Sunday, 25 January 2015

Foucault: Discipline, Power and Photography

This exercise asks us to think about the key messages in (Green, 2005) which discusses the implications for photography of Foucault’s work on the interrelation of power and discipline. The article identifies the surveillance aspect of a key feature in the exercise of power, and although it does not mention them specifically there are a number of old photographs illustrating the article that display this aspect. The photos appear to have a colonial descent, and specifically they show non-whites in situations which would almost certainly not be tolerated for pictures of Europeans i.e unclothed and subject to physical measurements.
The article also observes that the mechanisms of power operate at all levels in society – some arguing that it is all pervasive and so impossible to resist. It is not explicitly stated but this seems to have genuine relevance for photography as seen, for example, in the use of embarrassing selfies as a primitive form of blackmail on social media.
Green notes that Foucault suggests that we must engage with this power at the point of application and come up with forms of photography that can act in opposition to it.
I’m struck here by the application to celebrity photography. Celebrities are, to some extent created through the mechanisms of surveillance – we want to see their films, we want to know about their lives. Their celebrity status is seated in their ability to control the surveillance they need to maintain that celebrity. At the same time, the mass media exert power over them by publicising their human imperfections as revealed by paparazzi photography – imposing bodily and behavioural norms – which the celebrities then attempt to resist at a local level by using the courts to maintain some privacy, some freedom from uncontrolled surveillance. Photographers then complain bitterly about such attacks on their own freedom to photograph who and what they like – in other words their ability to exert power over non-celebrities who do not have the ability to resort to the law.
Is this over-thinking it? I don’t believe it is. For example, it seems highly unlikely to me that the drunken individuals photographed by Dench (discussed here) really wanted their images displayed on the internet, but they are by and large powerless to prevent it. While it could be argued that this is simply society imposing its moral power on those who transgress, who placed the moral right to act as enforcers into the hands of photographers?
Green,D: The Camera Work Essays, 2005, pp.119–31

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