In pursuit of fair representation

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Introduction

Power and representation play fundamental roles within photography. It could be argued that these roles are emphasised in the genre of documentary photography. We can define documentary as “using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject…aiming at presentation of reality.” (Chambers English Dictionary. 1988). As documentary photography deals with the presentation of reality, real people or subjects (as opposed to actors) are involved in the production. There are therefore certain ethical concerns that the photographer is obliged to consider, such as how to be fair or impartial in the representation of others (if at all possible), and the consideration of power of photographer over subject.

 

I wish to compare two bodies of work; one historical, namely, Hugh Diamond’s On the Application of Photography (Diamond, H. 1856), and one contemporary: Broomberg & Chanarin’s Ghetto (Broomberg, O. Chanarin, A. 2003). This comparison aims to analyse how practitioners have attempted (or consciously and deliberately declined) to break down power between photographer and subject, and to demonstrate how documentary photography’s understanding and consideration of representation has changed between the early use of photography, in the mid 19th century, and work being carried out in the present. Both bodies of work present portraits of patients in what are described as “asylums”, the first in 1856, and the second in 2003. The subjects in both works have been clinically diagnosed with specific conditions that could be described under the umbrella term: “mentally ill.” Such people are vulnerable, dependent and part of a minority group. It could well be argued that there are very few other demographic groups where considerations of fair representation are more important than the mentally “insane”.[1] It is therefore fitting that this essay In pursuit of fair representation, should be based around the analysis of work focused on such groups of people.

[1] “To represent someone that is different from you is always a political gesture.” (Good, J. 2016).

 

Hugh Diamond

In 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot described photography as “The Pencil of Nature”. (Talbot. (1844).) In 1839, Talbot had developed the calotype process which fixed images as negatives, replacing the cumbersome direct method of the daguerreotype. (Gernsheim, H. 1969). Following this, Reverend J. B. Reade successfully recorded the image seen through a microscope on a photographic plate, (Wood, R. D. 1972), and an early experiment attempted to record breathing patterns to determine pathologies of the lung. (Wright, H. G. 1867). With such developments, the early to mid 19th century saw the camera become a diagnostic tool among physicians.

 

Around a decade later, in 1856, one of J. B. Reade’s disciples, Hugh Welch Diamond – the resident superintendent of the female department of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum – turned the camera on his patients; and subsequently produced the first ever systematic theory and practice of clinical photography – and arguably the first documentary photographic series containing people - earning him the title of “father of psychiatric photography” (Gilman, S. 2014). For such a grandiose label, little is known about Diamond’s personal life. What is known is the ensuing body of work he left behind: On the Application of Photography. The paper argued that photography can have important functions in the treatment, diagnosis and classification of the mentally ill, (inspired by his belief in physiognomy), and comprises a series of portraits or plates, depicting the various members of the Surrey County Asylum.

 

Diamond believed that the camera had an ability to capture or grasp, almost physically, “the disease of the brain” (Diamond, H. 1856), in the same way the microscope had the ability to (visually) capture diseases of other kinds. This was in tune with scientific thinking of the time - well known physicians such as Charcot, who for instance in his famous Tuesday lectures, carried out grandiose experiments on patients at the Salpetriere. (Didi-Huberman, G. 2003). They were almost obsessed with the idea that “madness” could be grasped, physically, as if the brain could be opened and the disease could be held, removed, and examined. This theory of visibility is described in much more accurate terms by Didi-Huberman as the Crystal of Madness: ‘something resembling a great optical machine to decipher the invisible lineaments of a crystal: the great, territorial, experimental, and magical machine of hysteria’, and that in order to decipher the crystal, ‘one had to break it, be fascinated by its fall, then break it again and invent machines permitting even more visible, regimented fall, and then break it once again – just to see’. (Didi-Huberman, G. 2003).

 

Diamond completely embodied this school of thought through his approach to psychiatric photography: the idea that photography could provide some form of objective truth – a captured moment that served as un-arguable empirical evidence of “insanity”. In Diamond’s words: ‘the photographer secures with unerring accuracy the external phenomena of each passion, as the really certain indication of internal derangement’. (Diamond, H. 1856). This approach is demonstrated in his description of ‘Plate 14’ (see Fig. 1), Diamond claims that these four portraits represent different stages of “Mania”, the evidence of which, he says is marked by ‘the bristled hair, the wrinkled brow, the fixed unquiet eye, and the lips apart as if from painful respiration”. (Diamond, H. 1856). This passage implies that there is a concept or profile of “mania” that the camera can capture. Diamond is striving to ascribe certain facial characteristics to “insanity” - much like the intersectional racial profiling of Tazmanian aborigines by the British, twenty years before in 1835 (Clements, N. 2014) – and reflects the thinking of the time: society was preoccupied with categorisation and classification, as seen in the developments of the idea of evolution, (Darwin, C. 1859), and the rise of New Imperialism, taxonomy and colonialism (see Nadel, G. & Curtis, P. 1969.)

