Exercise 3.3: 'Late photography'

Brief: Read David Campany's essay 'Safety in Numbness'. Summarise the key points of the essay.

David Campany's essay, 'Safety in Numbness: some remarks on the problems of 'Late Photography', has provided such a popular focus for discussion that he has enabled it to be freely available on his website. When I first saw the phrase 'late photography' I thought that the article might relate to all those times when the decisive moment was missed, or that it referred to nighttime photography. 

However,  the clue to the focus of Campany's essay is 'safety in Numbness'. That the photographer is able to work safely away from the harm and chaos after the main event has been and gone. The numbness is when the dust has settled, when the storm has calmed, when the troops have gone.   

Campany starts by referring to Meyerowitz's photographs that document the 'Aftermath' of 9/11. My lasting memory of the tragic events of 11th September is watching the hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center, and then witnessing the twin towers tumbling to ground zero. 

Campany refers to the television programme 'Reflections of Ground Zero' , which showcased Meyerowitz's images. He claims that photography is the most appropriate medium for recording historic events. Maybe this is because the photograph is future proof. It is versatile enough to be printed and framed, accessed by the masses, whereas video involves graphics cards, flash updates, and screens. A photograph is able to be passed around and discussed from a single viewing. However, the photograph lacks the dimension of sound.

Whilst Campany refers to the ritualistic way that Meyerowitz picked his way through the rubble to document the carnage, there were plenty of other images posted online of the events leading up to the horrific event. Bystanders used their mobile phones to photograph and film the moments before and after impact. With the luxury of hindsight, I find images of before the planes circling the WTC just as powerful.

When Campany wrote his essay, he held the view that 'late photography ' was becoming a more commonplace use of the medium. This was during a time when existing communications meant that news reporters would alerted after the 'event', to document the carnage caused by freak weather events and terrorism. However, there is a 'now photography ' ethic which exists in society. The very nature of the Internet and smart handheld digital devices has resulted in everyone being a photographer, reporter and publisher. The consumers are the producers. For example a terrorist attack on a Tunisian beach was reported in the press with images of the gunman, instead of the aftermath. The pace at which this 'now photography ' can be distributed online gives the viewer a sense of being there as the action unfolds. Afterall, it was images taken by members of the public that enabled the Boston Marathon bombers to be identified.

Later in his essay, Campany discusses the relationship between images and memory. How still images taken after the event are more memorable than those captured by video. Maybe because a video clip contains too much information, whereas a single photograph contains static elements that the viewer can remember and refer back to. Campany distinguishes between this 'stillness' of an image and simply freezing things. Knowing that an image is part of a series, reinforces the notion of a 'before' and 'after'. When you look at an image you ask what has happened and what will happen. Only a photograph is able to hold on to this period of 'numbness'. Campany acknowledges that freezing time in these images is linked to memory, however he concentrates on how they relate to other forms of media, such as cinema and television. 

Whilst we tend to associate memories with particular images, these are supported nowadays with other narratives that we experience about a particular event: We hear about it on the radio; watch it on the news and YouTube ; read about it on Twitter and the press; and read friends interpretations and opinions on Facebook status updates. All of this information enables us to form our own evaluation of what an image represents. Therefore depending on how this peripheral information is presented, will determine an individual's own analysis of a photograph. 

 Following this,  Campany goes on to address how photojournalists have fewer opportunities to document the events of wars than they did during Vietnam. This is partly because of how the theatre of war has changed. Nowadays drones can be controlled from hundreds of miles away, to spy and drop bombs. The majority of strikes are precise and clinical,  with little surrounding damage. Real-time images are recorded from a distance, usually films of plumes of smoke, traces of conflict. Photographers arrive after the event. Late. All that is left for them to photograph is the devastation, the chaos, the displaced, and the wounded. However photographs provide opportunities to document facts,  particularly in the event of future war crime trials. 

In conclusion, 'late' photographers offer opportunities for reflection after the event, when it is no longer on the front pages of the press. It enables the viewer to reconnect with what has happened,  with the possibility of context. Meanwhile, modern technology has lead to opportunities for 'now' photographers to document events as they happen. There is a hurried nature to these images, which enables the viewer to feel as if they are experiencing the action, especially if they are uploaded to social networking platforms. 

 

Brief: Look at some of Meyerowitz's images from Aftermath: World Trade Centre Archive (2006). Consider how these images differ from your own memories of the news footage.

 9/11 will always be one of those events where you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the terrible news. In those days it took longer for information to spread. I was working in the computer suite, when the school caretaker told me that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. By the time I arrived home and switched the news on two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and it had tumbled to the ground. Having been used to watching disaster movies it didn't seem real at first. Watching such an iconic building being torn down, and the incomprehensible loss of life, I felt numb just watching it. For days after the enormity and sheer scale of the destruction didn't really sink in.

For weeks after, video clips of the moments leading up to and during the planes colliding with the Twin Towers accompanied news stories of who was to blame and how it could have been caused...and prevented. We never really got to see the aftermath, the 'what happened next?' 

Meyerowitz's Aftermath images do just that. Heavy lifting machinery and diggers are dwarfed by mangled metal skeletons of the towers' framework. There is a quiet, sombre feel to his images. It is clear by Meyerowitz's use of light and composition that he has taken his time to photograph such still scenes. A juxtaposition to the chaos of the actual event. 

Having watched the events unfold on that fateful day, the photographs of 'ground zero' are very powerful to me. I wonder what effect they will have on generations to come, whether they will find the photographs as thought provoking.  

 Reference 

http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/