Blah blah blah photograph (usually a dead or dying child) provoked a great outpouring of emotion, but at the end of the day nobody actually cares because nothing changed. There was a spasm of emotion, and then nothing.
It's the "nobody cares" part that got me thinking. Sometimes, in recent years, there's something about capitalism because everyone's an amateur socialist now. Even more recently the overly educated like to add "neoliberal" in there someplace.
My remarks here, it will surprise nobody, are triggered by, or perhaps a response to, some remarks by our old friend Dr. Colberg, who's expressing some positions unlikely to win him friends among his social set in his latest newsletter, here.
I would love to weigh 20 pounds less. I care about that, pretty strongly. To claim that I "don't care" would be nonsense. Yet, somehow, I manage to remain at around my current weight. You might argue that I don't care enough and depending on what we mean by that, it might in some sense be true.
Modern thinking, though, tries to separate things a bit more. It's not just a matter of caring more or less, changing habits is difficult, and the psychology of same is pretty complicated. There are strategies you can deploy, and factors in play, that make it meaningfully more than simply a matter of "caring enough."
In the same way, I suspect strongly that as a society, as a culture, "caring" is not meaningfully correlated with actual change. Change comes from somewhere else, somewhere a lot murkier, a lot more complex, a place where there are many factors some how which are difficult to see.
This is the essential problem that Gramsci was wrestling with when he formulated his ideas of cultural hegemony, although I don't think that he meaningfully moved much past identifying the thing.
All this is, of course, compounded by the fact that the course of action is often not clear. How shall we deal with this refugee crisis, or that? I know how to lose weight, the course of action there is straightforward, and I care, and even so I am largely helpless to actually put desire into action. How much more difficult for an entire society to solve a problem which lacks even a clear solution?
So, the photograph induces the emotion, the caring. We care about the refugees, about the victims of war, or famine. This is a real effect, easily measurable, often measured. It usually manifests concretely in the form of a spike in donations to specific charities, and often that spike is substantial, a clear signal. People care, and to a degree they act; just as I take a walk after the scale reveals to me a number I dislike, but I do not change my life.
Sometimes a photo, or an interval of photos, produces a larger spasm of action. People take to the streets in protest! This is not unlike joining a gym for the purpose of weight loss. It may or may not be an indicator of the larger structural changes which produce real social change (or real weight loss.)
In all cases, there is a gulf between the emotion, the spasmodic response; and the larger changes in structure necessary to produce actual social change. The larger structural changes may as well be described as an alteration of the hegemony of culture, in this case. The switch is from loudly proclaiming that such-and-such cannot stand, cannot continue, cannot happen again, to the construction of a society in which such-and-such actually does not stand, does not continue, does not happen again.
I have no answers here, I only know in broad strokes how a structural change in the hegemony of culture is brought about. It's called marketing, or propaganda, depending on whether you're for it or against it.
To claim, though, that photographs don't induce a genuine response, a genuine reaction, is untrue. To claim, on this flip side, that they alone constitute or maintain or shape a cultural hegemony is equally false. Europe does care about refugees, and that is largely independent of the fact that Europe is simultaneously failing to "solve" the refugee crisis it seems permanently mired in.
If I step on the scale in the morning, I don't like the number that I see. It is too large.
There is, I think, fairly rigorous research which suggests that people who weight themselves daily tend to be better able to manage their weight. The question is this: is is the act of daily weighing that leads to weight loss? Or is it that a person who already possesses the necessary psychological machinery to lose weight is also a person likely to weigh themselves daily? Probably some from column A, and some from column B.
In the same way, the genuine emotional outburst against, say, a war may be a useful or even necessary precondition to the conversion of war into peace. It is, obviously, not sufficient.
I don't think it wildly mischaracterizes Colberg's remarks as bemoaning the apparent fact that photographs cannot produce anything beyond a meaningless, false, emotional outburst. While in some sense he's got hold of something important here, I think it's wrong to characterize the emotional outburst as meaningless or false. Further, I think, I suspect, that these emotional outbursts and also appear as part of a shift in cultural structure.
In the same way that I might weigh myself and shake my head regularly, whether or not I have actually made the changes necessary to live life as a 175 pound man, it's probably true that if I have made those changes, I will weigh myself. It's probably also true that weighing myself will be a part of the changes that I might make, in a successful weight loss/lifestyle change program.
We cannot entirely lose hope for photography. The medium is in play, it has a role to play, but that role is subtle, and perhaps minor. But it's there.