Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The role of the photographer in a period of crisis

Since the aim was to photograph Greece in crisis over a period of time, it amounts to quite a challenge. Aesthetical reflections could start with what Adorno called the 'imaginary witness'. Such reflections can be developed further, but for now it suffices to ask about the role of the professional photographer. In the case of this exhibition an the photographers involved, it is not only asking what can they do in an age of digital photography. Rather they need to bear witness to make sure true stories are told about what people go through in a crisis.

Since films are no longer developed in the dark room but have been replaced in the digital age by photo shop, the self understanding of photographers is no longer so easily upheld. For almost everyone can take photos whether with a mobile camera or a professional digital camera. As for distribution, the extent to which images circulate freely on the Internet via Facebook or Skype, that changing role of photographers is more than just revealing. Confronted by countless images, there is a need to go beyond them in order to find again some sober reflections. That is why of interest are the many texts which accompany this exhibition 'Era Depression' and which can be found on their website.

Digital images form another kind of language than the usual one used daily for communication. A photo fixates a moment like poems which become frozen fishes in mid air after they have jumped out of the water. To defreeze or rather decode them is itself an art which many have not learned. There is a kind of one sided asymmetry between the possibility of producing thousands of images and the receptivity thereof. Thus the margin of error between what was witnessed and what becomes a frozen moment is quite large. The latter may not necessarily be the main theme of the story in need to be told. 

At the same time, images speak differently to the human unconscious or subconscious since they belong to society but evolve out of a special use of technology. By obscuring borders of space and time images mark another kind of social substrata. As the case of any contemporary art work, no one is really sure  where all of this shall lead to. In this case of the photography scene in Athens and Greece, it does mark a resetting of relationship to the rest of the world, global art markets included. After strikes and street protests had made the headlines at the beginning of the crisis, it is now the artistic transformation thereof which has sparked world wide interest in what is happening in Athens now.

The wish to be informal historians of contemporary developments means that the photographers face a paradox. How to document a crisis over time when it is impossible to observe crisis if its very basic nature is what people feel and realize that no 'change' has occurred. By change can be meant an alteration in the basic paradigm. That would mean a change in dispositions as collective behaviour would alter course and manifest itself in a different way of going about doing business but also in how political decisions are arrived at. Recently has gone through a massive structural change in governance at local and regional level. There are introduced further distinct models of development by the EU. This happens especially through the agricultural and structural fund with many of these tasks being in reality highly superfluous. Hence it is not at all easy to make a good diagnosis for all the reasons why Greece entered such a deep crisis. Photography could complement other studies insofar as they can tell quite different stories, and thereby complete the picture of the situation people in Greece and in Europe find themselves in as a result of the crisis.

Thomas Kuhn in his famous description of the 'Structure of Scientific Revolution' would cite the example of people still able to see 

It can mean changes escape the observant eye but not the camera. Details would count then to mark that difference.

Yet to come back to that shattered window as a symbol of a crisis marked by street riots with protesters throwing stones, by itself it says little. Does it imply what Sartre said that every young generation shall try to break into the present out of desparation, especially if it feels locked out? The reason for posing this question is that already a long time ago editors in news studios would say sequence of images are needed for the image of violence - a demonstrator throwing a stone - speaks for itself. This reduction to just one image means nothing is shown what led up to this moment, or what followed. Viewers would judge things different if they had seen, for instance, that the police started first to hit the demonstrators who were peaceful till then. It may be altogether an illusion of photography to believe everything can be told by one single image.

There is after all the claim a picture says more than thousand words. Therefore, the real critical question in need to be put to the photographers who contributed to this exhibition, is if they were aware of such a risk that the images they portrayed could be equated with a propaganda purpose to make an abnormality appear to be 'normality'? If so, then people seeing these photos would draw easily the wrong conclusions and be trapped in a kind of self defeat. Rather than protest against this abnormality, they would only gauge how to make the most out of the crisis and even gain fame by transforming the crisis into a marketing tool.

