Ethics of Documentary – Side Gallery

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The Amber Collective / Side Gallery has been running a short Zoom series on ethics, and I thought yesterday’s session was particularly good, especially with the contributions of Mark Sealy. Here are a few notes.

Introductory comments:

Mark Sealy. Decolonisation means opening the door to new epistemes, and breaking photography free of its ‘white Eurocentric’ past.

Carol McKay. We must embed the discussion of ethics into our teaching at University.

Mick’s comment: Carol did not reference a particular framework being used. Consider my 10 Point Framework (work in progress).

Liz Hingley. When we can ALL take photographs rather than just a few, how should curators, archivists and museums think and act?

Laura Laffler. We have a responsibility of care in holding a collection of photographs, and we want to be part of a conversation. Photography (photographers) is often in a  position of wower, and we need to consider the need for consent in the use of materials, especially historic ones.

Mark Sealy quotes:

Photography is built on the idea of extraction, and we ought to be giving something back not just taking.

We need to be putting the archive where it can be considered by everyone, and not just experts. But, should it all be online?

Photography has the power to bring us together, especially in times like the Pandemic – and the idea of ‘contagion’ (via ideas and images) seems appropriate.

We need to consider who the work is for, where does it go, what does it do, what is its intent? There is no perfect answer to these critical questions, but dialogue is necessary.

Whatever is created is actually hijackable and thus open to misrepresentation.

The gatekeeper is the curator / gallery in the initial intention of ether ork, but then it’s open to all.

Audience questions:

From Graham Wilson to Everyone : Is it “decolonising”, which implies a reduction in the size of a “colony”, or “decolonialising” as in eliminating the influence of a colonial power?

From Mick Yates to Everyone : Carol, thank you. You mentioned ‘Ethical Framework’. Is there a particular Framework that you use, please?

From Odette to Everyone : What is the best way to decolonise archive footage and how can we avoid having power plays

From Frank Newhofer to Everyone : The responsibilities of preservation – I’m interested in how you maintain authenticity into the future – particularly given Brecht’s dictum that the camera can lie as much as the pen. Does the panel think that authenticity depends on the testimonies of witnesses and how can these testimonies be kept active

From Graham Wilson to Everyone : In the context of those slow turning institutions… I’m curious about the relationship between the role of the curator and photographer (and educator) in the context of a (quasi)democratic society? We elect representatives to establish the rules for our society. Should we be acting unilaterally as ethical vigilantes or engage in debate with the legislators to inform their decisions?

From Michele Allen to Everyone : I want to ask about the relationship to the audience, which has already been touched on. I learned about photography within a community photography group where work would often be shared in the communities where it was made as a matter of course. I don’t think this is an approach limited to community work (in a traditional sense) but I am interested in the way the working process might also create its own audience and its own dialogues. How can institutions advocate for this kind of work and is that even desirable? Apologies for a slightly long question here.

From Zoom user to Everyone : How can the context of an image be controlled – definitions are multiple, expand and shrink? Colonial definitions are always possible. Are there example of decolonial artists works??

Iain Watson to Everyone : I would like to add to Graham’s question – particularly in light of govt policy and pronouncements on ‘contested heritage’ – not a term I support the use of.

From kt to Everyone : Do you think exhibitions are becoming more ethical in terms of display and language? Particularly in the larger institutions.

From Zoom user to Everyone : Can we rely on decolonial works from institutions that are fundamentally remain colonial??

From Graham Wilson to Everyone : @Michelle – Yes! My sense is that there’s a growing uptake of collaborative engagement in contemporary projects. I wonder how this can be represented in areas that have often set trends for society (eg advertising, fashion)..?

From Zoom user to Everyone : The very notion of ‘democratic societies’ feeds into colonial notions i think

From Charlie Bell to Everyone : perhaps galleries could/should present more exhibitions of work by photographers from the communities/countries being recordeed/filmed. There should be no real need to send photographers to areas where local competent and engaged documentary photographers already operate

From Rob Halliburton to Everyone : Question for Carol – do you see any fear of offending from your students when they are trying to find a purpose for their documentary practice?

From Mick Yates to Everyone : @Charlie Bell … a very good point about local talent, but I do not think that should in any way ‘prevent’ outsiders working. Consider Robert Frank in America, Eugene Smith on Minamata etc

Jo Howell to Everyone : In the case of Nan Golding, her work was shared globally and was widely respected until child pornography laws resulted in her portrait of a naked girl being removed from display. On Twitter there is currently a massive conversation around ‘guys with cameras’ using their position to produce similarly dangerous images of children; yet the images have not been removed from online exhibitions or sales from global institutions. Do you think there is a disparity between the way describe the work and how they make it commercial? For example descriptions like child prostitute are used to describe images by male photographers, however a child cannot be a prostitute. How do we change this damaging language?

From Liz J D to Everyone : Mark – absolutely – on all counts re transgression – and collaborate among (especially marginalised) people to reject and resist the labels

From Kat Giordano to Everyone : Linking to @ jo howell’s question: would love the panels view on revaluation of descriptive metadata assigned to photographs, not just the language but who assigns it, especially in news / editorial archives which traditionally are full of decades of conflict photography often made by white male photographers

From Julia Neal to Everyone : @Sirkka, have you looked into Pixsy? It tracks down use of our images so you take action. They will even act on your behalf.

From Lorraine Spittle to Everyone : Yes Sirkka your images taken out of context and being missed used

From Zoom user to Everyone : It seems easier to decolonise the camera than the gatekeepers! 😜😄

From Jo Howell to Everyone : Richard Prince has so much to answer for!

From Lloyd Spencer to Everyone : Immersion in Yoruba culture … vs. immersion in internet culture

From Michele Allen to Everyone : Is it ok to bring in some discussion around audience here?

15:03:25 From Lloyd Spencer to Everyone : Tragic to ‘hide’ the best projects from access via the exciting, exciting research possibilities of the internet

From Zoom user to Everyone : @lloyd, yes and if I’m researching why would I spend time in such an archive?

From Julia Neal to Everyone : It would be great to get away from the whole drive for posting everything online, but isn’t that genie out of the bottle? Powerful forces that feed off our data and images, (Facebook, Google) are designed to be as additive as possible and to reward people for adding more and more imagery and info online. It feels as if it’s become mandatory if one is to have work seen at all… Does the panel have any thought on how the genie might be put back? Is it even remotely possible?

Rob Swallow to Everyone : Maybe as photographers we need to get away from “taking” photographs and working with our subjects – in dialogue! – to produce images together…

From Michele Allen to Everyone : Yes that’s what I was trying to get at really, the dialogic process.

From Liz J D to Everyone : Re Audience – Who for etc. ?Ellin Hare did this so successfully with the participatory method for Amber Films – The nature of the Amber work means its important to be seen by, to inspire and inform the many. Please don’t let a percentage of online bad behaviour repress access to those who might not otherwise be able to access the gallery or even a safe country

From Lee Karen Stow (She) to Everyone : Yes Mark. If it isn’t documented, then in the eyes of the world it doesn’t exist. The danger is for all of us, photographers and curators included, to stop and be silent. If that happens we all lose and we all suffer.

15:13:23 From Liz J D to Everyone :


SEALY, Mark. 2019. Decolonising the Camera. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

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