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beware of trains and meanings

November 30, 2007

Part One

Beware of trains © 2007 Christos Stavrou
‘Beware of trains’ by Christos Stavrou © 2007

I have received a comment about this picture: “It’s very interesting how you make all these pretty colours seem strange and threatening. Combined with a cryptic message like this the effect is even more striking.”

I constantly wonder about the meanings of a photograph. Here, I recognise the muted primary colours which enhance uncomfortable feelings and a vantage point that sets the viewer in a precarious position. But was it really that, the psychological state described in the comment above, what I have tried to communicate? Maybe, but yet, is it only or exactly that which lies beneath and above the making of this image, before and after its showing? It seems futile this effort to pinpoint a unique and accurate meaning. It’s unnecessary. After all, and so often, people come with comments about my photos which surprise me, which without being foreign to what I have already sensed, they do express a reality even richer than my own initial comprehension.

So, if all is about various interpretations in the minds of the viewers, I need to ask: Is what really matters – in the end – to find the right people to show your pictures.. those who can, and would, read and decode your images, and even invest new meanings upon them?

And something else, what kind of consequences do we face now, all of us making what is called documentary photography? What about those old debates and struggles between self-expression and objectivity?

Part Two

“Fish Story” Koreatown, Los Angeles by Allan Sekula © 1992

“I should not have to argue” writes Allan Sekula in his essay Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (1976/78) “that photographic meaning is relatively indeterminate; the same picture can convey a variety of messages under different presentational circumstances. Consider the evidence offered by bank holdup cameras. Taken automatically, these pictures could be said to be unpolluted by sensibility, an extreme form of documentary. If the surveillance engineers who developed these cameras have an esthetic, it is one of raw, technological instrumentality. ‘Just the facts ma’am.’ But a courtroom is a battleground of fictions. What is it that a photograph points to?

A young white woman holds a submachine gun. The gun is handled confidently, aggressively. The gun is almost dropped out of fear. A fugitive heiress. A kidnap victim. An urban guerrilla. A willing participant. A case of brainwashing. A case of rebellion. A case of schizophrenia. The outcome, based on the ‘true’ reading of the evidence, is a function less of ‘objectivity’ than of political maneuvering. Reproduced in the mass media, the picture might attest to the omniscience of the state within a glamorized and mystifying spectacle of revolution and counter-revolution. But any police photography that is publicly displayed is both a specific attempt at identification and a reminder of police power over ‘criminal elements’. The only ‘objective’ truth that photographs offer is the assertion that somebody or something -in this case, an automated camera – was somewhere and took a picture. Everything else, everything beyond the imprinting of a trace, is up for grabs.”

Part three

“The Magnum and Newsweek photographer Luc Delahaye recently declared publicly that he was no longer a photojournalist. He was an artist.” (fromThe Guardian, 31 January 2004)

Who is Luc Delahaye? As implied in this interview, a photographer influenced by the financial and artistic crisis that photojournalism is currently going through. And he searched for control and his own answers, through a range of experiments, tests and self-made questions (which even brought him in opposition with the grand Cartier-Bresson tradition).

“History” Jenin Refugee Camp by Luc Delahaye © 2002

Luc Delahaye first became known for covering wars. However, in 2001 he began the series History, which deals with issues of documentary photography. The latter is all about context; the place it is shown, the way of presentation, the surrounding information. The transmitted message is heavily influenced by such factors. In History, Delahaye intentionally presents traditional themes of documentary photography out of its normal context, thereby questioning their meaning as documents and generally the meaning of photography.

His photographs are enormously enlarged panoramic images of various war zones (see above) and staged historical events -such as conferences and events organised by the communication industries, which are hung in art galleries. Representation and truth become a constant question, although the viewer recognises these photographs as having a historical nature.

Delahaye’s work points out the artifice of photography -even news photography, which is as fictional as painting. It allows us even to think that contemporary historical events may be constructed and run not only for profit but for the media as well. War itself can be seen as such an event in a massive and immoral scale.

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