Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Some distance from Non-Photography Day

Celebrate the moment, don't document it!

Twice now around town I've seen flyers with this slogan stuck to advertising posters. It promotes Non-Photography Day, July 17th. The promoter, a Brighton-based photographic artist called Becca, says that:
This day was made after trekking through the Jungle on the Thailand/Burma Border with a group of travellers. As you would expect we came across many wonderful views, villages and creatures on our way; however I noticed that the people around me were living in these moments through their camera, and as soon as we stopped and were still, all reached for their camera.
I'm sure we've all felt this, even as we reach for the camera. Isn't it enough just to be there and look?

Non-photography Day is designed to help us:
to think about how life exists, in essence and not appearance and to understand the inadequacy of the photograph in describing this essence, to bring awareness of the perils of living through the view finder or the display screen.
An admirable and worthwhile aim. But that isn't the same as celebrating the moment is it? Thinking about the essence of life demands reflection, a suspension of thoughtlessness, a documentation. By observing her fellow travellers, one could argue that Becca was doing just that - thinking, reflecting without a lens - and thereby failing to celebrate the moment. She was taking another kind of photograph.

Perhaps it's significant that the site does not explain how one is meant to celebrate the moment. It's taken as a given. Yet any celebration requires a certain distance from the event itself. After all, the event can only be itself through distance. In celebration, we isolate the event in time and space. For instance, how does a 'wonderful view' manifest without distance?

A few days ago I quoted Kafka on the subject. He takes it further, placing life's essence in the awareness of our distance from it. The paradox animates his writing. His expressions of inadequacy, rather than being only cries of self-pity, demonstrate that it is a necessary component of life experience. Cries of joy have an equal weight. Neither draws us closer to the world. Rather than seeking in vain to collapse that distance, Kafka brings it to life. The only alternative is death.

Non-Photography Day: your funeral.

4 comments:

  1. I think it was art critic Jean Clair that said "to take photographs is to avoid seeing".
    I don't really care to "celebrate" anything, "celebrate" is certainly the wrong word here. But I think that avoid the camera, and taking the risk to just look at things without documenting it, is the only way we have to actually "learn to see" things.
    What is the purpose of this "learning"? The same the masters of painting always had (until Cézanne): not to take the perception of the world for granted.
    It's obvious to me how photography greatly inhibits the process, by giving the illusion of having grasped what's weird, fascinating, unusual, disturbing or marvellous is before our eyes, and instead blocking any actual chance to get it.

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  2. It is worth noting that Kafka hated photography - especially those tourists who used to invade the lakes he used to visit snapping and clicking away...

    Not that I want to cast the cat amongst the pigeons, you understand Steve. ;-)

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  3. Don't photographs already imply a (finally enigmatic, because death-like) distance? And so the question becomes one of (re)earning this distance, maybe, or not taking it for granted, and on the cheap?

    If not Sontag's 'ethics of seeing,' exactly, might photographs still manifest an integrity (and ultimately, openness) toward their subject matter, as John Berger might have somewhere suggested?

    Yes I know, he's a sentimental sap as well.

    (The essay I'm thinking of is in _About Looking_; some excerpts are here.)

    Everything would seem to hinge upon, as usual, the alleged singular sight of 'God' - (as in he who sees all, and in secret).

    If there is no such omnitient God, and only others-as-God (as witnesses to death), then might also photographs be said to lose some of their historical pretention?

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