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Function of photography as art in capitalism

ok. Not seriously in a short post. Just a sketch. Lines of thinking.

Should photography attack the ideology? Should it try to pierce through the propaganda (brain-washing) and show ‘things as they really are’. Well, at least more of reality than the officially permitted discourse allows. That is; should photography operate as a kind of guerilla warfare operation. Trying, aggressively, to ‘wake people up’?

Or; should it take an approach of just creating images of lyrical beauty? Like Osip Mandelstam did with his poetry? After all; if the people are awake to beauty that can’t at the same time sleep the sleep of capitalism.

How would these look; in practice? Some of the illusions of capitalism and their counter-realities:

We have ‘democracy’ –

In reality power lies in concentrations of power, inaccessible to public view. The elected government officials see their roles as organizing matters to support the aims of the corporations and concentrations of capital. No one could rise to political prominence by speaking their honest mind.

We have ‘freedom’ –

The freedom to be enslaved to material consumption and a world of petty regulations. A world in which everyone is individualised to the nth degree and set up in competition one with another. Anything but freedom. True freedom for the individual is realised in becoming a full member of the collective. Or, from a Stoic point of view, of living a life of reason and “social action”. But capitalism denies the collective. All the funded possibilities of action are about individualisation, manipulating others into more and more consumption, or being part of a tyranny of surveillance and control. Social action is being wiped out. (Notice how the press often run stories about some “heroic act of kindness”; a stranger helps an old lady who has fallen over, lending her his jacket, or something. Ordinary and obvious acts of solidarity are re-packaged as something special. They are trying to acclimatize us to selfishness). We are told that freedom lies in the individual’s ‘fulfillment’ and ‘realization’. But, in reality, freedom lies in social action for the common welfare. Everything from absurd contortions of sexual oddness to psychotherapy are part of this culture of enslavement masquerading as freedom.

How could photography ‘expose’ this fog of ideological propaganda – which constantly presents to us as ‘freedom’ and liberty our enslavement and alienation? This is not about, for example, showing that more people are poor than capitalism admits. Capitalism doesn’t really mind admitting that some people are on the breadline. It acts as a spur to everyone to work harder and take one of those alienating jobs. And ‘supporting’ the poor has become a profitable industry in its own right. Capitalism has been careful to ensure that no one is destitute (in advanced capitalist countries at least). Thus capitalism has spoilt all the good photo opportunities; of kids without shoes, or with bandy legs, for example. But how to photograph the alienation and enslavement of the supposedly free citizens? How to photograph a social illusion?

Do we have to use the photo-montage? To create propaganda of our own? For example; a ballot box with the ballot papers falling out underneath into a waste-paper bin. In the background a corporate executive is being driven to Buckingham Palace in a carriage. Like a political cartoon. You need to fight ideas with ideas. A photograph alone can present ‘facts’ (the poor kid with no shoes) but not ideas. To communicate ideas you need to incorporate graphic elements. But; this is not just posters with slogans. (Posters of socialist realism). As those only promote an idea (a single idea), To expose the falsity in the discourse of your enemies you need a form of art which can both present, and criticise, ideas. A space for a dialectic.

Another approach is the lyrical one. The lyric poet against the system. She doesn’t try to expose anything. She tries to lure people away by presenting them with images of beauty and authentic reality. To get a soul-response. Maybe photography can try and do this. But how does this avoid being “pure art”: a nice picture, say of a poetic landscape scene, to look at in a gallery or in a book? A moment’s purchased relaxation from the inevitable world of docilised production and packaged consumption? How to contrast the beauty with the alienation? Here one is reminded of R. D. Laing’s totem of psychosis. Moments of sensitive and bare presence which may occasionally manifest during a psychotic episode. A real observation of some of his patients no doubt, though Laing remained a psychiatrist throughout his career, never abandoning the ‘clinical’ look he claimed to be surpassing. How to photograph beauty in alienation rather than just beauty; and thus show both the alienation and the beauty at the same time? (Documentaries of smiling and giving kids in war-time; always a good fall-back for photojournalism). Maybe we should take a leaf out of the propaganda book of the capitalists? If they can turn human kindness into media stories designed to make solidarity seem rare and unusual perhaps we can turn that on its head? Images of compassion and care in everyday life? The kindly glance. A sensitive touch. Not just within the family circle (the only realm in which relationships are allowed to take place relatively unpoliced) but between citizens. But don’t try looking at someone else’s child with a sympathetic look these days… A photo-project of compassionate glances. That would be a long-term project…

To be continued…

in love



1. Example of ordinary social action re-packaged as something special





3 images from the sea-front at Sherringham, Norfolk. The bird is a Turnstone. (Status: Amber).

Cotton-top taiman

The Cotton Top Taiman is found in Columbia.

Conservation Status: Critically Endangered

Photographed at Crocodiles of the World, near Witney, Oxfordshire


that is volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees.


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Justin Wyllie Landscapes

landscape photography