kadri otsiver

Let’s talk about shooting

I had been roaming the streets looking for something to shoot. I loaded, then waited and watched. Once I had caught my subject in view I aimed and took a shot. I worked alone in the dark room developing the negatives. I stopped it, then fixed it. Then I cropped, dodged and burned the positive until I was satisfied (Navab, 2001: 69).

Photography seems to be a dangerous field. There is no need to dig deep into photographic theories to exemplify that, one just has to think in terms of linguistics. For example, when Estonians talk about the process of picture-making they use a noun ‘pildistama’ which directly translates as ‘picturing’. The quickest option for an English speaker to describe the same act is to say ‘shooting’. An uncanny moment must be experienced by those who first enter this language game, but this doubled reality is subject to time, as with time comes habit. Similarly, Susan Sontag (1980) has commented that “we talk about ‘loading’ and ‘aiming’ a camera, about ‘shooting’ a film” without thinking about the connotations. The camera has so deeply emerged into the world of metaphors, she writes, that its predatory nature is present without noticing it. 

Photography, however, is not a participant in a simple hunting game but of full-on war - people are bombarded with pictures on billboards, newspapers and all kinds of screens and because of this ubiquitous presence, it is nearly impossible to escape from them. Again, this uncontrollability manifests in linguistics. Oddly it seems that the act of taking an image, that is to shoot a shot, is less destructive than the end result that reaches its audience/’victims’. Once the image is freed from its container, whether a memory card or a film roll, its impact is described by means of bombardment. But If language is shaping our conceptions actively not passively (Navab, 2011) then to what extent has this vocabulary moulded our notion of photography? Is photography itself violent or has the language associated with it, or used to describe it, made it like that? 

Of course, there are some obvious explanations for this linkage between weaponry and photography - the camera is indeed aimed towards its subject as a gun is aimed towards its victim. But unlike the gun which shoots out a bullet, the camera’s sensor (or a photographic film) is waiting for the information to be taken in and recorded onto a surface. Therefore these two, in essence, seem to work in contrary directions. First, both prerequisite a subject, in one form or another, whether a sky or earth, a person or an object; but how this subject is treated is exactly what separates those two forms of ‘shooting’. A camera makes the use of time via the length of a shutter speed to invisibly bring the subject into the camera. A gun’s logic is to speed out a bullet into the subject. So one is an inward process the other an outwards one, and the real danger of photography, as the following writings suggest, is the subject of the lens, not the lens itself. That is within photography’s adhered characteristics to depict the ‘real,’ the ‘truth,’ the ‘natural’. 

Walter Benjamin in his famous essay On Photography (1931), iconic writing published almost 90 years ago, states that photography is at its best when it is deeply bound within the world and with its politics, not freely floating in a space of neutrality. He refers to photographers who have achieved that: August Sander and Eugene Atget. In opposition to this ideal, Benjamin speaks of ‘art photography’ which, as he concludes, presents the greatest danger to photographic development because it takes itself out of all social realities and does not tell anything about the world, but devalues it to a mere aesthetic experience: “therein is unmasked a photography which is able to relate a tin of canned food to the universe, yet cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which that tin exists”. Although art’s function today, quite contrary, emphasises the importance of criticality then Benjamin’s dislike towards the practice is understandable. Given the context of the time he was writing this - Nazi party making its way to power and economic depression severely exhausting Germany - one could naturally conclude that photography is dangerous when it is not critical. 

Contrary to this opinion, photography is also dangerous when criticality sits quietly in its core and ”is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks” (Barthes: 1970). August Renger-Patzsch’s famous “The World is Beautiful” according to Benjamin dismisses the thought. It only agrees that something is but does not question -natural forms are beautiful, man-made forms are beautiful - and it had all the right to do so because art was free from social and political responsibilities (Benjamin: 1931). Contrary to this, Benjamin saw that Sander’s photographs were thinking (today we can say that the Nazi party banning and destroying his work is a testimony to this). The visual strategy of ‘Face of Our Time’ gave everybody an equal starting point whether a peasant, a gypsy, a Nazi party member or a jew, and a variety of stories unraveled out of this unity. Equality, however, was a dangerous concept. Therefore photography has always been a dangerous field, already designated to be so by the vocabulary. But is potentially most harmful when it both thinks and when it doesn’t think. 

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