Photography in Academic Research, 8–9 September 2016, Birkbeck College, London

A Guest Review by Deborah Schultz

Poster Photograph: ‘Drought Without Frontiers’ The Waso Boorana people, Garba Tulla, North East Kenya, 1992. © Marcel Reyes-Cortez

An international conference on ‘Photography in Academic Research’ took place at Birkbeck College London, 8–9 September 2016 (Programme). It was hosted by the UCL Institute of Archaeology in collaboration with the Royal Anthropological Institute and Birkbeck, Department of Politics and organised by ‘photography + (con) text’. This project was set up by Marcel Reyes-Cortez, a photographer and visual anthropologist living in London, with the aim of promoting the collaboration and exchange between social researchers and practitioners who use photography in their research and practice. With over seventy speakers, the conference brought together practicing photographers with archaeologists, anthropologists, art and architecture historians, political scientists, geographers and psychotherapists.

The combination of speakers from such a wide range of professional and academic backgrounds resulted in an exceptionally rich and stimulating series of panels with keynote papers by Professor Patrick Sutherland (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Carlos Reyes-Manzo (Birkbeck College, London). A number of key issues were brought into focus including the ethics of the archive and the circulation of photographic images. During the Round Table discussion, Reyes-Manzo expressed concern regarding the extent to which artistic projects that explore found or archival photography might pose a breach of trust between the original photographer and subject; other speakers addressed the changing contexts in which photographs may productively be viewed, engendering new readings and understandings of both the images and the contexts in which they were produced.

Participants also explored the contemporary prevalence of photographic images, especially with regard to their dissemination through digital channels and how this dissemination challenges the ways in which they are valued. Sutherland commented on, what he termed, ‘the grammar of image construction’, the immersion of the photographer and social interaction. What may seem to be small formal decisions have a huge impact on how a subject is articulated and communicated. Sutherland also referred to how the ease of current production methods has changed the presentation of photography in print form.

The influence or agency of photography was raised and discussed. To what extent can photography influence politics? On the day when the renowned Vietnam War photograph by Nick Ut was removed by Facebook from a post, before the decision was reversed, these debates were particularly timely.

In addition the conference highlighted the contrast between certain photographic and academic methods. A number of photographers commented on the often intuitive way in which they know when they have taken or made images that corresponds to their leading idea. By contrast, academic research tends to involve more of a dialogic process between a hypothesis and results which develop and change gradually over time and which are often different from, or cannot be envisaged by, that hypothesis. Contemporary photographic practices might similarly be seen to make claims and examine or interrogate those claims through visual rather than verbal methods.

A number of the photographic projects which were presented at the conference drew on quotidian or everyday photography and the question was raised of whether new critical methods need to be found, or existing methods adapted, with which to examine these images. To what extent might the visual language of quotidian photography, in seeming or claiming to be more authentic than more clearly composed photography, bypass decades of postmodern criticality? The authority of the photographic image in the 21st century was raised with regard to its subject matter, its form and ist Dissemination.

Dr Deborah Schultz is Senior Lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Regent’s University London. In autumn 2015 she was Academic Visitor in the History of Art department at the University of Oxford for a project on ‘Photo Archives in the History of Art History’. She is co-convenor with Costanza Caraffa (KHI) and Geraldine Johnson (University of Oxford) of the conference Photo Archives VI: Photo Archives and the Place of Photography, Christ Church Oxford, 20-21 April 2017.


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