Inspired by photographic messages from the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, I wanted to acquire first-hand knowledge of documentary through hands-on experience. The natural impulse of anyone who sees a photograph of an individual in pain or in need is to reach out and help. Robert Capa , the legendary photographer always understood, he famously declared, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He recognised that only by recording individual gestures and facial expressions could he convey a sense of actuality (Whelan, 2005, p. 12). On October 15th the Occupy movement, which had been protesting in New York for the past month, arrived in the UK with a march on the London Stock Exchange. I attended the demonstration, with the objective to observe, record and apply the basis of Walter Benjamin’s concept of Aktualität, the theory of thinking and acting in images (Weigel, 1996, p. 4). This study will explore the basic idea of dialectical materialism, and whether art, in the age of mechanical reproduction, can be employed for revolutionary potential. Roland Barthes’ theory of semiotics is of particular salience in reading the photograph, not as an image but as a text.
The photographic paradox ‘establishes a relation of immediacy to the material of the social or the symbolic. This is not materialism avant la lettre, but a re-reading of the material.’ The most important problem facing the semiology of images, is whether the ‘copy’ can produce true systems of signs and not just a construction of symbols. Barthes declares that ‘naturally, signification is only possible to the extent that there is a stock of signs, the beginning of code’ (Barthes, 1977, p. 34). The connotation of the photograph is produced through a modification of the reality, created by artificially bringing the main characters together. The obvious signifiers are the gesture shown by the man and the boy, the V sign, which has various connotations of “peace” and “defiance”, which are dependent on the cultural context and presentation; and the Guy Fawkes mask from the film V for Vendetta (2006) which has become an icon of popular culture. This political sign of the times provides a collective identification and simultaneous anonymity, an emblem for anti-establishment groups against corporate greed. The Anonymous group use the mask as a symbol of radical transparency online, becoming popular during their campaign against the Scientology movement and more recently as a display of solidarity against corporate greed.
[The mask] is worn by an enigmatic lone anarchist who, in the graphic novel on which it is based, uses Fawkes as a role model in his quest to end the rule of a fictional fascist party in the UK. Early in the book V destroys the Houses of Parliament by blowing it up, something Fawkes had planned and failed to do in 1605 (BBC, 2011).
The pose of the subjects, which isn’t natural, and the mask, prepares the reading and how it’s received by the viewer. Without knowledge of the Occupy movement, the evidence indicates a protest; the crowd; the banners; the Guy Fawkes mask; and the hand gesture, which was adopted by the 1960s counterculture movement as a sign for peace (Wikipedia, 2011). When considering the historical formation, parallels can be drawn with the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), a period of radical social and political upheaval which corroborate and constitute elements of signification with the contemporary demonstrations. Even further back to the 16th Century, on the site where the photograph was taken, the fourth St Paul's, known when architectural history arose in the 19th century as Old St Paul's also encountered political demonstrations. Crowds were drawn to the northeast corner of the Churchyard, St Paul's Cross, where open-air preaching took place. It was there in the Cross Yard in 1549 that radical Protestant preachers incited a mob to destroy many of the cathedral's interior decorations (Wikipedia, 2011). Seen in this context, we can understand that the image is a statement about corporate greed. That ‘Formerly, the image illustrated the text; today, the text loads the image, burdening it with culture, a moral, an imagination (Barthes, 1977, p. 26). For Walter Benjamin, art must be evaluated both in terms of its depiction of the social reality of class antagonisms and in terms of its technique and position within the literary production relations of a given era. The photograph doesn’t depict class structure, other than the assumption that the protesters are the working class and are protesting for the best interests of the 99%. Members of the Anonymous group are regarded as the ‘disenfranchised youth who fall somewhere between the mid-to-lower income bracket’ (Colter, 2011). Instead the images deconstruct the stereotype that all protesters are students, as the man and the boy are not included in this bracket. We also have to consider the mechanical reproduction, especially through contemporary media. The resolution of the photograph isn’t high quality, captured using an iPhone and hasn’t been treated to enhance the detail. Potentially the photograph could have been uploaded to the Internet immediately through the devices 3G connection. In the background, a woman is taking a photograph of the man and the boy, which occurred frequently as many photographers who had attended the demonstration to document the events, were interested in his enthusiasm. Through contemporary media, anything has the potential to go viral; anyone can become a political activist and assist in launching a political campaign, especially when broadcasting through social media channels. This was the eventual outcome for the boy, as he was featured on the Ten O’Clock News that evening.