 

If we were to criticise Diamond’s approach from a photographic stance, we could say that Diamond is actively demonstrating the patient’s defects, creating a sense of otherness between him (sided with the viewer), and the subject. This otherness, I would argue, is really the representation of the dynamic between the photographer and subject. We, the audience, are invited to look upon these women, and observe the characteristics that separate us from them, making the “civilised” viewer and photographer safe and assured of their own hierarchical position and empowerment, described in other terms by Ulrich Baer as “The Medical Gaze”. (Baer, Ulrich. 2005). As John Tagg argues, photography’s efficacy in this context lies in presenting these patients “to an audience of non-deviants” (Tagg, J. 1988) who can therefore avoid being classed in the same bracket: much like the use of photography in 19th century prison systems. Ultimately, I would argue that Diamond’s portrayal of these women is a representation of what Sander Gilman calls his “externalised inexplicability” (Gilman, S. (2014): his inability to understand them and their condition; an extension of him (as perceiver). It’s source, argues Gilman, lies in the feeling of distance between the perceiver and the perceived: “based on the anxiety generated by his perception”. (Gilman, S. (2014).

 Figure 1

Figure 1

 Figure 2

Figure 2

The power relationship between Diamond and subject is complex – photographer, psychiatrist and head of the asylum – the camera is coming between him in these multiple roles, and them. It could be argued that he is trying to use the camera to gain control and understanding over their condition, much like Pierre Janet and Freud’s approach to understanding hysterical catalepsy, through an affinity between photography and psychoanalysis (Baer, Ulrich. 2005). As Freud says: “the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially”. (Freud, S. 1950). However, Didi-Huberman argues that Diamond’s portraits serve purpose only in that they designate not an attribute of the referent (“melancholic”) but a concept (“melancholia”), the referent of which – this particular “madwoman” here (figure 1) - is only an individual example. (Didi-Huberman, G. 2003). In other words, the visual concept of “insanity” Diamond is striving to capture is limited. In the context of scientific thinking of the time, it is easy to see why Diamond believed the camera was a capable, diagnostic tool. In fact, almost everywhere in Europe at the time, madwomen and madmen found themselves obliged to pose. (Didi-Huberman, G. 2003).

 

Perhaps the main drawback of Diamond’s approach was the process of passage au trait (passage into line): for Diamond’s images to be used and circulated efficiently, an engraving process was employed: a copy of the original photograph was made, (see figures 3 and 4). Despite Diamond’s apparent desire for exactitude, details were seemingly forgotten when copies of the original photograph were made. Take figure 3 for example:firstly, we see in the engraved version that the curtain has been removed, this woman appears to be nowhere, as Didi-Huberman notes: “How could her gaze not appear insane, drawn without space or destination?” (Didi-Huberman, G. 2003). The woman’s floral dress also becomes what appears to be a uniform, one that might be worn by female members of a county asylum, and in the process the woman loses elements of individuality. Now let us look at figure 4. In the engraved version, the woman’s posture has been straightened, and the hands have been brought together in a symmetrical way that is evocative of prayer – the caption accompanying the engraving when it was published in the Medical Times in 1858 was “Religious Mania” (J. & A. Churchill. 1858), the original pose seems to me more one of nervousness and fear of the camera.

 Figure 3 (Left) The original photograph, and (right) the engraved version.

Figure 3 (Left) The original photograph, and (right) the engraved version.

The editing process that Diamond employed surely leaves us questioning the integrity of his work. Whilst one could appreciate how the original portrait process might aid in his understanding of his patient’s condition, the editing of the originals to present manifestations such as “religious mania” is questionable, especially when the difference is so evident. Ultimately, this process provides evidence towards a lack of fair representation, and points to his desire for the camera to capture something medically significant[1]. If the photographs he took of his patients originally, are not objective “certain indication (s) of internal derangement” (Diamond, H. 1856) then the engraved copies most certainly are not.

It could be argued that these portraits deride from the “documentary impulse” - a ‘passion’ to record and preserve, driven by (among other things), curiosity, outrage, self-assertion and the expression of power (Franklin, S. 2016).

[1] Whilst also demonstrating Diamond’s willingness to fabricate elements of his portraits, to prove the camera had genuine medical benefit.

 Figure 4    (Left) The original photograph, and (right) the engraved version

Figure 4    (Left) The original photograph, and (right) the engraved version

Broomberg & Chanarin

147 years later, Ghetto documents twelve gated communities, around the world, on the margins of society. Anecdotes, recollections and photographs are chronologically put together, to provide contextual information and firsthand observations from inhabitants themselves. I focus on chapter one: Rene Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba, (pp77-133), specifically, the self-portraits taken by the patients themselves. Notions of authority of the image maker are raised, and the morality of photographing “madmen.”

