Subjektiv part II invites different artists, curators and thinkers to give us their recent critical perspectives on the issues at stake and on the status of the subjective as an artistic strategy in the current political climate. Today’s statement from Hinde Haest: Photography has been considered both the epitome of truthful representation and the most treacherously manipulative of mediums. The relation of the photograph to reality is highly paradoxical; its truthfulness has been contested from the outset. The more advanced our contemporary imaging technologies become, the more we trust its observation over our own. Of course, the more advanced our imaging technologies become, the more elaborate and immeasurable is the potential to create our own visually constructed versions of reality. In this scenario the photographer is both humbly subjected to the technological eye, while simultaneously subjecting it to his or her imagination. This schizophrenia makes the photograph both the most objective and subjective of mediums.
What we tend to forget, even if we consider photography an objective medium, is that it is just that: a medium, a moderator that only presents the truth it is being fed. Since photography’s infancy, it is artists who have come closest to fathoming the paradoxical quality of the medium and tapped its true potential: to use reality to imagine alternative worlds as if they were real. In 1858, Henry Peach Robinson’s staged image of a dying girl caused public outrage. Not because the girl in the picture was dead, but because she was not dead while a recording technology clearly demonstrated she was. The truth value of technologically mediated reality - and an understanding of the photograph as a “chemical and physical process that allows nature to reproduce herself” (Daguerre) or a «pencil of nature» (Talbot) – was broken irreparably.
Nearly two centuries later, we seem none the wiser. The nineteenth-century celebration of imaging technology as the objective bearer of truth persistently trumps a collective distrust in our own observations. And it is still artists who demonstrate that imaging tools do not only allow us to replicate reality, but also to reinvent and recompose it, for better or for worse. A complicating factor (and unprecedented opportunity) for the current generation of photographers is the accelerated speed at which images are being created and circulated online, a development that has invested the photograph with additional subjectivity that transcends the depicted. The power – and vulnerability – of the image is increasingly determined by the frequency with which it is being shared, the networks it travels and the context in which it is perceived.
Amid the exponential number of images we are exposed to, we can only observe so much. What we see and fail to see is largely curated by technology. Big-data analysis, visual-recognition technologies, and algorithms increasingly determine who sees which image in which context. Contemporary artists working with photography are increasingly concerned not with what is depicted, but with how the depicted finds its way to the beholder. For example, Swiss artist Clément Lambelet investigates advancing algorithmic ecosystems. The artist scrutinizes the objectivity of the image at a time of rapidly developing computer-vision technologies and increasingly automated forms of surveillance. Instead of discarding such technologies as flawed, he repurposes them to expose previously unnoticed inconsistencies. For Collateral Visions (2016-ongoing) the artist scours found US Army footage for details accidentally captured by the lens, such as two donkeys peacefully grazing amid a US drone strike on an IS target. In Happiness Is the Only True Emotion (2016), Lambelet questions the reduction of bodies to digits by showing algorithms can be functionally prejudiced. The work examines the failings of emotion-recognition technologies, which only ever identify happiness.
Lambelet puts his finger on some of the fundamental questions about contemporary methods of representation. What is not shared or seen can be more influential in defining how we perceive the world than the information that does enter our peripheral sight. Lambelet’s algorithm can only identify happiness because it primarily learns from images depicting happiness. This does not mean the algorithm is defective, or that sadness does not exist. It simply proves that imaging technologies are as subjective as the realities they are being fed.
One question that follows is whether anything we see online is real. By «real» I do not mean factual, but rather what an image (whether true or false) can tell us about ourselves. As Hito Steyerl aptly put it in a conversation with Marvin Jordan for DIS Magazine: «Everyone has to be seen and heard, and has to be realized online as some sort of meta noise in which everyone is monologuing incessantly, and no one is listening. Aesthetically, one might describe this condition as opacity in broad daylight: you could see anything, but what exactly and why is quite unclear.» A number of artists are attempting to distil a contemporary human condition from the continuous, collective digital trail of visual information that people leave on the internet. It is a megalomanic undertaking that resonates with the humanist photography of the postwar period, kindled by a belief in a shared experience of what it is to be human.
Rather than mapping humanity through ethnographic or anthropometric visualization—a technique alarmingly resonant with contemporary facial-recognition technology—the humanists employed photography to depict people as they loved, grieved, played, and fought. Come the digital age, the photographic image connects people worldwide more than ever, and our visual language has become increasingly emotive and subject to careful construction and curation. However, the subjectivity of the image today does not mean it is untrustworthy. If anything, it reveals more (often uncomfortable) truths about us and the ways we perceive the world. For the work Bad Trip (2017) Dutch artist Thomas Kuijpers analyzed the circulation of online imagery in an attempt to pinpoint the visual fundamentals of the most primal human emotion: fear. He amassed an archive of publications’ front pages, sensationalist headlines, and popular images that kindle a collective fear of terrorism. He ventured into the fringes of the web, tracking the posts of several anti-Islamic communities to study the kind of information their members consume. In an attempt to retrace what exactly inspires his own angst, he filmed and photographed situations in his daily life that triggered associations with terrorism. By collecting and deconstructing the visual make-up of a shared paranoia, Kuijpers questions how our perception of reality is conditioned largely by sensationalism, fake news, and irrational fears.
Lambelet and Kuijpers demonstrate how our consumption of images is increasingly based on knowledge drawn from existing information. Algorithms present us with the future, but they only learn from the past. Such visual self-reference was cleverly examined by David Horvitz. Inspired by Bas Jan Ader’s 1971 video I’m too Sad to Tell You, Horvitz uploaded a stock image of himself with his head in his hands and kept an inventory of how the image made its way on to various websites as an illustration of depression and myriad other mental states. Horvitz’s sadness only acquires meaning after it has been bought or otherwise appropriated and placed in context. The image (signifier) thus precedes its meaning (signified). With his work, Horvitz not only points us toward the deplorable human condition manifested in collective depression and fatigue; he also inverts the truth that lies embedded in code by reclaiming the imaginative power of the reproducible image, as had Henry Peach Robinson in the nineteenth century.
Hinde Haest is a curator at Foam, photography museum Amsterdam.