Sunday, December 22, 2019

My Story, Her Story, History

There is a river, the Niger, in Africa. 2600 miles long. It passes through or along 6 separate modern nations, by my count. It it known by at least 9 different names if wikipedia is to be believed. People have lived along its banks for probably hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. It is reasonable that human-ish habitation along the Niger predates the arrival of homo sapiens entirely.

I recently read a somewhat muddled piece which remarked that the "history" of the Niger is the European one. Leo Africanus named the river, although he knew almost nothing of its course. Mungo Park "discovered" the river, in the sense that he led the first European expedition to see the middle section of the river. The author of that piece notes, querulously, that the people already on the river had perfectly good names for the river, and that they had certainly noticed its presence long before Park discovered it.

My point here is that what we think of as the "history" of the Niger, or most anything else, is of course just the European story. The Africanus/Park story is my people's story of this river. It recounts the relationship of my tribe to this river. Certainly the people who live along the river have their own stories, and I rather suspect their stories don't make much mention of Africanus or of Park. This is just as it should be. Park's "discovery" does not concern the Zama people in the slightest, just as many of the things which concern the Zama are of little interest to me.

While there are certainly problems here, among them is not the mere existence of a European story of The Niger River. Perhaps something about the hegemony of that story.

Consider this young photographer:

I am in a protest march, photographing her. She is alongside the same march, observing it from the side, taking my photograph (perhaps).

We are observing and photographing the same event. I am in it, she is not, but we are both photographing it. Our personal stories of the event are different, our perceptions of the event are different. Hold that thought.

I was recently pointed in the direction of a Jim Kasson blog post in which he proposes a taxonomy of photographers, a subject I am maybe less interested in than you might reasonably guess. Anyways, one of his categories is meditator which I rather felicitously read as mediator for a moment. I rather like the idea of a photographer as a mediator. Both one who mediates, who translates, between two things, and as one who uses a medium.

The things we mediate between are the real world, the ground truth, and our viewers.

History in general, or a specific event, thing, person, or scene, is fractally complex. Nothing truly happens because of something. Everything, if you peel back the covers far enough, is merely the emergent result of everything that came before. The ground truth of the Niger River, or of a small protest in a small city, is intractable. The antecedents, the factual details of the thing itself, and the consequences, are infinite. If you treat them as all equally important, the result is an incomprehensible mass of detail. If you attempt to rank them, you wind up merely adding endless classification and taxonomy to the same mass of detail.

No, to make sense of anything, you need to find a point of view, a place to stand. You need to find some subset of that mass that hangs together coherently, where one thing is related to another. It need not be a single thread of consequence, it could be several threads, or a mesh, but it has to hang together to be accessible to the littleness of the human mind. The job is to relate this, not the totality of the thing. You hope that it provides maybe some interesting insight into the thing itself, but the idea that it encompasses the totality of the thing is absurd.

History has within it a subdiscipline, historiography, which seeks to make sense of the ways in which this has been done for history, and how it might best be done. What are the results of doing it this way versus that way? And so on.

Photography, despite also being a mediation between really the same fractally complex ground truth, and a consumer of a story, seems to have no such discipline. It has a lot of people who complain about how everyone else does it, and that's about it.

I dare say that you could argue that many kinds of photographs are exempt, here. There are pictures made purely for appearance, they are purely aesthetic objects and as such need not take any position. They say nothing about any "ground truth" and therefore do not mediate between such a thing and a viewer. I suppose that might be true, albeit not as frequently as you might like. It is rather the essence of the photograph to refer to a ground truth, and as such, your viewers will tend to infer some comment or another.

But set that aside and focus on those pictures which are meant to comment on an underlying ground truth, in some fashion. Photographs which do mediate in the way I mean.

What does photography have?

There are, I guess, some sort of proto-theories lying around. Gaze theory might be in there, but it is generally just applied as a vague nod, the way you drop Roland Barthes into an essay. It adds nothing, but identifies the author as a clever chappie. Politics of Representation (who has the power to represent whom and in what ways) is generally a bit more solid. These two do not, together or separately, really constitute a coherent theory, though.

There are certainly a bunch of approaches, and these can at any rate be described. You can re-photograph a whole bunch of documents and found material. You can do a traditional reportage thing. You can photograph objects that lie, as it were, tangent to what you're interested in. You can do portraits. You can mix and match these things.

Nobody seems, though, to have a coherent notion of which methods work for what, the conceit seems to invariably be "look, this is simply the right way to do it, for reasons, and everyone else is simply wrong." The results are all over the place, as a consequence.

Historiography is interested, approximately, in what one chooses as important, and how one organizes that material. "England in WWII" could be all Churchill all the time, it could be a deep dive into socioeconomic conditions of the common people from 1917 through 1945, it could be about a bunch of Generals. You could organize it like a novel, or year by year, or as a collection of biographies and essays.

Each of these approaches would tell you something, but they would be different somethings.

Photographs, and collections of them, similarly make choices about what is important and how to organize that material whether in the frame or in the sequence.

Let us contrast, briefly, Smith's Minamata and Asselin's Monsanto. Just flipping through each book it is clear what each author has chosen to make important. Smith centers people. By far the majority of his pictures are of people.

Asselin has more photos of Monsanto's advertising materials than he does of people. Asselin centers documents. He has newspaper clippings, advertisements, forms, re-photographed photos, and so on. The majority of the visual material in the book is documentary, either an actual reproduced document or a record-shot of some salient object. Secondarily he photographs places. Again, he has more pictures of unpeopled places than he has of people. Asselin appears to belong to the contemporary school of Serious Photography that doesn't like to photograph people.

The writing is much the same. Smith's writing, while journalistic, is very people-focused, whereas Asselin focuses on events, and on Monsanto.

Asselin's approach is intended to appear scientific, formal, fact-based. Smith's is human and journalistic. Asselin seeks to recite dry, factual, evidence of Monsanto's evil and place that in juxtaposition with their advertising, to slyly suggest double-dealing in a way that makes him unlikely to be sued. Because he declines to explicitly mention double-dealing, he cannot examine the double-dealing itself.

Smith shows us the human results of Chisso's evil, and tells us about the double-dealing while simultaneously struggling to understand it.

I like one of these approaches more than the other, but they're both approaches, and then can be examined in a sort of pseudo-historiographic way.

I think that one could make a pretty robust argument that centering people is always the power move here, but I don't think I'm going to take a swing at that today, and anyways I am as guilty as the next person are not centering people.

1 comment:

  1. My mentor in graduate school during my early days of studying history said that there is no such thing as history only historians. Is there no such thing as photography?