Since photos are taken at a split second, the question is what changes happen outside the frame and are not captured by the image being portrayed, and yet which would make a huge difference in how the event is narrated? That which is not observed or captured by a photo becomes more than just a question of contrast in terms of what stands for reality. The latter can only be further reflected in what difference there exist in what the photographs say about the Greek crisis as if going through an era of depression, and what people tell each other as to how they cope while faced by multiple factors making up the entirety of the crisis. As one woman would put it, she does not mind to economize her food bill, but she really objects if her freedom to travel is curtailed. What difference this need to stay put instead of seeing other lands does to shaping a new mentality and outlook upon life, that would be powerful if captured by a photo. Yet it may be doubted that such an image is easy to come by.

Another question is whether the photographers started to work together over time, in order to compare and to approach the same subject from different angles? A quick look around in the exhibition does not seem to depict this. Rather it suggests a chronological order since photos of the period before the crisis are included, while the signature of each photographer is secured by allowing works to be shown in terms of style (method) and topic. The latter are quite often economic themes reflecting a drive to affluency which has gone if not exactly wrong, then dry like the unused swimming pool existing in front of built supervillas but into which no one moved in. This double emptiness might come the closest to the language used to describe the crisis through photography.


                     The official photographer for the Benaki Museum

Policies and decisions made in Europe in response to the crisis in Greece should not be reduced by a 'blame culture' to being solely the fault of Merkel. Alone this feature of stereotypical images being evoked during a period of crisis says something about the tendency towards false generalizations. Here Franco Bianchini subscribes to artists an important role, for they are needed to counter 'populist simplifications.' (6) Getting out the crisis requires a differentiated analysis of the current situation everyone finds him- or herself in. There are no simplistic solutions. Artists have to contribute to such a public discourse that people do not become victims of yet another demagogic solution.

A photo exhibition wishing not only to depict but also to transcend the Greek crisis by use of an imaginary mosaic must make sure the photos themselves do not fall short of addressing the prime problem: the lack of public truth. In photography hidden connections can be shown in many ways. For instance, Hartfield used in his criticism of German Fascism photo montage. Most famous is his image showing Hitler saluting but while holding up his hand, Krupp pours money into it.

Practically it poses the question what must and can art do in difficult situations? If the arts are to become an integral part of political reflections, then artistic means to express criticism must uphold the human dimension. This means not everything should succumb to what can be measured, and only counts when some money can be earned as a result. Here it would already alter things, if a photo invites to just listening to critical questions posed in a photographic way. Some of the photos in the exhibition attempt to do so e.g. why all these unbuild houses ruining a landscape or those villas into which no one moved in?

Unfortunately most of the photographic questions remain too much at a symbolic level. It is, therefore, not clear who will speak out for the destroyed landscape, especially if the solution being proposed is to build more? There has to enter quite another consciousness in the public discourse about future developments in the county? Careful observers note the government is keen to privatize even beaches despite free access to the sea was a cultural value shared by all until now. Absurd is as well the law which was passed to prohibit reforestation of forests which have burned down. Everyone takes this to mean an open invitation to build in areas where it was forbidden until now.

One does not have to imagine that all these measures will not get Greece out of the crisis but instead drive the country into an even worse situation than what was the case before 2009 with all the building activities spoiling the countrysite. There needs to be added just one more element in what is a disjointed way of governance: the land registrary has yet to be completed, although the EU has provided twice considerable funds for precisely such a set-up.

If before 2009 environmental protection was meant to make governments and businesses aware of the consequences of over exploitation of nature, climate change but one severe warning, then how can economic growth be promoted when it means in reality being even more reckless towards both cultural and natural resources?

Of photographers could be expected that they are critical witnesses and counter with their photos the usual stories told. For that would be needed a thematic treatment of corruption of all kinds. Corruption was definitely one prime cause of the huge state deficit as revealed later by the Lagarde List. The latter named many persons who have a lot of property and on top of it an unexplainable huge amount of money in their bank accounts not located in Greece but conveniently abroad. Tax evasion is an extension of that. It meant in turn many payments were made without receipt. Some estimates say the 'gray' or 'black' economy amounts to as much as 40% of the real economy. So where does the break down of a honest culture begin, and where is this not seen since everyone practices it, thereby letting these practices be perceived as if the most normal thing to do. Things go hand in hand, are exchange easily, once agreement has been reached that kick-back practices has become an institutional norm. Where are the photos to show that?

