Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Exercise: Analyse an essay on photography

Chapter 34 pages 380-386 of The Photography Reader - The Vertigo of Displacement by David A. Bailey and Stuart Hall is the final essay to be analysed. It seems much easier to read than previous essays but having said that there are still sections which make me stop and think “you could have put that in 3 words not 20!” and still a fair few “isms”.

I felt I had a lot to say about this essay so will cover the questions posed in the coursework during my ramblings and trying to work through personal feelings and impressions which formed my responses to these.
As a whole, The Vertigo of Displacement was very interesting but also challenging on several levels for me. In many respects I could identify with a huge amount of it but was also annoyed by some parts, this annoyance made me question why was I annoyed, what did that say about me and my own cultural upbringing and attitudes? Would this affect my review of the essay and it made me more aware that what Liz Wells had intimated, with regards to people’s baggage influencing exhibition reviews, was totally justified.

In one sentence: The essay is concerned mainly about the representation of blacks in photography and how this and the number of black photographers had changed in 1980's Britain.

Born in Croydon into a multicultural society, possibly described as from a working/middle class white background, lucky to have open –minded non racist parents who didn’t indoctrinate me with stereotypes, I accepted people as people and never saw the colour of their skin. It was only as I got older that my eyes were opened to the overt and institutionalised racism which existed, and I was horrified. Having said that I still get angry when terms like “institutionalised racism” and “empiricist” get bandied about because I want to yell “we aren’t all like that” but then I have to accept that a lot of essays, whilst pin pointing specific artists or incidents, do work with generalisms and sadly society does suck when it comes to discrimination/representation in its many forms. Historically in art/photography blacks were represented in certain ways, for example as slaves serving the upper classes, as interesting, exotic cultures through National Geographic or in documentary form as an influx of immigrants during the 1950’s. The 1980’s saw a shift in these practices which Bailey and Hall sought, through this essay, to discover how it had happened.

Thinking about the extent that the arguments are limited to Britain in the 1980’s and the usefulness of other references, this is where the narrowness of the essay grated slightly. I had to keep reminding myself that the reason only blacks and the 1980’s kept being spoken about was that it was an essay to do with the change in black photography during this period. Although it wasn’t written from a point of view that blacks and black photographers were the only ones who suffered discrimination or where there was an obvious shift in perceptions, I was still shouting in my head “but we also needed more poor/women/openly gay/disabled/insert minority photographers.” Then reminded myself yet again, these were not apparently areas up for debate but why not a nod? Another limitation of the essay was the geographical area under discussion. The coursework states the argument is limited to Britain but for me it pointed the finger mainly at England: Bailey and Hall referring to “Englishness” and the GLC (Greater London Council). Were other parts of the UK going through similar changes or were the influences taking place in London via the GLC the only ones that mattered? Or were these alone strong enough to affect the entire country? Having been to the Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography exhibition in 2011 @ V&A museum attitudes and influences have altered across the globe (although F&F deals with work produced 20 years later than the 80’s) it would have been interesting to know if there were any other outside influences.

Becker, when writing about the tabloid press acknowledges influences from the US and also touches upon other publications so I do think it would have been useful to refer to related movements in other countries as well, not just comment on the south-east of England. The GLC was well-known for supporting minority groups and it was a running joke (rightly or wrongly) that you wouldn’t qualify for a grant unless you were a single-parent, one-legged, black lesbian. Ken Livingston was the leader of the GLC during the 80’s, in favour of and a strong supporter of the recognition of gay rights and measures to address inequality faced by women and ethnic minorities. It seems odd to me, living and working in London during the 80’s, that policies which were treated as a joke by some, and introduced by a man described by the Sun newspaper as "the most odious man in Britain" are being cited as an important factor in the development of black photography. Good to know they worked!

Much of the discussion is set within a larger socio-political framework (of or pertaining to the interaction of social and political factors) do I feel this is justified by the evidence presented? This is another area where I find my own stance and personal experiences, my grandparents at one point lived in Brixton, may temper my reply. Being a Londoner of “that generation” I am fully aware of the socio-political atmosphere at the time- and historically - and can read between the lines of what has been written or fill in the gaps where not much has been evidenced. From the evidence given there is no real background provided to the unrest in London at the time, the riots, the resentment of positive discrimination, the ridicule of  political correctness, (which is still ridiculous at some levels even now). Any evidence provided seems anecdotal, there are no citations used or referencing to validate the arguments made. Some comments are vague: “institutions, academic bodies, black individuals” where, which ones, what makes them good examples? Bailey, Hall, Armet Francis and Vanley Burke all trace back to the West Indies - Jamaica or Bahamas - it would be interesting to know if the black population at the time was largely of this heritage, I suspect it was although many Ugandans and Nigerians were starting to settle due to political unrest across the world.

