The Camera as Judge and Executioner

mickyatesArchives, Cambodia, Contextual Research, Critical Research Journal, Ethics, History, Ideas, Photography, PositionsPractice, PPWeek3Leave a Comment

As I develop the Cambodia Project, the need to research is clear. This volume seems important – the role of photographic archives in the activities of the Khmer Rouge at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, now the Genocide Museum, in Phnom Penh. Every visitor to the prison is immediately struck by the walls of mug shots, and the painstaking record keeping of torture.

Michelle Caswell is an assistant professor of archival studies in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also an affiliated faculty member with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

In the early pages, Caswell notes the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, in his book ‘Silencing the Past’. Trouillot states that a record (a picture) moves through four silences – it is captured, it is organised and archived, it takes on a narrative, and it becomes history.

She then goes on to mention Eric Ketelaar, who said that ‘.. records are dynamic objects, continually shifting with each new use and contextualisation.’ (pg 50)

Not a bad way to think about pictures.

However, more seriously, John Tagg noted that ‘ Like the state, the camera is never neutral ‘ (pg 50). And Michelle Caswell wrote ‘The camera, as a truth apparatus of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge state, was invested with the power to produce the truth it recorded’ (pg 51)

Thus, in taking the mug shots, the photographer at Tuol Sleng, Nhem En, essentially also took away the rights and the humanity of the accused – leading to interrogation and execution.

Caswell again: ‘The taking of mug shots at Tuol Sleng and the photograph’s ability to transform suspects into criminal enemies of the state were part and parcel of this larger Khmer Rouge obsession with classifying the population in an effort to create a purely Cambodian agrarian society’ (pg 52).


Comments from the University of Wisconsin book page:

“An important book that will reward re-reading for years to come. Using an archival frame of reference, Caswell describes the reasons for the creation and subsequent uses of the familiar yet tragic mug shots of Tuol Sleng prison victims, demonstrating the many silences these records encode and illustrating how they can be employed to transform narratives of victimhood into narratives of agency and witness.”
Andrew Flinn,
University College London

“Caswell pays homage to the subjects of the heart-breaking mug shots taken at a Khmer Rouge prison and examines the impact that the photographs have had over the years on different viewers. Her humane, sophisticated, and unblinking book sharpens and enhances our understanding of the so-called Pol Pot era.”
David Chandler,
Monash University

Michelle CaswellArchiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Univ Wisconsin, 2014.

Michel-Ralph Trouillot, Silencing the Past, Beacon Press 1995

John TaggThe Burden of Representation Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts, 1988


mickyatesThe Camera as Judge and Executioner

The Filters of Citizen Journalism

mickyatesCoursework, Critical Research Journal, Ethics, PositionsPractice, PPWeek3, ProfessionalLeave a Comment

It would seem to me that there are many themes flowing through this week’s work on Rethinking Photographers. I’ll pick four:

First, the impact of technology on photography. I include in this not just digital cameras, mobile phones and the like – but social media, the Internet, cheap travel and so forth. In this I agree with Pierre – it’s a great time to be alive! And I also think it fascinating that, just as digital hits music and photography, so analogue is back on a growth curve. Vinyl, anyone? Stopping technology is a goal of King Canute, but enjoying retro is everyone’s right.

If you consider those wonderful iconic images from photography’s past, essentially every photographer used whatever technology they could, with differing results. The real issue is how to best use it – and, if you want to build a business, how to do that before your competition!

Second, the blurring between amateur/non-professional/professional photographers – which I would reference in terms of the ability to produce quality output, at a rapid rate, as a result of the above technology shifts. How do we decide what is a ‘professional’ image (hence the debate on using Hipstamatic)? I have a personal preference for sharp, crisp images – though I do play with Hipstamatic and love it. (The header to this post is Hipstamatic). Yet wasn’t it Cartier-Bresson who said that ‘Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.’ I love the work of Daido Moriyama, where the images transcend the tools he uses. He’s been taking ‘Hipstamatic’ style images since the 1960s 🙂

Thirdly, the ‘threat’ to the profession of Photography, as the profusion of imagery makes consumers doubt the value of images, and the costs drop dramatically. It makes profitable, professional business harder to come by. This is of course a serious issue.

But I also think it was extremely well covered in everyone’s posts on the other task this week. I don’t want to repeat that, but I do stand by my view that the profession is very much alive and kicking – and the abilities to consistently deliver, stay dedicated and seek (technological and aesthetic) opportunities mark out the Professional from others in the pursuit of making a living from photography.

