Anita Scianó © from “Gli Argonauti” (2020)
How do social interactions have changed during the Covid-19 pandemic? This is the research question of the collective COVISIONI:, which during the last year (from March 2020 to 2021) has aimed to elaborate the contemporary social landscape through photography and the sensibility of its forty different authors. Indeed, Covid-19 and the social etiquettes and the consequent public health rules have affected the way people share spaces. This long-term project has documented, described and shared a diffuse condition of co-living and the construction of a new delicate cultural and social equilibrium.
The collective narrative constituted by single authorial views from all the Italian regions offers an interesting analysis to map and document the different layers of crisis which not only Italians but also society at large are going through. Indeed, this historical moment has put still everybody around the globe, being a time of several connected crises, and the human response is strikingly universal. The state of suspension provoked by Covid-19 has raised issues in all spheres of life, and, paradoxically, the world has found itself in connection within isolation through a common feeling of alienation, which for a brief period has generated a transversal nearness and empathy. Personal and collective experiences and memories have merged into a diverse but cohesive narrative. To quote Jerome Bruner (1991, 4), “[…] we organise our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative - stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing or not doing, and so on. A narrative is a conventional form, transmitted culturally and constrained by each individual’s level of mastery and by his conglomerate of prosthetic devices, colleagues, and mentors”. Nevertheless, whether a narrative represents and constructs reality through still or moving images, texts, sounds and so on and so forth, it is clear that it “organises the structure of human experience” (Ibid., 21) and is intrinsic to the human need of making sense of the world. Using Hayden White’s words, “[s]o natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened […]” (1981, 1) that it can be encountered in every culture and any form across space and time. Indeed, as William John Mitchell points out in the forward of the publication On Narrative, from which White’s thought is taken, it is important to acknowledge that “[t]he study of narrative is no longer the province of literary specialists or folklorists […] but has now become a positive source of insight for all branches of human and natural science.” (Ibid., ix).
According to Gillian Rose, social life and its understandings have shifted during the last couple of decades towards a more culturally constructed reality, meaning that culture has become the means through which “people behave” and “ different groups in a society will make sense of the world […]” (2016, 6). Moreover, it is the visual to be “central to the cultural construction of social life in contemporary Western societies” (Ibid.). Martin Jay has described this phenomenon with the term ocularcentrism (qtd. in Ibid, 7) to highlight the importance and centrality of the eye in the processes of experiencing and knowing about the world. “Looking, seeing and knowing have become perilously intertwined” (Jenks 1995, 1) and nowadays human virtual interactions are more and more gravitating around visual, photographic texts on social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram among others. Thus, the relevant role that photographic images are given in the everyday life is important to be addressed to understand their power at the intersection with interpretability and sense-making.
As Mieke Bal argues, “looking, as an act, is already invested in what has been called reading.” (2008, 173) making it bold the belief that visual artefacts are readable as texts. Bal’s argument agrees with structuralist philosophers and particularly Roland Barthes’ semiology theory, also applied to photographic images in the frame of a general intolerance towards the bourgeois culture and its faith in the stereotypes that it consumes and re-consumes as if natural and not conventional. Overall, a photographic image, as a text, has two levels of signification: denotation and connotation. As Barthes (1977) writes, at the denotative level there is a sign consisting of a signifier and signified: for example, a photograph of a rose signifies the flower, while at the connotative level the denotation and its signifier assume a deeper meaning, which is constructed culturally and historically (e.g. a rose might mean “love”). Knowledge is always situated, “always provisional, always in becoming, [and it] is not something one can achieve. It is a collective, historical process. Being knowledgeable then is not ‘having’ knowledge but being involved in collectively making knowledge happen.” (Bal 2013).
From photographic social reportages, we are used to expecting peculiar perspectives on ways of living and situations distant from our reality. For instance, we consider those visions exotic, for our Romantic or colonial subconscious. During the pandemic, the other than self, the exotic and distant in time and place has become “us” because we have found ourselves bound by the same destiny and reality.
