Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

We want (to) control.

Oct 16, 2015 - Salvatore Vitale

This is my last post here and I want to speak about a topic which is essential in this period of time and that I share with those guys who runs Der Greif. The main word is "Control" (in photography), a topic with several shapes, a contemporary topic which we can easily call as one of the trends of the moment. I have to be honest, when it is about control it's very hard to explore in deep all the meanings and applications it can include, but I felt the need to try - at least - to understand where and how we can find it in photography and, also, how artists include it in their artistic production. Susan Sonntag was already speaking about the role of photography as a tool of control: "Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the working of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for the masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers)", and in this short statement we can see all the potential of a medium which can change the perspective of society itself. It may seems obvious to say that to exercise control means to gain the power. And our recent history is full of episodes in which we can see how photography, used in this context, has been crucial to solve situations or unmask others. The control of the artistic production itself in countless situations has been one of the main governments's weapon for propaganda. I can think, for instance, about the Swiss case when, at the beginning of the past century, the government asked - or better dictated - the artists to produce pieces of art in order to underline the perfection of the country. This particular case it's very interesting because it drastically contributed to create the Swiss culture as we know it today. Going back to our times, in the last few years we can notice a strong and big presence of the so-called art-veillance in photography. In order to create a new vision of the world, artists started to use surveillance cameras, google maps, softwares and devices suitable for monitoring or mapping. We can find several examples of photography projects in which the main - and, in some cases, the only - camera is a computer screen. With the eyes of a spy, artists are catching, observing, discovering stories and facts happening in a piece of world which can be very far away or, on the contrary, very close. What we can call "useful photography" crossed the line to become "art photography". Daniel Rubinstein, trying to answer the question "What is 21st Century Photography?" on The Photographers' Gallery blog suggests an interesting reading on our time: "The demise of the industrial age is curtains for the spectacle of representation: visual surveillance is replaced with predictive policing, industrial processes replaced with trading algorithms, armies replaced with remote controlled killer robots and perspectival geometry replaced with the flat topology of the computer screen." The way we approach, watch, interact with the world is bringing us to take a distance from it generating a vision that is getting more and more objective, in which we try to leave as less as possible space to the randomness. We want (to) control. But there are many other sides of this topic. I've been discussed it a lot with my colleagues at YET magazine and we decided it was time to work on it. We analyzed the situation, did a long and deep research and we came to the conclusion that an issue about control was needed. As I was stating before, if on a side photography has been used since its beginnings as a tool of control and surveillance by governments, political and military organizations. During the twentieth century, this raised important issues about the privacy of the individual, civil rights and the veracity of the photographic document – issues that are becoming more urgent because of the growing ubiquity and sophistication of technologies to record reality. But, on the other side, the visual practice of photography is assessed in greater extent depending on the context of use and presentation, and most of all it is subject to dynamics of dissemination and sharing beyond its creation. This condition subtracts the product from the total supervision of the author, making the photographic image an autonomous body and potentially out of control. Here another important and contemporary aspect comes out: how can we trace, in the online era, the life of an image? It's funny, in a way, to think about the several uses we can do of a single image. We can put it out of its context in order to give it the opposite meaning it was supposed to bring. We tried to study all these possibile variations of the topic in order to give back a deep analysis of the current situation. The more we were going into deep the more we were finding new ways and possibilities to talk about it. In the moment in which we were close to control the content, we were losing control again. Anyway, soon you will be able to see where this process brought us. I want to end this post with another quote by Daniel Rubinstein which suggests a very interesting answer to that question I mentioned before: "In short, 21st Century Photography is not the representation of the world, but the exploration of the labor practices that shape this world through mass-production, computation, self-replication and pattern recognition. Through it we come to understand that the ‘real world’ is nothing more than so much information plucked out of chaos: the randomised and chaotic conflation of bits of matter, strands of DNA, sub-atomic particles and computer code." I will let you free to find your own conclusion.