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Voyage Documentation (Vancouver to Amchitka: 1971) © Greenpeace / Robert Keziere

Unquestioned Confidence

Oct 13, 2016 - Simon Karlstetter

The following text makes an attempt to fragmentarily highlight different aspects of protest — with its focus set on the medium of photography as a visual tool to protest, to document protest, to perpetuate fleeting moments, to make injustice known, to trigger protest. It was commissioned for the first issue of keen on magazine, the »Protest-Issue«.


Over the 150 years of its existence, photography has had to face the question of its “authenticity“ time and again. A skepticism based on the great potential for manipulation that arises during the creation and development process of a photograph, whether it’s analog or digital. Pictures that travel around the globe and convey content that make the spectator feel an alleged “authenticity“, which can turn out to show an altered or a partial perspective of an event. Robert Capas’ famous picture from the Spanish Civil War was long considered a paradigm of the “authenticity“ associated with photographic journalism — until it was unmasked as a “set up“.

But what does this have to do with protest? I believe the perception of a photograph as a composed, artificially set up picture, instead of an authentic reproduction of an event, to be indispensable for a critical perspective on pictures and their role in conveying history. Ever since the introduction of photography — first in the printed press, then in cinemas and on television as moving pictures, and today over a vast number of digital screens — pictures have been informing us about events around the globe; as well as all types of protest.

At a time when everyone owns a technological device with the capacity to produce high quality photographic or even moving images, the concept of the photographer — with respect to the concept of photography itself — becomes somewhat blurry. In relation to the theme of protest, this leads to surprising new developments: an amateur picture or video of Tahrir Square, the Gezi Park protests, or the Occupy Movement, is often perceived as more “authentic“ than the work of a professional journalist, documentarian, or artist. This may have to do with the fact that the amateur is considered to possess neither the knowledge, nor the tools necessary to effectively manipulate pictures. The same phenomenon can also be observed in the media, which increasingly resorts to “amateur“ pictures to report current events. Because pictures circulate through cyberspace at the speed of light and are instantly available, they become virtual witnesses to the events taking place across the globe, available through television and computer screens. Of course, this proliferation of images is also much cheaper. Furthermore, the speed at which this information is being transmitted renders previous methods of dissemination obsolete.


In consideration of this topic, the image of manifesting students at Tiananmen Square immediately springs to mind: An image of those Chinese students who stood unarmed and faced approaching tanks during the bloody repression of 1989. An image that singularly shaped the Western perception of the student protests against the Chinese government in 1989 — or rather, in actuality, the image that embodies the perspective of its author, photographer Jeff Widener.

As far as big, recent, international protests are concerned, for example, Occupy, Gezi, Tahrir, which images come to mind with the same degree of recognition? How did the propagation of pictures through social media influence the course of protests, how did it activate people on-site and generate a form of protest that wouldn’t have been possible without those pictures?

In other words, what do those pictures that directly or indirectly show protests actually convey? I’m just the external spectator contemplating the pictures that portray protests in a gallery or museum context. Consuming these images via image-stream in front of a screen, spectators may take the time to let the pictures sink in, they may feel moved, but are, in reality, rarely affected at the moment of contemplation.

Do such photographic images or, to be more precise their contemplation and decoding of the information of which they contain, genuinely compel the spectator to take action? Or is this expressed concern, communicated in just seconds by pushing the share button, give a false sense of participation, and is, in fact, nothing more than a short-lived response regarding a current event? Won’t the participator’s emotion soon be replaced by the next person’s shared content? Is the response limited to a virtual expression of concern? Should a shared photographic image over social or other media, therefore, be considered as a more or less “authentic“ form of protest than physically active forms of protest?


Wolfgang Tillmans, VOTE REMAIN 23 JUNE, 2016 Courtesy : http://tillmans.co.uk/campaign-eu
Wolfgang Tillmans, VOTE REMAIN 23 JUNE, 2016 Courtesy : http://tillmans.co.uk/campaign-eu

Briefly, with future prospects in mind, I would like to mention a few current examples that demonstrate actually experienced forms of protest, visible outside the virtual realm. One, that can be mostly observed online and in the social media: individual users post selfies taken inside a polling booth or photos of their ballots, whether it’s the US primaries or absentee ballots for Austria’s presidential elections. Those selfies summon the population to vote. Regarding the extremely close outcome in the Austrian elections, I dare say that this is already a form of protest. The latest are all the anti-Brexit actions, and the much-used Poster download on Wolfgang Tilman’s homepage. He asks the Brits to register to vote before June 7th in order to vote against Great Britain’s exit from the European Union. Besides an open letter, the website also offers works of art on posters and statement shirts. The letter has already been signed by different British artists, intellectuals, and others, among them many famous photographers, including Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin – the initiators of creativesineu.org. With the hashtag #CreativesIn, they use social media to ask all Brits to register to vote against the exit.

In concluding this text, I cannot shake the feeling that I did not form a broad enough perspective necessary to examine the theme of protest in conjunction with photography.


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