The uses of photography in a crisis

What use is photography in the environmental crisis? Is it only of cultural use? If something is of cultural use, what use is that? I do think culture is as useful as any other set of tools, and I will explain.

The recent exchange between Wen Stephenson and Paul Kingsnorth deals (interestingly, this time) with that ‘old chestnut’ question: Can art and storytelling be a solution to the environmental crisis? Those of us who have frequented ‘art and climate change’ networks over the past half decade have heard this asked ad nauseam. Paul makes clear that there is a big difference between art as a solution to crisis and art having value in a crisis. Paul says ‘we need a cultural response to the collapse of our world, if for no other reason than my personal desire to have an honest story to tell my children about how we destroyed beauty for money and called it “development”.’

On the domestic front, for me, art is exceptionally valuable, every day. From singing to cheer a grumpy child, or dancing when I need to exercise, or making costumes for a solstice parade, it makes me feel alive and connected. Art can be a compulsion for many of us. We know it doesn’t directly feed us but it brings knowledge, health, peace and connection with others, which all contribute to our basic needs. Some of us might make art compulsively when we are distressed or confused. But unlike most other compulsions, it’s not a dangerous one (unless your chosen ‘art’ involves harm). There is a mass of evidence pointing to the positive outcomes of participating in art, especially for people who have suffered cultural loss, emotional trauma, bereavement, ill health and disability or who find conventional ways of learning a struggle (and I believe that includes most of us).

I spend a lot of time measuring the impact of cultural engagement. As austerity bites deeper, many questions about the value of (publicly funded) culture already contain their own negative answer. Or the questioners seek answers that are impossibly ‘hard and fast’. In their hard and fast thinking lies the problem. The dominant paradigm is that there are single and foolproof solutions to the complexities of environmental or personal crises. But in truth there can only be clumsy and multiple solutions at best.

Art is valuable because it is, possibly, the best category descriptor we have for clumsy and multiple solutions. Or rather, art is generative of clumsy and multiple solutions. It pulls ideas out of our brain and feelings out of our body, mixes them with the ideas and expressions of other people, and of other living beings too, and feeds new stuff back in. It accelerates learning and connection by acting as a replicator and transmitter. It externalises and transforms. It reminds me of the symbiotic function of the hidden mychorrhizae fungus which allows trees to communicate with each other.

Those who dismiss the value of the arts often have a very limited view of them within a highly monetised value system. I don’t see art so much in terms of virtuosity, or rather techne-driven commodity. I think its value lies more in areas of therapy, design and knowledge generation. For me, the cultural is practical, and the more that cultural practice flourishes with wide demotic reach and diversity of form, the more uses it will have. I don’t believe so much in grooming people to be exceptionally talented in one art form so that they can entertain us and generate wealth. I think an education in the arts should be multimodal. Each mode on its own suits particular needs and then also the modes can combine in many possible ways to suit other, less visceral or specific, needs. My needs for art are satisfied by singing, writing and photography. They are all three, in different ways, suited to my need for art-making to be both technically accessible and rich in ideas. The techne part doesn’t dominate, but allows for poeisis.

Photography is now accessible to perhaps 3 billion people in the world, growing all the time as phones spread and gain camera (and video) functions. This digitisation and ubiquity of imagery, and blurring of genres of still/moving images, might be seen to diminish photography as an aesthetic genre but if so, I don’t think it greatly matters, and I don’t think it is the case. Nan Goldin, for example, tells young people not to try to be photographers because the digital has taken away the magic of the process. I can understand why this makes photographers sad but there is so much potential to explore beyond the magic of the imaging process. Photography as data, as documentation and instant expression can still be art. When images are overstylised in form and tawdry of purpose, most usually as seen in advertising produced by ‘creatives’, that’s when they can lose their qualities as art. That’s what I find sad.

Photography has wide appeal because it is a creative medium that easily allows more people to represent the world in aesthetically interesting and meaningful ways, whether to snap what they see or to create fictional images that are real-seeming. Or, we can so easily make images on a wide spectrum somewhere between capture and creation.