And, finally, the impact of ‘everyone has a camera’, leading to increasing citizen journalism, with its inherent strengths and weaknesses. I actually think this is the biggest of the four challenges.

How do we, media consumers, know what is right, accurate, truthful? How can we preserve our personal privacy, and not get caught in the photographic crossfire? Yet, how can we also stay abreast of all the latest news. There is paradox around privacy which compounds things. We all want things personalised to us, yet we are paranoid about releasing our data (whether from our online browsing habits, our messages or our images).

And there is another challenge. Just because we can put image recognition cameras on every street corner doesn’t mean we should. Technology is usually running ahead of legal frameworks and even social norms.

One person’s cool is another person’s creepy.

mickyatesThe Filters of Citizen Journalism

Truth in Photographs

mickyatesAesthetics, Contextual Research, Critical Research Journal, Ideas, Philosophy, Photography, PositionsPractice, PPWeek3Leave a Comment

There are many different philosophical theories of truth – pragmatism, coherence, realism, correspondence, language etc.

That said, it is indeed TRUE that there are many theories.

That is a truth in its own right, which we would all accept.

We also have generally accepted notions of truth – night follows day; one plus one equals two; the Moon orbits the Earth; iso/shutter speed/aperture operate reciprocally in the exposure of an image and so forth. Those can be considered pragmatic truths, often based on experience, deduction, scientific experiment or logical induction. There are, of course, many philosophical theories that cover these.

The problem occurs when we try to consider what is a ‘true’ image, or what is the ‘truth’ in an image. I believe that is partly because we are using different definitions ‘truth’ to the one that philosophers of logic use.

There are philosophers who tackled aesthetics and logic. Nelson Goodman wrote the seminal book ‘Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols’ in 1968. His core idea was that painting, music, dance etc. consists of a system of symbols with a formal language and with a grammar consisting of syntactic  and semantic rules.

We ‘read’ images with certain rules in mind, in other words. He also commented on musical notation, which gets translated and performed by an orchestra, as an example of ‘authentic correspondence’. i.e. the performance is ‘true’ to the score.

To quote the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on Goodman:

‘Indeed, to Goodman, aesthetics is but a branch of epistemology. Paintings, sculptures, musical sonatas, dance pieces, etc. are all made of symbols, which possess different functions and bear different relations with the worlds they refer to. Hence, artworks require interpretation, and interpreting them amounts to understanding what they refer to, in which way, and within which systems of rules’.

Of course, in the case of music, different conductors provide nuance and finesse to deliver different feelings in the performance, even with the same basic notation. There’s an obvious photographic analogy here, I think.

A footnote of history: His work was the basis for my final year thesis back in the day (… 1972). I described a system which allowed an architect’s idea to become a sketch to become a detailed building plan to become an actual building. In other words, at different stages of the ‘reality’ of the architect’s idea, through to the real building, there were different rules to describe it’s ‘truth’.

I think this also applies to how we ‘read’ images’. There is a kind of hierarchy of thoughts that we go through, not necessarily in a fixed sequence. There are ‘rules’ we use.

Is this is true likeness of Mohammad? Is this likeness truer than that one? Is the composition a pleasing one? Is an impressionist painting of Mohammad as ‘true’ as a photograph, or less ‘true’? And on it goes.

My essential point is that we are all guilty, myself included, of being a bit fast and loose with words like ‘truth’ – when actually that word has different meanings in different contexts and to different users.

To add a little more piquancy, consider the Japanese notion of truth.  There are two, separate definitions. One is Honne (real, private truth) and the other is Tatemae (socially/publicly appropriate truth)

I have had to deal with this duality in Business, but never (until now) wondered if it also influences how Japanese Photographers and ‘everyday camera users’ consider imagery?

I wonder if we, in the West, do the same, without necessarily knowing it? Do we differentiate between ‘real’ truth and what is socially acceptable?


Nelson Goodman Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (1968, revised 1976)

Glanzberg, Michael, “Truth”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Giovannelli, Alessandro, “Goodman’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Header image from AZ Quotes

mickyatesTruth in Photographs

Qs week 3 – “Rethinking Photographers”

mickyatesCoursework, Critical Research Journal, Photography, PPWeek3, ProfessionalLeave a Comment

Presentation 1: Photographers on Film

Q: How else do popular representations of photographers contribute to perceived social and cultural values of the profession?
Read my post on non-photographer’s views of Professionals.