Narrating through images is an old system but social documentary photography rehabilitated the practice giving it a new life and social function (Bate 2019). Thus, concerned photography emerged after the First World War as a popular practice to inform and creatively educate. The aim was to show the everyday life of common people to common people. It was differentiated from the use of photography as a document that States and institutions were making use of. Photographers as proper authors of stories were aiming to inform, educate and diffuse truth around certain matters. Those proposing subjective points of view through particular uses of the photographic device and composition were associated with a new kind of documentary technique: reportage, or social documentary. Characterised by expressive realism, it has stood from the 1920s and 1930s as a device to channel events as news and describe the social process, conditions and their impact on the mass. Not to mention, social documentary photography was finding ground in the context of a broader social change and liberal attitude that were spreading at the end of the First World War. Indeed, it served as a tool among others to narrate with empathy the construction of an idea of a public sphere through social experience (Ibid.).
As Mitchell argues, “ [t]he medium does not lie between sender and receiver; it includes and constitutes them.” (2005, 204) and so “[…] photography is not just about the world, and therefore outside it, but is rather part of the world”, in Azoulay’s words (2008, 55). A medium such as photography is not neutral. It is, as Raymond Williams insisted, a social practice (qtd. in Mitchell 2005, 203) and a site of social exchange and the idea of connecting people has been present in social crisis now more than ever, because of social media platforms. Social documentary photography has here virtual space where to act and make a real change, shading light on the sidelined aspects of society that are not taken into account in the macro-narrative of State-led media, such as newspapers and TVs. Moreover, documenting is about constructing a “social, political and cultural memory” (Assmann 2010, 41) for future analysis and simply connect to a past event. What do we want pictures to do in the present and in the imminent future? What are we witnessing in our lives that is new and unfamiliar besides the macro-narration of hospitals reaching saturation points and graphs on the Covid-19 incidence on the world population? What and who has the right to be seen more than useless politicians’ speeches aiming to divert the public opinion from State inefficiencies to scapegoats of their fallacies?
Claudia Gori © from “Sospesa” (2020)
COVISIONI: depicts an answer formulating micro-narratives that are about emotions and common people’s everyday struggles and small moments of joy. Through the looks of their artists’ narration, we are co-witnessing the emotional suspension, fears and uncertainties lingering around humanity. We are made to reflect, even though sometimes subconsciously because the fast consumption of images on social media does not help to pause. Empathy, identification and imagination are fostered at a time of paralysis and social stillness. Besides COVISIONI:’s example, we see powerful protests against inequality and injustice, such as institutional racism. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement is the most prominent case of social mobility enhanced by the photographic medium and transmitted through social media platforms. Like technology - with which photography is connected - photography has a controversial nature. “In witnessing, sharing and organising, photography is a powerful instrument for giving people a voice and therefore power [but] it can be a catalyst for cravings and greed, for an ever-accelerating dynamism if interests driven by commerce and power, for transience and superficiality.” (Feil 2020, 4).
In contrasting State and institutional visions on social changes, photography serves individuals and communities to externalise future personal memories, which are “irreproducible, while ideologies are supported by archives of texts and images” according to Sontag (qtd. Assmann 2010, 49). Particularly in times of crisis, social photography, that will become a social memory that approximate many voices in relation to another and proliferating in the site of the image. Photographers, as citizens, are key to activating future memories and catalyse empathy and responsibilities to act upon certain social issues. COVISIONI: is certainly doing a lot to softly awaken awareness of the present, at least for the youngest generations that inhabit Instagram. COVISIONI: maps and subtly claims the changes that common people are going through, from the change in the relationship of people with the self to the bigger scale of the relationship with a community, from the urban abandoned meeting places to the rediscovery of nature, and many others macro-themes always addressed by peculiar and distinguishable visions.
