Q: Which of the disciplines discussed here do you feel is most relevant to Sam Shere’s famous photograph?
In the ‘fields of cultural interest’ (Roland Barthes), many apply to Shere’s image.
It was an embarrassment to the pride of Nazi Germany (politics). It was a significant moment in the history of air travel (history). It impacted air traveller views of safety (psychology, sociology). The accident contributed to the demise of Zeppelin production (engineering) and the dominance of airplanes and airports as we know them today (economic, industrial history, urban planning).
And of course the image contributed significantly to the history of photography itself.
Sam Shere. 1936. The Hindenburg Disaster.
If pushed to pick what is the most important, I would tend to see the overall economic impact of the demise of the Zeppelin and the rise of modern air travel engineering as equal top of the list. These would be followed by the image’s place in the history of photography.
Q: Do any of the disciplines mentioned resonate with your own practice?
The disciplines of history, research and critical thinking are most appropriate in my documentary work.
As mentioned by several of the other participants of the program, ethics also has a significant role in my work, from what to shoot on the street, to more serious questions. In Shere’s case, I can imagine there was little ethical dilemma, either at the time of shooting or otherwise. It was a major disaster, though not personalised to the victims. It was somewhat anonymised news.
Contrast that with Richard Drew‘s Falling Man, taken on 9/11.
Drew is on record as saying ‘I’ve never regretted taking that photograph“, despite its harrowing imagery. In fact it is an image with both punctum and studium.
© Richard Drew Falling Man (2001)
In my own practice, I was on an investigatory mission as a Board Trustee of Save the Children in Malawi, in 2002. We visited a hospital in the Mangochi District. There was a cholera epidemic, with tents used as make-shift isolation wards, although only nurses were at the hospital that day. There was also a series of wards dealing with HIV Aids patients, the reason we were there. I took this image.
© Mick Yates Lost (2002)
I asked permission, both of the patient and the nurses, and we tried to explain through a translator why we were there. But was that truly ‘informed consent’, and did I take sufficient steps?
A very lively argument occurred with one member of our party, who felt we shouldn’t be taking pictures at all. Generally though, the group agreed with taking the pictures. They were to be used to build awareness of the issue, first with the Save the Children Board, and then more broadly in the organisation.
My understanding and action around the ethical issues of photography, whilst still nowhere near complete, did change that day, and I look forward to exploring this in much more detail on the MA program. I would absolutely still take that picture, as I do not think it exploitative, and in fact was a tender if sad moment for mother and baby. However, I would probably go to more pains to explain the circumstances to all concerned before taking the shot. I am also quite clear today that I would never take an image that sought to willingly exploit the subject.
Barthes, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.