle East. Displacement has become an unfortunate reality for millions upon millions of people worldwide, largely due to political upheaval and war. I use various images taken from photojournalists as source material to use in my work. Using these sources, I take my phone to create meta-narratives related to displacement. In this sense, I am participating in the type of social constructivism that Butler discusses in Gender Trouble, though without the overt emphasis on gender as a necessary construct. Instead, the grander narrative of displacement is viewed holistically as opposed to only through the gender facet of the prism. If displacement is the prism as a whole, then I intend to reveal various facets of that whole through the images taken with my camera phone. Some facets will indeed be linked with gender, as gender is an unavoidable and troublesome domain in visual culture especially. As Butler puts it, women constitute the "unrepresentable" because masculinity is normative (9). I must take care in my work to remain cognizant of the constraints of patriarchy, both in terms of the photojournalists' own biases, and in terms of my own. There is also the additional dimension of problematic gendered identities in the source or target cultures in the Middle East.
Finally, my work is naturally an act of framing or re-framing. Framing is reflexive, and quintessentially postmodern in its approach to art, politics, and social commentary (Butler "Precarious Life, Grievable Life"). Framing is problematic and paradoxical in its own right, as Butler points out in "Precarious Life, Grievable Life." By framing, we determine what is set inside and outside the realm of vision. The photojournalist is the first framer in this case, literally…
It is "the visual crisis of culture that creates postmodernity, not its textuality," (Mirzoeff 4).
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