Week 7 Activity: Aesthetic or Anaesthetic?

To represent is to aestheticise, that is, to transform. It involves a vast field of choices but it does not include not to transform, not to change or alter whatever is being represented’ (Levi Strauss, 2003: 9).
• Research and share on this forum, a particular body of work / exhibition / advertising campaign / coverage of a news event etc. which aims to convey a particular message. Ideally, this should be relevant to your own practice.
• Identify the message the work aims to promote and who you think its intended audience might be.
• Post to this forum a short critical outline of your own response to the relative success of this work in achieving its intent.
• Consider, highlight and respond to any key ideas raised by Sischy (1991) that you particularly agreed or disagreed with.
• Define and evaluate how these practitioners achieve this? (or not?)

“It is work that is sloppy with symbolism….it feels as if the artist’s work is being worshipped instead of examined.” (Sischy, 1991, p90).

In speaking about the intentions of photojournalists Sischy (1991, p91) notes how few have succeeded in calling people to action “Others have simply been naive-even deluded-about what they were doing. Still others are complicated mixtures of high aspirations and presumptions. It seems to me that Salgado is one of these.” I think I am one of the former with my project work.

Referring to Salgado’s quest for beauty and respect in his image composition Sischy (1991, p92) notes “And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaestheitize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.”.

In contrast Walker Evans photojournalism is “straight” and “naked” as noted by Lincoln Kirstein and quoted by Sischy (1991, p93). Perhaps like my in situ images, showing the subject as it is in its raw found state. Whereas my more creative compositions and manipulations in front of the camera and in the digital darkroom are possibly more in the style of Salgado. One example which illustrates this split approach is to be found in an image I took of a dead seagull. Either I could post this as is and perhaps upset some on instagram or I could make it into a creative image that retains the curious sight of the viewer for longer and is less likely to garner upset or angry comments from those who found the alternative distasteful. However as I do not know how it died and whether it was natural causes it may not be appropriate to post it on a site focussed on the damage to creatures from our waste.

Speaking of the challenges of using photographs to draw attention to suffering in the world Kimmelman noted:

“Photographers deal with this problem differently, but above all by struggling to make beautiful pictures: what causes any image to stick in the mind, aside from shock content, whose impact tends to be brief, are qualities like pictorial integrity and compositional originality, which are fancy terms for beauty. If your subject happens to be the dislocation of people and their suffering, then those people and that suffering become your compositional devices.” (Kimmelman, 2001).

I would suggest that both Salgado and Brandt have similarities in approach in that they take beautiful images, both with haunting qualities that remain in your consciousness, both in black and white, both to do with making the earth a better place to live on for all future generations. The differ, however, in how the images were composed and contextualised with Salgado’s images suggesting ‘this is how it was found’ and Brandt openly making available how he constructed his images and decided on the locations for them. He photographs animals whose habitats have been disappearing through the actions of mankind, transports and positions them in the transformed landscapes, to be taken as a final image for his collection Inherit the Dust.

My emotional responses to the images of both Salgado and Brandt differ when thinking about their impact in raising awareness which both photographers are reported to have intended with Genesis and Inherit the Dust. Maybe that has something to do with the plight of the subjects in the images: people (Salgado) versus animals (Brandt). Maybe is is to do with time, Salgado’s images come at a time when we are subjected to many images and films of people in very poor health in far off places and we may have become anaesthetised to such images.

Road to factory with Zebra, 2014 Nick Brandt

I think Brandt’s images are more powerful for me because they directly confront the changes that we have made to environments, many of which will have dreadful consequences for life on earth unless action is taken. While Brandt’s images are to be applauded for their compositional arrangements (e.g. such as the giraffes being juxtaposed against a background of cranes, the zebras being confronted by a train with stripes on the front and the hills lined up with those in the original images) there are interpretations possible that he might not have intended. Most, if not all, the images repeat the story of lives in poverty, possibly ad hoc/chaotic industrial and domestic building and an inability to manage waste. Thus Brandt seems to be delivering several messages which could place his venture at risk of overwhelming the viewers as there is so much to accomplish or because his ‘point’ or ‘purpose’ is missed and viewers are not tempted to ask why the work has been presented in this way.

In discussing environmental activism through photography has made me reflect not only on my work to raise awareness of debris in the sea and on beaches but also that of others who have made films about the waste problem we have across the world. Lay (2016) presents an easy to understand film about the Pacific Garbage Gyre and mentions Boyan Slat (2017) at the end as the person to clean up for us. For me this suggests that this is the only solution to the complex problem. While Slat and his Dutch company will be starting work on one gyre this year, there is much more to be done than collecting waste that has already been inappropriately discarded. Unless I have missed some information, The National Geographic 2016 film on the same topic also stops short suggesting that good farming practice is an answer to improving health and the environment. Both A Plastic Ocean and Plastic Ocean have more ‘punch’ in that they are at times shocking, films but also clearly present facts as well as potential solutions. The former being made by Plastic Oceans Foundation and endorsed by David Attenborough (Heaver, 2016). and the latter produced by the United Nations.

A Plastic Ocean, Plastic Ocean Foundation, 2016
Plastic Ocean, United Nations, 2017









What have I learned with this brief sojourn into aesthetics and impact in relation to addressing environmental issues? I am agreeing with Sischy (1991, p92). Beautiful images depicting concerns and plights have a place and can go so far with raising awareness but greater impact may be achieved with showing ‘it’ as it is and adding a visual narrative such a the contrast of background and subject in Brandt’s images and the two Plastic Ocean films. The use of text and speech in these films is more effective than either gentle or abrasive music which either minimises the problems or confronts the viewer head on in a challenging and potentially alienating way.

In relation to my work I will need to think about impact, not just for the course but also for the cause. Taking Brandt’s idea I wonder what response I would get placing huge billboards of my images of rubbish found on beaches on the beaches…?


A Plastic Ocean Official Trailer. 2 February 2016. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zrn4-FfbXw. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Brandt, Nick. Inherit the Dust. Available at: http://www.nickbrandt.com. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Brandt, Nick. 2016. Dust to dust: Animals lost in an African apocalypse – in pictures. The Guardian (5th April 2016). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2016/apr/05/nick-brandt-inherit-the-dust-africa. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Heaver, Stuart. 27 November 2016. Plastic Ocean: it’s a must-watch for Attenborough. Available at: http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/short-reads/article/2048924/plastic-ocean-its-must-watch-attenborough. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Jordan, Chris. (2017). Albatross. Available at : http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/albatross-trailer/#trailer. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Kimmelman, Michael. July 13 2001. Photography Review; Can Suffering bBe Too Beautiful? Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/13/arts/photography-review-can-suffering-be-too-beautiful.html. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Lay, Peter. 3 April 2016. Pacific Garbage Gyre. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6kw96LjTzY. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Levi Strauss, David. 2003. Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture.

National Geographic. 16 September 2016. How We Can Keep Plastics Out of Our Oceans. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQTUWK7CM-Y. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Plastic Oceans. Available at: http://plasticoceans.org/about-film/. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Sebastiao Salgado. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sebastião_Salgado. [accessed 17-03-2018].

Sischy, Ingrid. 1991. Good Intentions. The New Yorker (9th September 1991).

Slat, Boyan. 14 May 2017. Boyan Slat: How we will rid the oceans of plastic (May 2017). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=du5d5PUrH0I. [accessed 17-03-2018].

United Nations. 24 May 2017. Plastic Ocean. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ju_2NuK5O-E. [accessed 17-03-2018].


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