Photography has practical applications to the wider ecological crisis. There are some easy and engaging aspects to this: Photography widens the reach of cultural events and participatory artworks, through their dissemination. It allows us to share images of ecologically innovative designs and practices.

However, I think it’s most vital function is also its hardest sell: It helps us mourn, despair and beg for help, for example, using images of change to save or restore threatened places or when photography helps us visualise industrial systems, their damage and waste. The best known examples are Chris Jordan’s Intolerable Beauty and Ed Burtynsky’s images of industrial wastelands.

Without beautiful images of wild nature we would appreciate and understand it much less. This doesn’t mean that photography is the solution to ecocide, but it surely helps raise awareness. This Nature 2020 project is an example of awareness-raising about the value of ecosystems. Without photography to document the thousands of plant and animal species we are losing to mass extinction, we would have no idea of what we are losing (to pique our sorrow) and what could be restored if we are able (to pique our hope). I confess I do find it hard to understand why after so many years of mass public love for Nature programmes on TV, there is still so much tolerance of ecocide. I suspect the main reason is that for too long public service broadcasters have veiled the ecocide, training their cameras too much on ambulant creatures, without showing us how the system interacts with and is damaged by human activity. That’s why it matters that we now have cameras in our own hands, so that we can tell the story of environmental collapse as it happens and express how we feel about it.

The task that remains is to use this mass interest in image-making by creating sophisticated tools that combine expertise, imagery, other data and the social will to restore and regenerate damaged places. These shouldn’t be seen as just ‘science projects’ but integrated with emotion, narrative and beauty. It’s hard to explain what this looks like and I’m not going to try that now.

I’ll come back to explaining what it looks like, for me, when techne is not dominant but gives room to poiesis. I’m interested in writing that is creative and poetic but non-fictional, i.e. it describes the living world, and I’m also drawn to photography in similar territory. One of my favourite photographers is Frances Kearney. She often places people in landscapes where nature has been tampered with (by the military, by farmers and so on) but the people portrayed seem ambivalent and watchful, almost there by accident, uncannily part of but not embedded within the landscape. These are not activist or propagandist photographs: They quietly provoke memories and questions about how we live in landscape. They work for me, if not for everyone, probably because they are the North Norfolk landscapes of my childhood. (We have a family photo of me and my brother by this same black dome. After it was taken I had nightmares about hidden tunnels beneath crawling with Nazis.)

1Untitled, 2006, Frances Kearney

21Untitled, 2009, Frances Kearney

For me, this is photography to think and feel with. The images haunt me with their confusions while also giving me a sense of clarity and focus. I feel I am doing part of the work in just looking but it seems to do me good. I think that photography is most valuable when we are working hard to create poems about the living (and dying) world we inhabit, and when we are working hard to read them.

I’ve been working on themes in my own photography about how we see the natural world as children and as mature adults, how we prepare children for the future and how we cope with threats. I’ve made a collaborative exhibition with my family about tree diseases and climate change, called Fruiting Bodies.

3Stoats on diseased beech tree, 2009, Bridget McKenzie

I’ve made a memorial walk for the nine scouts who drowned 100 years ago this year, heading for summer camp on the Isle of Sheppey and buried in Nunhead cemetery. Their funeral parade was attended by over a million people, distraught after the Titanic sinking and worried about the preparedness of British youth in the face of a German invasion. The cliffs at Leysdown, where their bodies came ashore, are soft as butter. Gun emplacement buildings have fallen onto the sand, useful now as play structures. On my walk, my camera was seen as a weapon in the face of children as parent after parent, and then a coastguard, told me to put it away. Do we know what real danger is? Do we know what will last? Do we know how to help our children live in a world where nothing we know now will stay the same? Photography is a medium that deals with loss and change so it seems the best tool I have to ask these questions, even if I can’t answer them.

4Playing on the Fort, 4th August 2010, Bridget McKenzie. From set.

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