We live in times of turmoil. The old fixed orders of the post-World-War-II globe have lately been called into question in new and unexpected ways. People are more engaged in politics than ever before during most of our lifetimes. Photography has always been a very political art form, and not simply in the obvious ways. You may not think that your images are political because they do not showcase political issues. But even if they don't do that, they still say something in the political sphere. As we all struggle to be the best photographers we can be, none of us should forget that, when taking and making images, we always also make statements.
I have a suspicion. That you might say: "But I'm not a political photographer! I don't document politicians on the campaign trail, I don't roam protests or the halls of power. I don't seek out war zones or show the squalor of slums. I take portraits. I document wedding days. I create dream worlds for clients in advertising. Landscapes of mountains and the sea and the setting sun. I have my personal projects. I travel. I make my own whatever image I catch in the street. I take family pictures and post them on Facebook. Stay away with your politics. Let me do my job, fulfill my orders. Let me be a photographer, a purveyor only of my services and an expert in my tools and my process. Leave me that. It's all it is. Nothing more."
The Photographic Is Political
Photography, however, is always a deliberate act. One of including and excluding, of focusing and defocusing. Of picking and cropping, coloring, fixing, desaturating. Of making choices. In the 1970s, the fact that our private lives and the world of politics are always intertwined, whether we want or not, found expression in the slogan "the personal is political." Political decisions affect every life, be they in the lofty sphere of international diplomacy, in the grit-and-grind of lawmaking on all levels, or simply in accepting or denouncing what currently takes the mantle of official policy.
If a photographer then deconstructs this image by using unexpected props, angles, or capturing nonstandard poses and expressions, that is also a political act. One that says that this couple is different, wants to be different. It is perhaps an expression emphasizing the individual and not the tradition. The same is true if the photographer portrays queer couples, or those from different races or religious backgrounds and inserts them into those same standard situations where only a few decades or years ago they would not have been expected. That, too is a political act. The first constructs a standard, the second questions it at the same time that it rebuilds it into something different. Sometimes this is done with deliberation and on purpose. Often it is done without such thoughts, but it happens nonetheless. And it matters nonetheless.
In the 1970s, too, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sponsored photographers to document the American environment. Mindful of the mission of the EPA, many accomplished photojournalists roamed the United States. As part of the "Documerica" project, they submitted pictures of oil spills, nuclear power plants, dumps, highways, and environmental destruction. This was openly and officially political. The agency tasked with protecting the environment sought to document why it itself was needed.
It was not the only way in which the resulting images were political, though. Not all photographers constructed their job to mean that they should seek out, in a narrow way, environmental destruction. Many also showed glimpses into the worlds and lives of people. Of powerful, of poor, of people of all races and creeds. They considered the homes and places of work and worship of ordinary Americans an environment worth documenting. That in itself was a political act: to bear witness and show how things looked at a certain place during a certain time, so there could be no mistaking that this had not happened. So that those moments and people could not be erased.
Seeing Is Believing
Photography is also political because the very choice of making things seen or leaving them unseen is political. It's important what you choose to show, either in picking a frame or in picking a subject. For Ansel Adams, an ardent environmentalist, presenting the beauty of natural landscapes was making a statement about their value, their intrinsic worth for humanity and culture. Social documentary photographers of the time, however, accused him of taking pictures of rocks when the world was obviously concerned with more pressing matters.
The question here is not whether one side was right and the other wrong. What matters is that merely by choice and contextualization of our photography, we make statements in the public sphere, and those statements always carry with them a kernel of politics. Both sides had their points of view, literally and figuratively, and both sides made their arguments. In that they were political.
To take an example closer to home: why are model shoots mostly of beautiful, young women? There are just as many men on the globe. Yet, if you were an alien looking at essentially every photo sharing site, you would come away thinking they are a tiny minority. (For an experiment, put "model" in the search bar on any of these sites, including this one, and count how many pictures of young, beautiful women you see and how many pictures of literally any other kind of human).
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But there's also nothing normal or natural about it. It's the result of choices that individuals make, over and over again. No one puts guns to their heads and forces this on them. They do it because they are rewarded for it, by likes or dollars or other forms of recognition. And so they should. We all strive for recognition. To go with that flow is a choice, as is going against it. Neither is automatically the correct one. But if you think about that choice before pressing the shutter button, your images will have more meaning either way. Because what we see we tend to believe, and what we see many times over we have a hard time not believing.
In the Thicket of Culture
There is no outside to the political. Be born, and you're contained in it. Go out into the world, and you're confronted with it. It regulates the cities and the countryside you see without it even being apparent most of the time. It elevates some things and some people and condemns others.
None of this is innocent. Don't get me wrong. This doesn't mean you should call into question every wedding photo, every fashion editorial, every model shoot in which you find the politics just a smidge suspect. Art that doesn't lend itself to criticism isn't likely to make much of an impact. And as with everything, if you only see the political, you also don't see everything that matters. But it's there, just as much as the lighting and the history of art and the ingenious use of technique, it is part of the picture.
Your professionalism and artistic vision shouldn't be compromised because of some imagined authority deciding that you're now playing in a game you did not think you were in. What would behoove all of us who exert power with a camera, for good and for ill and all in between, though, is to be aware. Be aware that what we do is part of a larger culture, a larger conversation.
The easiest mistake to make is to claim that what one does is not political because it just continues a tradition, because it just does what many others have done before, because it's "what one does." Because one doesn't think of it as political. To make the choice to follow traditions or to go against them is always that: a choice. It may be a hidden one, one that isn't reflected on. But it's always there. Always lurking in the background.
Photography is about those choices. They are not random. Some are technical and based on the availability of time and money. Yet they are also always personal. In the end, your photography is an expression of you, personally. And if the personal is political, then your photography always is, too.
Photo credits: Toni Frissell (Jackie Kennedy), Charles O'Rear (Sunbathers at Huntington Beach), Harris & Ewing (Protesters).