Thursday, December 15, 2016

Photography After The Human by Joanna Zylinska, my comments

I've just read Joanna Zylinska's article 'Photography after the Human' published in Photographies Journal in July this year, in which she argues within the 'wider framework of current post-humanist and post-anthropocentric perspectives, where what is being abstracted is both the notion of the human and the notion of the world that supposedly exists for and in agreement with this human' (p.167) For me, the click of the camera shutter, which both captures and severs a particular image or piece of life from the next instance of that life, is akin to the theoretical notion of the post human, since arresting the human from the continuuim of the indiviual and community human creates before and after (the human). It freeze frames humanity and tells only part of the narrative.
Zylinska draws upon William Bornefel's 1996 science fiction novel Time and Light set in a post-apocalyptic, post-industrialist world. The illuminated dome city is fueled by steam and manpower industrialism of an underground, dirty, hidden world. (p.168) The white/black, light/dark, life/death binaries are obviously important here for in Bornefeld's novel there is 'an absolute ban on photography and other forms of imaging' since 'visual society was in a constant state of imbalance and agitation due to stress on the optic nerve'(p.168 quoting Bornefeld 43). Zylinska argues that Bornefeld's novel suggests the 'survival of photography is vital to the survival of human society, because it is images that can give life back to an enclosed and paralysed community' as opposed to the 'Barthesian narrative, where photography is inherently marked with death'. (169) She does concede further along in her article that 'In spite of our earlier reservation, we are perhaps back her with Barthes' argument in Camera Lucida, in which photographs of other humans serve as reminers of their inevitable death (181).
Although she argues for the capacity of photography to produce life, isn't it the very stillness of the photographic image that carves 'out an image from the flow of duration' (169) that suggests death, the sudden cessation of life? She briefly discusses nonhuman automata (the camera or other image capturing devices) as not being a product of human production. I would argue against her statement that 'photography has always been nonhuman' (180), I maintain that automata constructed by and used by human beings produces human outcomes, whether or not an actual person has seen and witnessed the things or event and that product may be distributed for others to witness. Isn't part of what makes us human our capacity to create and use tools to extend our understanding of our place in the wider world. The essential difference is that the human eye sees and records privately, whereas photographs, produced by a mechanical device have the capacity to become public, shown and shared as a record of a historical event.
I am not an expert in photographic theory however I do take photographs and have been interested in them since I was about seven years old and would rumage in my grandmother's tin of photographic treasures. I was prompted to become more serious about taking photographs myself after reading Roland Barthes Camera Lucida (1981) and in 2011 exhibited numerous photographs in an installation with text and sound. Francesco Paolo Vitallia wrote:

Whilst Bathes's study was animated by a search for his mother's image, Clarke's installation stemmed from a memory of her grandmother's relationship with photographs and people already deceased. As a child Clarke would extract photographs from a tin secreted away in her grandmother's wardrobe. After retrieving a photograph she woul ask her grandmother 'who's this' and the reply would be a preemptory 'they're dead'. This is the status of most photographs as un art moyen, which represent images of friends and family consigned to a place of forgetting. (Catalogue for The Body and the City: A Poem in Three Parts, Atrium Annex Gallery, Architecture Building, The University of Melbourne, 2011)

My grandmother's photographs were old (some were older than her and must have been given to her) and were already showing signs of damage and decay, heralding perhaps the demise not only of the image but of the people in the photographs, which leads me to what may be perceived as the real gist of Zynlisks argument, which centers upon imagery around the ruin of human infrastructure, which in itself marks either a present state of decay or of a possible future in which the human has either abandoned a site or been obliterated by devistating human activity, such as 'calamitous events in our global economic and ecological systems' (172). She cites a number of artists and photographers who via their art 'imagine a world in which the human is no more' (174). After the human then, is the shock we encounter when we view images of locales that are destroyed and devoid of a human presence.
Drawing upon the Anthropocene that defines our current geological time as being anthropogenic, based on overwhelming evidence that all earth system processes are influenced by humans Zylinska imagines a future bereft of humans and in this way calls attention to fears that perhaps nothing or rather everything imaged or imagined by the human up to this present time wouldn't matter, for ultimately we will destroy ourselves and everything in the world. Eco friendly images that reveal desolution and destruction, spur the viewer to do something, anything to ward off our possible future extinction. Pointless I think to even ponder images/photographs after the human, even if many of the image capture devices such as surveillance cameras continue to record, for if human beings do not exist, they would be unrecognisable to an alien race, assuming of course that they have not faded, survived catastrophe or are retrieved beneath rubble. Last pictures of humanity would be deprived of meaning, severed from the materiality of actual flesh. Photographs have always been made for the human by the human.
As much as I love photographs and the capacity to capture images through the camera apparatus, I take to task the notion that prior to the invention of the camera that image making was somehow impoverished. After the human appears to be suggesting that prior to the photographic image individuals did not consider a possible future in which they became extinct. Take for example the apocalyptic paintings of Ludwig Meicher. And on the subject of the 'human' what of those 'humans' who have never used a camera, let alone seen one and created a photographic image, such as the uncontacted tribes who live in densly populated forest areas of South America, Central Africa and New Guinea? Are they not human by virtue that their history and memory, unlike ours, is not recorded through a play of light and technology?
I really enjoyed this article it made me think again about the notion of the post human and the impact of our technologies on the human condition and on other life forms within our ecosystem. But it also raised an interesting ethical question for me, firstly about the responsibiliity of photographers to document the slow decay of our world and secondly whether this 'ruin porn' has become just more eye candy for those who like the aesthetic of things that are old. I for one am always pointing out the beauty in rust and decay on furniture and buildings. Does the destruction of our planet and our species fuel a weird fantasy that the survival of the utter beauty of nature may depend upon the intentional suicide of humanity en masse?

Joanna Zylinska's article has free access an may be located at:

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