 Figure 5    Self-Portrait by Mario, 60

Figure 5    Self-Portrait by Mario, 60

Broomberg & Chanarin have attempted to break down the power the photographer holds over their subject by encouraging the patients to take the portraits themselves. “By squeezing the ball on the end of a long release cable they could take their photograph when and how they chose.” (Broomberg, O. Chanarin, A. 2003). The results are intriguing and psychologically telling. In the artist’s words, some look into the camera with a “hard, penetrating gaze”, and others “obeyed the ritual of photography with smiles.” (Broomberg, O. Chanarin, A. 2003). Perhaps the most interesting photo is of Mario, (see figure 5), where he turns his back on the camera and presses the shutter; sabotaging the traditional rules of a portrait, while still providing consent for his photo to be taken. As Lutz and Collins write: the various gazes “whether from the photographer, the reader, or the person photographed – are ambiguous, charged with feeling and power, and are central to the stories that the photo can be said to tell.” (Lutz, C. Collins, J. 2003). This image says much about Mario, and his psychological state. He is inviting the viewer to look unhindered at him, whilst concealing his face. If he hadn’t taken the photograph himself, we may read this as an unwillingness to be photographed – a form of protest. In context, it may be interpreted as a form of insecurity, perhaps shame. The image challenges Lutz and Collins argument that the “photograph of the non-westerner can be seen…as the outcome of a set of psycho-culturally informed choices made by (the) photographers”. (Lutz, C. Collins, J. 2003). In figure 5 we see Mario inviting the viewer to look at him – but on his terms. Broomberg & Chanarin’s portraits are evocative of Peter Wollen’s description of Walker Evan’s photographs from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: “his willingness to let his human subjects pose themselves, stage their own images in all their dignity and vulnerability.” (Wollen, P. 2003).

 Figure 6    Self-portrait by Julio, 30

Figure 6    Self-portrait by Julio, 30

When comparing Diamond’s work, we see mainly what he wants us to see, with Broomberg & Chanarin’s approach, we see more of what the patients themselves want us to see.

Although arguably we still see what Broomberg & Chanarin want us to see, but there are elements of collaboration - they consider the way in which their subjects wish to be represented.

 Figure 7      Self-portrait by Celia, 55

Figure 7      Self-portrait by Celia, 55

Perhaps an even more effective way that Broomberg & Chanarin have attempted to fairly represent their subjects is through their use of text, outlining the story of the individual being photographed, and why they chose to pose the way they did. Their responses range from heartfelt, to humorous.

 

Julio took two photos, one with his hand on his head, (see figure 6), and one on his heart. When asked why he replied: “These photographs express the thing I have struggled with my whole life. The struggle between what my heart is telling me and what my head is saying.” (Broomberg, O. Chanarin, A. 2003). This touching and poignant reply, is juxtaposed to Celia’s more humorous response, (see figure 7): “Because an artist always sits down to be interviewed”. (Broomberg, O. Chanarin, A. 2003).  By including text, and responses from the patients, Broomberg & Chanarin convey a stronger sense of personality and individuality.[1] In the artist’s words, they aimed to “upset that one-way flow of power that is inherent in traditional documentary photography.” (Rémi Coignet. 2013). Despite this, Broomberg & Chanarin believe that it was still immoral of them to ask a patient who is subjected to drugs, whether they can take their picture, and that even if the subject agrees, he or she does not “control the political power, cultural, moral and financial image. This is immoral,” they say in an interview with Le Monde magazine, “in every sense of the word.” (Rémi Coignet. 2013). 

 

Conclusion

Broomberg & Chanarin claim themselves that their work in the hospital was immoral, and that despite their substantial attempts to break down power between photographer and subject - as well as fairly represent those being photographed - a power dynamic still existed. This dynamic manifests itself, culturally, morally and financially. Ultimately, I would argue it is impossible, or at least extremely rare, that the power the photographer holds over their subject can be fully broken down, or that the photographer’s representation of them is entirely “fair”[1]. This is especially true when the subjects are mentally “unstable” patients, who are in an institution and possibly medicated, (as is true with both bodies of work). However, both projects show that there is indeed a place for photography in providing insight into both the external and inner world of a person. Furthermore, developments in medical image making such as MRI scans demonstrate that (forms of photography or image making) have indeed become what Diamond strove to argue they were: a diagnostic tool. We must, of course, ultimately view photographs in their socio-political and economic context.

 

[1] “Fair” is a problematic concept. We can define it as: “treating someone in a way that is right or reasonable, or treating a group of people equally and not allowing personal opinions to influence your judgement.” (Chambers English Dictionary. 1988).