Q: Do you have a favourite or least favourite movie about a photographer?
‘Blow Up’, though I haven’t seen it for years.

Q: What do you think this film says about the media more as practitioners?

Q: Why do you think directors and screenwriters incorporate these fantasies, especially such dark ones within mainstream cinema?
That’s making assumptions that I don’t subscribe too. ‘Blow up’ was a thriller-fantasy, not especially dark

Presentation 2: Manufacturers and Developers

Q: What is the impact of ever changing technology?
Deciding what is really useful and sustainable, versus a gimmick.
eg was bought a Lytro camera. Fascinating science but the complexity of trying to use it totally outweighed its leading edge tech

Q: What challenges has this presented you with?
Just more research on what to do – though social is incredibly helpful in getting advice.
Shoppers used to start at the store. Now we start with online advice and reviews, visit a store (maybe) to get a feel of the item, walk out and buy it on Amazon 🙂

Q: How have you embraced (or rejected) changing technology?
I am usually an early adopter, though maybe slowing down a bit as camera tech seems to be somewhat levelling off
I am also a big user of social media

Q: How do you think the way cameras are marketed affects people’s perception of the value of professional photography?
I don’t think it does. However it does feed GAS

Presentation 3: Photojournalism & Amateur Aesthetics

Q: How do you think digital filters affect the way we read images?
Impact, liveability, noticeability in the stream

Q: Do you see the rise of UGC as a challenge for you or does it present opportunities?

mickyatesQs week 3 – “Rethinking Photographers”

Non-Photographers and Professionals

mickyatesCoursework, Critical Research Journal, Ideas, Photography, PositionsPractice, PPWeek3, ProfessionalLeave a Comment

Whilst I would agree that in principle all photographers as just that – photographers, there are clearly subsets of photographers. Some earn a living by photography (and then of course via many different kinds of practice); some are learning to earn a living – and some just enjoy taking photographs to varying degrees of seriousness.

This week’s reading suggests that we are now in fact ALL photographers, pointing our mobile phones at everything and everyone – including ourselves, in the ubiquitous selfie. Sometimes those images become national and international news, as photographers and journalists cannot be in as many places places as all of the rest of us can be. The 7/7 London Tube bombings are a case in point. It’s of course not just still but videos.

So, let’s unpack the question – what do non-photographers (if we could find one) think of professionals?

When I was a teenager, a photographer wannabe, I used to look at images taken by those cavaliers of the 60s (David Bailey et al) and think, wow, he’s good!

© David Bailey Mick Jagger, 1964

If I look back a bit more critically, I note that he had training in a studio as an assistant, better equipment, a nose for what was going on in Swinging London, and an indefatigable will to be where the famous people were. He wanted to do (and be) something different – and consequently he knew how to make it make money. No surprise they used him as the model for 1966’s ‘Blow Up’.

He was a great photographer, a real character (aka a good looking rogue), and a shrewd businessman. He was indeed always with the ‘beautiful people’. So it was very easy to call David a ‘Professional’, and at that time both he and the profession were well respected by ‘non-photographers’. They were also part of a blossoming inter- and multi-disciplinary explosion in the arts, which added to his fame and fortune.

Jump forward 50 years. Everyone can take a picture, my iPhone can sometimes challenge my Leica when it comes to quality. And we are so surrounded by imagery that it is hard not to become at least partly informed as to what makes a good photograph.

So I suspect many of those non-Professionals think ‘Yup, I can do that’. The conception is that it’s easy. And some of them do great work. I am constantly in awe about the high quality of so many Instagram feeds.

However the misconception is about the dedication it takes to be a Professional. Not just true in Photography by the way, but in all professions. Recall Malcolm Gladwell‘s 10,000 hours theory. His principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field – and he quotes people like the Beatles to demonstrate that. His theories are always being challenged (see Business Insider article) though I think his ideas hold a lot of truth.

So, in my view, Professional success is not just about one’s practice specialisation, technique, equipment or training – but it’s about the business model, the connections and the sheer doggedness to be relevant and timely EVERY DAY in your chosen field. Of course one can debate artistic excellence .. but I think that is a different question. Being Professional doesn’t necessarily mean you are excellent at what you do, although we all strive to do that.

Oh, I could get into the ‘there’s no money in it’ debate, but that’s for another time 🙂

mickyatesNon-Photographers and Professionals