Photography and Society
in the Age of Dematerialization
Considerations from Philosophical Anthropology
by Hasan G. López Sanz
... as an institutional piety, it is only carried out in consecrated circumstances and places and, associated with the solemnization of the solemn and the consecration of the sacred, it is free of the ambition to accord the status of "that which is photographed" to anything not objectively (that is, socially) defined as "photographable" and everything that "must be photographed", because the very principle that defines the basis of its existence also determines its limits. "Photography A Middle-brow Art", Pierre Bourdieu
It is undisputed that nowadays photography has a memory function. Memory is used to select the events that should be stored in it, relegating or condemning to oblivion what bothers us or what is not in line with our interests, desires and motivations. In addition, we must remember that memory sometimes works photographically and that its mechanisms are complex.
Let us think about Roland Barthes, who recognised the essence of his deceased mother from a photography of her as a child, in a winter garden, while the rest of the photos he found in the family house seemed to be "analogue" and not revealing a truth, but simply the identity of the portrayed. The French semiologist never imagined that remembering a loved one through an image could work better than the memories he kept of that person. The photograph of his mother revealed her "sovereign innocence", "the affirmation of a gentleness", "the kindness that, at that moment, transformed him forever". For Barthes, that photograph became a sting as vivid as memory. Memory help us develop our personal and family past. Likewise, the absence of photographs is also revealing as it tells us about what could not be photographed or what didn't fit in the box kept in the attic, in the photo album or in the archive, or what was destroyed for being considered innocuous, dangerous or indecent.
Traditionally, photographs have had an objectual and material dimension. This dimension has been, according to Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, forgotten in sociological and anthropological researches. In addition to practice and image, the photograph can and must be seen as an object. The importance of the photographs' materiality is obvious in the family album.
In 2000, the visual sociologist Emmanuel Garrigues dedicated a chapter of his book L'écriture Photographique to the analysis of the family album, in an attempt to update Pierre Bourdieu's research on the social uses of photography. However, just like the professor, Garrigues focused mainly on the social practices and uses of photography, reaching similar conclusions. According to Bourdieu, photography intended to celebrate life's most important moments, such as weddings, births, baptisms, parties, etc. Garrigues introduced two other dimensions: mourning and nostalgia. But inadvertently he pointed out to an objectual dimension of photography. For instance, when he concludes that albums inherited from ascending families differ in value and use from the ones we create with our own family history, he speaks of the former as "precious relics". And what are relics, other than idolised objects that work as mortar, strengthening the sense of belonging and identity?
Sometimes, I buy photographs in street markets. I keep them in boxes and, by doing so, I believe I'm rescuing lost people. It is not only an act of recovery, but also of resistance. There is a life beyond the iconosphere!
The album plays a role of family or social integration; the more generations it embraces, the greater is its symbolic capital.
Moreover, the storage place of a family album is generally different from that of the personal album; grandparents are responsible for keeping these memory objects, passing them on to parents who, in turn, shall pass them on to any of their children. The act of passing on these objects carries a responsibility to the person who gives and to the person who receives; the heir becomes the guardian of the family's memory. The album's history eventually is the family history; suddenly, the family albums of an actress or of a rich family start to decompose and disperse, ending up in street markets or antique shops, their photos become orphan, forgotten and their symbolic role changes thoroughly. As Emmanuel Garriques points out "there is a link, on the one hand, between the family history, its social position and richness in the photographs and family albums and, on the other hand, a link between the social integration level and the creation of family albums."
Sometimes, the photograph materiality in the album excessively limits its meaning. A face crossed out with a pen or a marker in a photo symbolically destroys its link and separates it from its whole. On the other hand, we cannot forget the conversion of photography into a social agent. The portrait of a deceased relative displayed anywhere in the house serves not only the purpose of making him or her present, remembering that person, but it serves also to regulate the actions and relationships developed in that place.
Essay published in ArchivoZine 16
Hasan G. López Sanz is Doctor in Philosophy and holds a degree on Social and Cultural Anthropology. Associated Professor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Education Sciences, at Valencia University, and of the Master Degree of Photography, Art and Technic, at Valencia Polytechnic University. His research focuses on philosophical and social anthropology, the historical-critical analysis of the empiric anthropology and museums, and the art aesthetics and theory, with a special interest on photography and its public uses.