Photography: A Vehicle for Inequalities

Leon Elliott explores the role of photography through close analysis of the work of Wolfgang Tillmans.

 “Truth may be stranger than fiction, but many of the camera’s statements are stranger than truth itself… after countless processes of reproduction and re-reproduction [the photograph] has become an autonomous entity on its own [and] functions almost as a symbol, an image, a work of art in its own right” – Extract from Reyner Banham’s essay ‘Parallel of Life and Art’, Architectural Review (1953)

From Reyner Banham’s Parallel of Life of Art (1953) [i], and via John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) [ii], critics have long problematized the importance of cultural symbols to our understanding of reality. Photography, more than traditional forms of representation, often carries a pretence to documental accuracy.  Nonetheless, in line with a resurgence in discourses challenging political truth, recent works have reasserted the vulnerability of photography to institutional agents in the 21st century.

With the infamous Brexit Bus having become an unlikely metaphor for a referendum of unfounded claims and inevitable compromise, Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2017 solo exhibition at Tate Modern, Akram Zaatari’s Against Photography: An Annotated History of the Arab Image Foundation and Eyal Weizman’s Forensic Architecture: Towards an Investigative Aesthetics all pay coincidental attention to the photographic production and reproduction of vehicles. This is a part of a wider common focus on material objects and the relationships implicated by their visual representation.

Possessing dual German and British citizenship, Wolfgang Tillmans’ engagement with the EU referendum reflected simultaneously his personal anchoring to the matter, and a consciousness towards the responsibilities of the artist. Nonetheless, whilst his Remain posters feature in this latest solo exhibition, Tillmans’ interest in the rhetoric associated with Brexit’s chaotic upheaval predates the recent referendum. Emerging at the start of the 21st century, a time marked by the Iraq War and increasingly-warped standards of truth and justice, Tillmans embraces the flexibility of photography as a means of deconstructing social assumptions.

Rather than accept material objects as fixed signs of everyday life, Tillmans urges the audience to recognize how images can multiply and manipulate their meaning. Intrigued by photographers’ tendency to remove vehicles from architectural images as if they are obstructions, Tillmans’ The Cars (2015) unravels the excess materialities of the automobile by presenting it as an inescapable, productive feature of the urban landscape. Aligning photographs of passing cars, as would be immediately perceived by the artist, with static and commercially-derived images, the work reveals the vehicle’s multifaceted cultural identity. Whilst the first form of images present the car as an object of physical urban movement – the moving subjects often blurred, unidentifiable or in an anonymous mass – more precise assessments of car design reveal an underside of calculated inequalities. The presentation of luxury cars as polished objects of desire not only conflicts with the experience of vehicles for the vast majority of the world’s population but reinforces the car as a vehicle of physical, social and economic mobility. Right down to Tillmans’ (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) observation of the increasingly menacing appearance of headlights, The Cars is an intriguing insight into the grander hegemonic forces for which the automobile is a symbolistic vehicle.

By defetishizing the car, Wolfgang Tillmans engages with what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes as the “unknown-knowns” of society; the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend to not know about even though they form the background of our public values [vi]. Seeking a link between cultural assumptions and the means via which Orientalist narratives are produced, Akram Zaatari’s Against Photography: An Annotated History of the Arab Image Foundation [vii] uses images of the vehicle in twentieth century Egypt to simultaneously trace the lineages of the country’s modernization and underline the problematic nature of documentary archives. Stemming from his work with the Arab Image Foundation, a photographic archive of over 30,000 images from the Middle East and North Africa, Zaatari’s project faces both the internal challenge of a culture in which photography is not as openly embraced and the external difficulties presented by the selectiveness of Orientalist representations of the Arabic world. Images which appear to symbolise modernisation, like that of an Egyptian man posing next to a Western automobile, are concealers of hidden privileges such as having the status and wealth to sit for a photographer in the early twentieth century. In the meantime, lending to the increasing popularity of the automobile, Syrian nomadic culture disappears without a photographic trace. Such inequalities of privilege and preference manifest themselves in Zaatari’s wealth of Egyptian tourist photos; many of which have been deliberately underexposed to ensure that local workers are obscured to nothing more than barely visible shadows, whilst simultaneously emphasizing the pale skin of the Western travellers posing camel-back. Having remapped the landscape in line with notions of territorial identity, themselves a by-product of the borders fixed by European colonial powers at the beginning of the twentieth century, Zaatari argues that the automated vehicle has replicated geographical colonialist legacies. Thus, with the camel repressed as a nomadic tradition, yet all too prevalent in these type of images, its reproduction in Orientalist contexts marks the divergence between the reality of Arabic modernization and its photographic representation.

