Unconscious Stream of Ugliness, Oblivion and Othering…

Reflections upon a photograph to remember or forget?

“He knows that everything he writes [or photographs*] is consigned to posterity (oblivion’s other, seemingly more benign, face)” Joyce Carol Oates 


* There is something gnawing at me about the notion of “othering” that was discussed by Amanda Koster during her recent visit to the Newspace Center for Photography.

Two kinds of photographs:

Photo by Renee C. Byer
In an effort to get Derek outside, Cyndie wheels him through the front door passing by artwork and cards given to her son by classmates at Bridgeway Island Elementary School. “Just like a newborn, he needs to get out and get some air,” she says. It was his last trip outdoors.

from 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner Renee C Byer, for Feature Photography.


the image below (previous post)
of Caxton – by Amanda Koster

I began thinking about this briefly in a previous post, and now with a little more reflection, I think my opinion is becoming more obvious to me; that it has to do with acknowledging a particularly powerful characteristic of still photography which is the effect of a condensed objectification of experience.

My opinion: the emotional content and symbolism in the “prize receipent” feature work by Byer – is initially gripping (emotionally), but quickly I become oblivious and hopeless. “Going towards the light” for the last time only leads me assume the predictable end – I have to have the last image in the feature series in order to close out my emotional state – it completes and releases me emotionally. I am powerless and helpless.

For me, the moment when a photograph (or series of photographs) resists this condensed experience, it changes from story telling to something more nuanced and akin to allusion. There is more depth to an image that orchestrates the voyeuristic quality of photography; to contain both intimacy and distance. It’s like a peculiar detail in a written story that sticks out – that you stub your toe on – something that allows you to project a personal connection…makes it real to you.

I particularly like the fact that the microphone from the interview with Caxton is left in the picture from “Aids is Knocking”, a reminder of opportunity for “dialogue” – along with the particular detail of the “CAT” logo on the tee-shirt. The image alludes to interaction and connection – blending symbolism and realism.

In the context of image fatigue in our visual culture, so much of what we see published invites us to enter a state of visual oblivion – a state of being disregarded or forgotten. I think partly this oblivion is from a lack of attention span coupled with some perverted need to see the ugliness that is potentially all around us. Perhaps this need to see ugliness, reassures that our own lives are relatively untouched and thereby we remain blissfully ignorant? Or, we have a visual dipstick on normalcy. Either way, this stream of ugliness is happening to others, it helps us to somehow manage to get up and get through the day – because thankfully, we are not confronted with the situation at hand. So that is the idea of photography’s negative “othering” potential… to help us live with oblivion.

It has me on the lookout for images that are powerful enough to sustain attention, to promote compassion, to get us to snap out of the hypnotic state of oblivion?

Thanks to a post by Alec Soth on his blog… “Quiz” got me to thinking…


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