The Deutsche Börse photography prize has, in recent years, been the recipient of much criticism (and some controversy.) Rewarding artists that “push the medium’s boundaries,” the prize’s contentious remit has provoked many onlookers to question whether it even constitutes as a “photography” prize in the first place.
Back in 2010, critic Sean O’Hagan set the tone by asking where “straight photography” or “photography without pretensions” fits into the Deutsche Börse prize. Indeed, John Stezaker’s 2012 winning collages and Richard Mosse’s 2014 manipulated landscapes are a long way from the stark, unsentimental honesty of the prize’s first 1997 recipient. As of late, the enigmatic stamp of “Conceptual art” seems, for many, to be a more fitting contender.
The prize’s more traditional viewers might consider this a diluting of the medium, at times overlooking the documentary in favour of the experimental. Yet this widening of its remit is perhaps part of its own ambition to champion “the chameleon medium of photography.” Today, a contemporary photography prize must surely strike a balance of art against documentary practices? Indeed, it might have come as a reprimand to O’Hagan when, a year after his comment, Magnum photographer Jim Goldberg received the prize for his documentary body of refugees and immigrants in 2011.
Regardless, it is in light of this ontological nitpicking rippling beneath the medium’s surface that the 2016 winning project by Trevor Paglen is emboldened in its impact. Taking works from his 2015 exhibition, The Octopus, Paglen addresses issues of mass surveillance, data collection, classified satellite and drone activities. And to do so, he turns his hand to the genre of straight photography. Momentarily squashing fears of its ousting from the competition, Paglen remains true to its “straightness” as he endeavours to depict (and document) scenes of covert surveillance in sharp focus and scrutinsing detail. The project is grounded in investigation and research, assembled in collaboration with scientists, amateur astronomers and human rights activists. What results is a body of, often blurred, images, where restricted military and tightly controlled government areas are exposed, nestling unobtrusively in the distance against the landscape.
The latent power of these images is located in their desire for political and social change, a desire very much the impetus for documentary photography. Paglen himself claims he wants his work to trigger actions that have an influence on society, one that reaches out beyond the institutional spaces of art into the real world. This political undercurrent, or what O’Hagan recently referred to as “political thrust,” stems largely from straight, documentary photography.
Paglen explains further, “I think mass surveillance is a bad idea because a surveillance society is one in which people understand that they are constantly monitored. When people understand that they are constantly monitored they are more conformist, they are less willing to take up controversial positions, and that kind of mass conformity is incompatible with democracy. The second reason is that mass surveillance creates a dramatic power imbalance between citizens and government. When you have a surveillance state, the state has all the power and citizens have very little.”
Yet critic Lewis Bush has expressed his concerns over the work, claiming Paglen’s mode of expression is more about “producing beautiful images than about really explaining or challenging these activities.” Indeed, at first glance and without context his images appear almost like ethereal landscape paintings, draped in dusty pink and hazy green, watercolour hues. Nestled innocuously on the horizon, the presence of modern civilisation sparkles softly.
Such impressions are problematic however when considered alongside Paglen’s intended “political thrust.” It seems there is a tension or conflict of some sort between our aesthetic and ethical response to the works. Its pleasing aesthetic power is in danger of undermining its underlying political message, whose implicit call for change might just drift by unnoticed.
Yet informative captions, rigid in their authority and bureaucracy, conflict starkly with the soft, beautiful images they describe. Intrigued viewers must go away and conduct some research of their own, in order to uncover for themselves why a misty air force is worthy of such artistic flattery. The work therefore does not attempt to serve as a powerful, direct catalyst to change in itself, brought about by evoking immediate anger or fear in the viewer. We are far too used to such images now. Paglen’s message must instead grapple with a contemporary audience of passive observers, desensitised to the horrors and injustices of the world which are continuously transformed into spectacles through image and film. Rather, using subtlety and ambiguity, Paglen attempts to provoke change indirectly by reviving the long-lost arts of scepticism and suspicion. He demands that we get up, do some research, and actively form our own anger and fear at this infiltration of power permitted largely by our own complacency.
“What happens when you push an image to the point where it breaks, when you push vision to the point where it collapses?” Paglen asks. The Octopus declares resolutely that vision itself can no longer be trusted. Contemporary artists Bob and Roberta Smith says “I don’t think that in Britain we live in an extreme police state, but we do live in a state of mind that is deadened by the media.” With an overflowing of information hitting our senses at every turn, welling freely from an abundance of sources, we no longer need to commit too much of our time to the arduous task of critical thinking. And it is through the traditions of straight photography that Paglen shatters the very cornerstones of this visual, truth-giving medium – an effect not to be taken lightly for the likes of O’Hagan.
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