Building on the legacy of Banham and Berger, Wolfgang Tillmans’ work has helped to reassert the image’s potential as a cultural symbol, with the capacity to shape and re-shape the assumptions that we consider truth. Furthermore, Akram Zaatari’s anti-orientalist engagements have reframed representations of the vehicle as hegemonically constructed by an external, dominant, force. With selective photographic reproduction and the privileging of discourses the means by which prejudiced histories emerge, both artists have found success in subverting these legacies of inequality.

Nonetheless, as noted by Eyal Weizman, the vehicle’s connection to the photographic medium, and its subsequent role in perpetuating inequalities, extends beyond the realm of symbolism. Stemming from his work with Goldsmiths-based investigative agency Forensic Architecture, which responds to issues as wide as terrorism, state-violence, and climate change, Weizman’s MACBA exhibition Towards an Investigative Aesthetics [ix] outlines how the vehicle is actively instrumental in image production and manipulation at the site of conflict.

In particular, investigations carried out by Forensic Architecture into civilian deaths and drone strikes in North Warizastan have faced obstacles in the form of the state’s control of satellite imagery, and the aerial technologies which compose them. Equally a visual tool and a weapon, unmanned aerial vehicles have re-configured the geographies of conflict, by making anybody – no matter their location – visible and vulnerable. Simultaneously, this form of panoptic surveillance has birthed a new wave of image conflict. It is perhaps no coincidence that when UAVs surface on the news, it is often to report cases of friendly-fire or the destruction of unintended targets; over drone footage of scrolling, dark foothills, and human settlements reduced to silhouettes of white-heat. When drone strikes can leave an entrance hole as small as 4cm in the roof of a building, for the Forensic Architecture team, tracing the genealogies of an attack can be an incredibly difficult task. To make secondary visual evidence more inaccessible, censorship of US military satellite imagery renders any suspected victims virtually invisible, with the resolution of images degraded, supposedly on the grounds of privacy and security, to the extent that a male body is masked within the square of a single pixel. As a result, when investigating civilian deaths, Weizman and his team are forced to undergo a process of visual reconstruction, using a combination of primary visual accounts of the drone strikes, and sources of secondary information which hasn’t been rendered unusable by state control. Thus, forced to depend on publicly available sources, and evidence as rudimentary as footage smuggled directly out of the conflict zone, holding the US military accountable for drone strikes can be a challenging, if not impossible task.

Marked by the invention of novel, mobile weaponry, this aggressive technical domination of conflict-zone imagery has extended the state’s influence over visual technologies into another realm. Whilst attempts to reconstruct documentary lineages have moved beyond an understanding of the possession, production, and reproduction of images as a purely symbolistic process, we are only now beginning to understand how political engagements with visual imagery work on the ground level. Manifest in material objects, photographic reproduction implicates physical, infrastructural, and legal controls, all of which orchestrate the construction of inequalities, both deliberate and accidental. Therefore, although photography’s role in the privileging of discourses and the formulation of cultural symbols has long been perceived as a gradual, inevitable process, at the time of the demystification of post-truth politics, defetishizing the vehicle can also give an insight into how current inequalities are materialised.

References and Readings:

[i] Banham, R. (1953) Parallel of Life and Art. Architectural Review.

[ii] Berger, J. (1972) Ways of seeing. London: BBC Enterprises

[iii] Tillmans, W. (2005) Truth Study Centre. London: TASCHEN

[iv] Tillmans, W. (2012) Fruit Logistica. Köln: Walther König.

[v] Tillmans, W. (2015). The Cars. Köln: Walther König.

[vi] Zizek, S. (2004). What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib. In These Times.

[vii] MACBA (2017). Akram Zaatari Against Photography. An Annotated History of the Arab Image Foundation. zaatari/1/exhibitions/expo. (Accessed: 24/09/17)

[viii] Forensic Architecture. (2017). Forensic Architecture. 24/09/17)

[ix] Weizman, E. (2017). Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability. Massachusetts: Zone Books

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