As I argued before, an image’s site of the audience is where its meaning is continuously being activated across time and space. “Photography is no one’s property.”, argues Azoulay (2008, 81) because it is always made possible by the encounter, the event of the photographer coming across the photographed. It is much more than an image because it bears in it the event itself, and the event reconstruction requires a spectator’s gaze and its interpretation, which is not a mere aesthetic appreciation. Thus, when an image shows the conditions of other people in a certain situation, there is “a civic skill […] activated the moment one grasps that citizenship is not merely a status, a good, or a piece of private property possessed by the citizen, but rather a tool of a struggle or an obligation to others to struggle against.” (Ibid. 14). Citizenship, which originally describes the relationship between an individual and a state, is, according to Azoulay, the form of relations of individuals in the event of photography. Therefore, photography, and particularly social documentary photography, “is an apparatus of power” (Ibid. 81) that entails diverse actions that goes from the production to the consumption, from the distribution to the exchange (Ibid. 82).
Although the examples brought to the table in this article are of different nature and weight in respect to Azoulay’s (e.g. the living conditions of the Palestinians or the global catastrophe of rape), the question of citizenry is of high relevance in so far. Indeed, COVISIONI:, as a collective social documentary, carries the plurality of photographers, photographed people, and spectators, all present at the same time to fulfil their expected respective roles. In Azoulay’s words, “persons are being taken in photos, photographers take pictures, spectators look” (Ibid. 24).
This “new citizenry” (Mishra 2020, 98) of photography is one of coalescence and empathy, from the photographers, not elevated to a higher position, and from the spectators, which are called to advocate for a non-passive receiving of images to abolish “the place of the other in the construction of a ‘seeing together’.” (Mondzain 2008, 42). Although senses are numbed by the constant exposure to "images that politically control passions by the community” (Ibid. 21), aesthetic and creatively diverse views have and should have the power to awaken society at large because what happens locally do has an impact on the global (and nowadays we know it more than ever). As Mondzain sharply observes, images have the power to make us act, not because they are at the origins of our acts, but because, as free subjects of our actions, we have the freedom to be critical of what we see beyond the visible, thus to let the emotions awaken transform into tangible actions of solidarity.
Nicole Marchi © from “Pomodori rossi” (2020)
COVISIONI: mirrors a possible answer to the question of what is the place of photography in society when a crisis hits. Through a rather poetic and confrontational methodology, the photographers brought to the table and all the others taking part in the project, turn the photographic medium into a space for empathy and intimate but collective reflections on the present and the post-pandemic dystopia. Thus, photography’s new citizenry is a shared experience that goes beyond borders and nationalities yet enhanced by the possible circulation of images via social media. “Could it be, then, that we as spectators, build a new citizenry as Azoulay proposed? Can this new citizenry be one that takes the act of witnessing as a sense of responsibility […]?” asks Tanvi Mishra. His take on photography’s “new citizenry” is relevant in the quest of mapping its social (re-)turn, specifically in its documentary research but not only. Indeed, COVISIONI: offers an example of socially-oriented practices which borders blur into conceptual photography and other genres. While Mishra delimits the medium’s new citizenry to photojournalism and media pictures, in this study a broader and multiple perspectives on micro-narratives is taken into account. “We often think that the intimacy of the everyday has nothing to do with the bigger picture of collective history in the making. On the contrary, every peculiar and singular gaze and photographic style have the capacity and the potential to inquiry on the macro-narrative of the world everyday making that we witness.”1 Considering social media a powerful site of encounter, the key takeaway of this research shows through very clearly and resides in the immediate encounter of the spectators with images circulating on Instagram such as COVISIONI:’s. Indeed, embedded in the social(s) daily life, those aesthetic and reflective photos have the potential of engaging with spectators and, in stimulating an empathic connection, they ideally foster solidarity and communal feelings of belonging.
MA student at FCH-UCP, CECC/The Lisbon. Consortium. Founded by the FCT.
Extracs from the paper presented in the context of the Seminar in Culture, Production and Creativity taught by Peter Hanenberg.
1COVISIONI: collective, e-mail message to author, July 13, 2021.
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