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BRITISH RESEARCHER JOHN TAGG: photography and power

BRITISH RESEARCHER JOHN TAGG: photography and power
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Sergei Shibirkin. Istanbul S, 2014 / Facebook, «Sil-Sol»


Roland Barthes’ essay Camera Lucida (1980) marked the symbolic death of structuralism as a philosophical methodology. It turned out that a universal system of explaining the world through the interaction of different cultural phenomena does not hold together if you are not able to analyze each structural component to the core.

Structuralism broke down on photography. Barthes failed to comprehend its «untouchable reality». The frustration of his own failure was converted into insulting remarks, such as: «All photographs are random and therefore beyond meaning».

At best, it turned into dark metaphors: that photography «belongs to that class of multilayered objects whose layers cannot be separated without destroying them: like a window and the landscape behind it». For younger researchers, it became something of a muleta. Their bullfight with photography was provoked by Barthes.


At the very beginning of this «anti-Barthesian» discourse, we can see Susan Sontag, who was the first to decisively undermine the thesis of her intellectual friend: yes, in photography, «reality appears as a mass of random fragments — infinitely attractive, extremely impoverished way of relating to the world». But at the same time, «the photographer’s insistence on proving that everything is real also means that the real is not enough». However, Sontag was not an ontological philosopher. Her thought moves from the wonder of illusion to the analysis of mechanisms. Along the way, she had some fleeting insights: photography as world creation.

Yes, the American cultural critic did a lot to understand photography as a social phenomenon. However, her legacy primarily consists of good questions rather than definite answers. In the late 1980s, the British researcher John Tegg began to look for answers. Thirty years of concentration culminated in the book «The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories» (B.: Rodovid, 2019).

It is not surprising that it begins — literally from the first line — with a rejection of Barthes’s «image of photography as a posthumous mask». Tegg focuses on the manipulative nature of photography, which Sontag emphasized when describing a historical episode: «A German photographer used the technique of retouching a negative. His two versions of the same portrait (one retouched and the other not) amazed everyone at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris. The news that the camera could lie made photography even more popular».


Обкладинка книги «Тягар репрезентації. Есеї про множинність фотографії та історії» Джона Теґґа
Cover of the book «The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories» by John Tegg / yakaboo.ua


Tegg already states: «Photography is the result of specific and undoubtedly significant distortions… The indexical nature of photography, that is, the causal relationship between the pre-photographic referent and the sign, is complex, irreversible, and guarantees nothing at the level of meaning… It is not based on a model of the eye but on a certain theoretical conception of how space is problematized and represented in two dimensions».

In other words, Tegg leaves no stone unturned from Barthes’s «sovereign Accident» in relation to photography. And not because of disrespect for the master, but because of a change in optics: «The question we have to ask about any discursive system is not “what does this discourse make clear about something?” but “what does it do… how does it model the context instead of reflecting it; how does it stimulate meaning instead of inventing it?”».

And this applies not only to the fleeting moment but also to retrospect: «We should not take into account the reality of the past, but the present meanings and changing discursive systems». In other words, «photography — is the production of a new specific reality».




For a long time, the opposite view prevailed: a photo is equal to a document. Tegg describes very well how the authorities took advantage of this: «The photograph used the status of an official document as evidence and inscribed power relations in the representation… transformed the dry rhetoric of evidence into an emotional drama of experience that was supposed to cause the viewer to identify with the image».

We remember well how false reinterpretations of famous photographs have contributed to the initiation, escalation, and termination of modern wars.

Yes, this is «a politically mobilized rhetoric of Truth, a cultural intervention». Sontag also warned: «Photography inevitably leads to a certain patronage of reality. Therefore, the authorities will never stop pimping the photo in the «production of meaning and its ownership». Even though we should have long ago realized the relativity of memoir in any form. «The notion of testimony can never be taken for granted», Tegg notes.


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Of course, Nietzsche was right when he described the state as «organized immorality». Tegg specifies: «The objects of documentary recording become a source of fantasy and nostalgia… we are invited to a dream in the ideological space of photography». Perhaps the most striking example — Leni Riefenstahl, about whom the British «Daily Mirror» spoke in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War: «She is as charming as a swastika».

Thus, «an increase in professional status puts the photographer in a position of power from which he can present his own ambitions as a social ideal». There are many examples here. Here’s one from Helmut Newton’s «Autobiography» (2002), when he regrets making a portfolio of a German actress: «She couldn’t get any more work because the Germans had her image closely associated with the Russian spy in my photographs and they were not going to forgive her».

The classic of fashion photography was caught in a noose predicted long before by Sontag: «The camera — is a sublimated version of a gun, the photography of something — is a sublimated murder, in other words, a silent murder, quite appropriate for a sad, frightened age».


Сьюзен Зонтаг (16 января 1933 — 28 декабря 2004) — американская писательница, критик и общественный интеллектуал. Зонтаг много писала о литературе, фотографии и СМИ. Ее эссе и выступления вызывали споры. Ее называли «одним из самых влиятельных критиков своего поколения»
Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933 — December 28, 2004) was an American writer, critic, and public intellectual. Sontag wrote extensively on literature, photography, and the media, and her essays and speeches were controversial. She has been called «one of the most influential critics of her generation» / bostonglobe.com




The responsibility of the photographer for the interpretation of his works by the regime is an entirely different topic. Riefenstahl is a photographer by definition, and her films «Olympia» and «Triumph of the Will» were essentially animations of photographic ideas. Here’s something interesting to read in one of the books about her: «”Triumph of the Will” was not only effective propaganda, but it also contained an antidote for those who had the intelligence and will to understand what they were seeing.

The title of the film itself could have served as a warning bell for anyone with at least a vestige of personal thinking. The scenes of a mass demonstration of readiness for obedience could have repelled as many people as they attracted».

This could have been the case, but it did not happen. Not everyone who reads Goethe is able to resist the poison. Despite the fact that «the film was far from a stunning success in the German provinces and had dubious propaganda value there», the people supported fascism. They did not need Riefenstahl for this.

Hitler needed her for Europe, which gladly took the lure: In 1937, the film won a gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris. What can we blame Riefenstahl for, when even top politicians (the film was presented by the French Prime Minister Daladier himself) could not recognize the situation by its obvious visual signs?

In any case, without the photographer Riefenstahl, our understanding of the Nazi phenomenon would have been significantly limited.




In fact, Tegg’s book is pretty much about the same thing: «We need to know more about power in order to understand where and how it relates to photography. We need to know more about the essence of resistance and struggle to understand how photography can be used in them. And this is undoubtedly something that we need to know even more today than ever before».

I don’t consider the structuralism of Barthes’ time to be something insignificant, and moreover redundant. It simply reached the limit of its target capabilities; then it was extended for a while under the name of poststructuralism, and now it exists mainly under the title of cultural anthropology.

John Tegg represents the latter. Despite all his very professional remarks, I would single out a conceptual thought vector: «Cultural analysis as a type of conditional calculation of the effects of power».


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