Objectively, reproduction of any work of art is lacking its presence in time and space, the environmental setting, framing and lighting aren’t the same but the meanings can be discovered by profound thought and analysis. If I hadn’t indicated that the photograph was constructed, would the receiver have presumed that the man and boy were related? The boy in the photograph has a broken arm; on the cast the name ‘Kes’ is visible. This relates to the film Kes (1969), which focuses on 15-year old Billy Casper, who has little hope in life and is bullied (IMDB). The tagline for the film is ‘They beat him. They deprived him. They ridiculed him. They broke his heart. But they couldn’t break his spirit.’ In relation to the other signs, this takes on added significance, especially given the political symbolism. The boy’s name in the photograph is Lennon, named after the English musician and singer-songwriter John Lennon, one of the founding members of The Beatles and an active revolutionary when he was alive. These examples imply contemporary documentary photography, whereby photographers work converges more with social science, like anthropologists they justify their relations to the people they photograph. Documentary photography is tied, historically, to both exploration and social reform. Both are evident in the photograph.
..a picture, to represent an object, must be a symbol for it, stand for it, refer to it… almost anything can stand for anything else… [it] depends not upon imitation or illusion or information, but inculcation. (Goodman, 1968:5, 38)
In viewing a photographic image we engage in a complex reading process which relate to our own expectations and the assumptions we make as to the subject itself. I chose the documentary theoretical approach because I believe the message is formed by a true source of emission and the point of reception is neither ‘natural’ nor ‘artificial’ but historical or cultural. I agree with Walter Benjamin, ‘that ideas are structured as images, and that what is at stake is therefore a praxis that can operate with images – a politics of images, not a figurative or metaphorical politics’ (Weigel, 1996, p. 10). Howard S. Becker refers to documentary photography as being ‘used to expose evil and promote change, ‘supposed to dig deep, ‘play an active role in social change, be socially responsible, worry about its effects on society in which its work is distributed.
If our reading is satisfactory, the photograph analysed offers us three messages: a linguistic message, a coded iconic message, and a non-coded iconic message. The linguistic message can be readily separated from the other two, but since the latter share the same (iconic) substance, to what extent have we the right to separate them?! ( Barthes, 1977, p. 36)
Howard S. Becker, is one of the founders of the visual sociology movement, in his essay on Visual Sociology, he outlines the three social constructions whose meanings arise in the contexts, organisational and historical worlds of photographic work. In his essay on Visual Sociology he describes how to read a documentary picture using the other social constructions; photojournalism and visual sociology. Taking a photojournalism approach; set on the front page of a newspaper, the photograph would have definitely provoked a reaction. However, the mainstream media would be reluctant to portray a photograph that was politically coded with the intention to promote change. Admittedly a photograph was featured on the Ten O’Clock News that evening but the image had been framed, the signifier of the man wearing the mask wasn’t visible and neither was the hand gesture. To support this, Becker implies that ‘newspapers seldom print photographs of anonymous people,’ and that it’s unlikely that the picture would have appeared in the daily newspaper, ‘because it (the photograph) is grainy [and] not in sharp focus.’ The only instance this would be excused is ‘during an expose of political corruption’ and more recently to provide contemporary examples, those photographs that depict a criminal act or celebrity scandal. The visual sociology approach would want to know much more about what we were seeing. Who the people were, what they were actually doing and more importantly what I was telling them about the image. This appears much more invasive than the photojournalist approach, but Becker goes on to state that the visual sociology social construction is correctly based on the assumption that photographs are easily manipulated. Although, they would not construct the meanings and neither would they see the problems associated with social science data.
To conclude, the photograph that I chose was a contemporary documentary photograph that I took during the Occupy London demonstration. The photograph was part of an amateur series that attempted to document the events at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The objective was to explore and raise awareness through photography, the subjects used were children, primarily to conflict with the stereotype that protesters are students and to highlight that this is their future too. I understood that there would be various political banners, signifiers and connotations displayed around the London Stock Exchange and that photographs would be coded with various meanings and historical context. I expected that there would be minimal mainstream press exposure of events and wanted to formulate my own opinion. I have applied a basic grasp of dialectical materialism to this study, which is essentially a prerequisite in understanding the doctrine of Marxism. These connected notions surrounding truth, history and validation, assisted in the construction of the texts epistemology.
Word count: 1,835
Barthes, Roland. (1977). Image Music Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press. pp. 16 – 22, 34.
Becker, Howard. (1995). Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography, and Photojournalism: It’s (Almost) All a Matter of Context. pp. 84 – 86.
Colter, Aaron. (2011). 'V for Vendetta' Inspires Anonymous, Creator David Lloyd Responds. [Internet] < http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/08/04/v-for-vendetta-anonymous-david-lloyd > [Accessed 04 November, 2011]
Goodman, N. (1968). The Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. p. 38
Weigel, Sigrid. (1996). Body-and Image-Space. Re-reading Walter Benjamin. London: Routledge. p. 4.
Whelan, Richard. (1996). Robert Capa: Photographs. Aperture. p. 12
Wikipedia. (2011) Counterculture of the 1960s. [Internet] < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterculture_of_the_1960s > [Accessed 04 November 2011]
Wikipedia. (2011) St Paul’s Cathedral. [Internet] < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Paul's_Cathedral > [Accessed 04 November 2011]
Internet Movie Database. (1969) Kes (film). [Internet] < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064541/ > [Accessed 04 November 2011]