Photographers should show what they see. If not witnesses, then at the very least they should be observant. They can draw out of an otherwise obscure background details which shall be missed otherwise. The film 'blow up' provides such an example. For once a general photo is enlarged, there can become suddenly details into focus not seen before e.g. like a hidden body in the bush just photographed. It matters as well what taking a closer look really means. The lens can do that work by focusing even more so on details, yet the overall picture should not be lost either.

It is a matter of choice whether a close-up or a panorama but crucial if wishing to observe what changes over time happen. The exhibition did not have other time frames than before 2009 and what happened between 2011 and 2014. A more distinct time line in relation to crucial turning points in the crisis might have been most helpful for those who come to see the exhibition to begin to comprehend what has structured mainly in a negative way their lives during the past years. 

It is only one example of a possible thematic line. In photography it would mean following the concept of reflecting reality in micro details. However, it would require stepping out of the light of innocence and be ready to expose fault lines in how otherwise the narrative about the crisis is being told.

A question is here whether or not photography does contribute to a culture highly critical and reflective as to what was allowed to happen in the recent past, and if so, what has to happen so that these false practices are not continued? Otherwise the play of innocence will continue and even outdo Pontius Pilate who washed his hands to be free of any responsibility as to what happened to Jesus.

If cultural work cannot uphold the value of public truth, then artists generally and photographers in particular have failed to work consistently through the questions as to why Greece ended in such a crisis. It is a matter of observing things over time. Since the collective of photographers has been working over the past four years, some explanations can be expected from them as to what they think what went wrong so that the country ended up in such a crisis. Moreover by the end of 2014, the gap between governmental claims austerity policy has been successful and people left generally behind has if anything widened. Politically speaking, there prevails the judgement that not much has been learned out of this crisis.

In other words, the exhibition risks by showing only certain images of the crisis to support not critical thoughts, but instead pseudo explanations. It is also well known that even conspiracy theories dominate when reasons are given for the crisis. Above all, the sudden rise of the neo Fascist party Chrysi Avgi has to be explained. Moreover the crisis has elevated Syriza into being the most serious challengers of governmental power being traditionally solely in the hands of the Greek and international establishment. This challenge evokes memories of the civil war when the Left and the Right confronted each other. Altogether the crisis has reinforced a certain brand of making politics plausible since most of the times things are defined by overriding theme: national pride. Most likely the humiliation through the Troika has gone much further than originally thought to be possible. Especially wounded pride can suddenly lash out. The poet Yorgios Chouliaras cautions rightly so that even when the surface of the sea seems calm, there are strong under currents which can erupt any given moment.

To return to the mental institution Greek society tends to be trapped in, such conditions prevail that while everything appears calm on the surface, underneath there are nevertheless strong currents. Like an earthquake they can collide and cause an upheaval, even if only a temporary one before everything returns to 'normal'. The resilience of any society lies in this sleepy waiting for the next opportunity to enter the streets to protest. While waiting, passivity becomes a way of saying 'it does not matter'. Another way of tracing this negative force tending to disenfranchise Greek society would be to examine the need for some over determination. Freud identify the need for some kind of omnipresence as a search for a kind of super-father. In Greek mythology Zeus fulfilled that role. He was capable of throwing bolts of lightening while being equally jealous as any human being.   

Ironically something is not noticed when everything is bend back and forced into extreme forms of Nationalism. Departing from the premise as if the crisis has been appropriated by foreign powers, and if not the Troika or the European Union, then by Germany and Merkel, every effort is made to appropriate the crisis and make it into a specific Greek one. This is a double edged quest to gain identity through a special brand of photography. Inherent in that are all the dangers of gross generalizations.

^ Top

« Transformations | Art and Activism - Panel Discussion Dec. 2, 2014 »