This link gives an interesting potted account of black community history in London

Knowing what I do, having experienced first-hand London in the 1980’s I can totally agree with their justification for the shift being based around the socio-political. On trying to distance myself from that knowledge I think their writings heavily suggest it but they don’t provide validation.

Finally we come to eligibility – should you be black to photograph black subjects? A wider implication of anti-realism and the increase in black photographers was the possibility and need for critics to be honest, to have the ability to be negatively critical of bodies of work created of//by black photographers. My simple answer to eligibility is no, you don’t have to be black to capture black subjects, a conclusion that Bailey and Hall also reach. They do so, and correctly in my opinion, by exploring the fact that people just aren’t the sum of the colour of their skin. They are influenced by their social class, gender, sexuality, occupations and personal experiences. American photojournalist William Eugene Smith was neither Welsh nor a miner but has been accredited for taking “one of the most significant images of 20th Century Wales". Don McCullin was in the RAF during his national service, never a soldier but his war coverage is second to none.

Bailey and Hall also justify this conclusion by citing work by Robert Mapplethorpe and Rotimi Fani-Kayode. Both photographed black men, one was black the other white, both captured black male masculinity, both were gay, both died from complications of AIDS. I can understand why they chose to use Mapplethorpe, he was a friend of and influenced Fani-Kayode, he was a white photographer capturing black subjects but playing devil’s advocate surely if talking about a shift in the portrayal of blacks within the UK it would have been better example to show a change in how a British white male did or did not undertake this shift?according to the essay critics even now will try to argue that Mapplethorpe shows submission and therefore doesn't break some of the ideas surronding the portrayal of blacks. A possible implication of choosing Mapplethorpe is that Fani-Kayode was influenced by an American rather than the socio-political changes within the UK which partially undermines the argument.

They also fail to tell us that Fani-Kayode was from a wealthy family of Nigerian heritage. Born in Lagos, Nigeria in April 1955, the second child of Chief Babaremilekun Adetokunboh and therefore part of a prominent Yoruba family, they moved to Brighton in 1966, after a military coup and the ensuing civil war. Rotimi attended a number of private schools before moving to the USA in 1976 to complete his education. He read Fine Arts and Economics, gaining a BA, at Georgetown University, Washington DC and gained an MFA at the Pratt Institute, New York in Fine Arts & Photography. Whilst in New York, he became friendly with Robert Mapplethorpe and later admitted to Mapplethorpe's influence on his work. Returning to the UK in 1983 he lived in Brixton with his partner Alex Hirst until his death in 1989. A co-founder of Autograph ABP - a British based, international, non-profit-making, photographic arts agency I don’t think Fani-Kayode is good example of how under-privileged, disenfranchised black photographers were given opportunities to thrive or be influenced by the changes in Britain even if he is a good example of a black photographer portraying aspects of black/gay/culture.

If we believe that certain sections of society can only photograph “their own” we limit the creative possibilities of photography and the chance to see from an outsider’s perspective. Where do you draw the line of how you define things? Just because cultures/situations/places are seen from a different point of view does it make the portrayal wrong? It helps to have an understanding of a topic to both capture it and write about it. Something that I become increasingly aware of the more I read, the more I write the more I photograph.


Becker, K. E. (1990). Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press. In L. Wells (Ed.), The Photography Reader (pp. 291-308). Oxon, England: Routledge.


  1. I haven't read the essay so this was very educational reading for me. It makes a lot of sense and you've obviously done a lot of research. Enjoyable and educational for me.

  2. Thank you :o) Out of all the essays read I felt that I could actually write this with a bit more awareness because of living and working in London during the era under discussion. All the essays are totally different in approaches, covering wide and narrow arguments,how the refernce, how much appears to be from a personal perspective. I guess this is deliberate to show us how differently they can be written despite following a set format and helps with organizing our own. What to validate and to not be vague on points of argument. Lots of frustration with all of them in trying to read the double-speak!

  3. I haven't read the essay, but somehow I don't really fancy reading them (guess I will never make it to L2). I feel that many essays I came across appeal to emotion, instead of logic and reasoning. Apparently I am not the target audiences.

    So do you need to be black to photograph a black person? Do you need to be black to sell a candy bar, train tickets, draw a portrait or fix a broken water pipe for a black person then? Well, then what so special about photography may I ask? A black person may have preference on who (at least at first slight) who he/she wants to go to for a portrait, buy a candy bar, etc from. However, this is more about the person, the environment, instead of something inherent in photography.