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Portraiture and subversion

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Subversion: To break down a system. To question a system. It’s about approaching something and being subversive toward it.

It’s extremely important as the digital landscape would need to rely on this process in order for a new kind of storytelling to function against repeated stories. For instance, iconography of war…being subversive means to question the process, the images, the story as a whole, the feelings I get as a viewer, what I would do to push the boundaries of the photography and the story.

As a photographer not currently working for the press, I could easily be subversive with my work.

Jon Levy was kind enough to give some stories for me to look at, which he originally published on his website. He has selected these stories because they work; they make sense. Each story has its own strengths and weaknesses, and especially different kinds of images. But for these stories, portraiture plays a key role in the notion of being subversive.

The first story is Acts of Resilience, by Marta Tucci (foto8 submission here). Presented first with an image, provided with no contextual understanding of what it’s about, I am left to question its significance. It’s particular style on portraiture reflects my deadpan interest, somehow acting as a muted point of interest that grabs my attention. There is a series of text underneith this image that explains the context of where the images were shot, plus the overall story behind them. It primarily gives information on the history and impact of the conflict that lead to the stage where the subjects are currently at, plus an understanding of living conditions and some facts portrayed though numbers. It’s particularly extensive, at 8 paragraphs.

I then come to a video/slideshow, which can be played with sound or viewed separately with contextualising captions. What’s good about these captions is that they provide sensitive details of the subjects within the images. In response to this, as a successful consumer of the work, the images have a softer feeling to them; they are subversive toward the sensitive subject matter. There are no particular images of extreme circumstances, which has helped the image to elaborate text (as opposed to being a contextualiser, which is what the text and captions have accomplished more, due to their commitment with description and story telling). Other than the captions, there is also a transcript of the woman’s voice in the background of the sound within the video. Again, much considered use of text and its significance with story telling. Text was the strongest device in the narrative.

The second story is Gezi is Everywhereby Colin Boyd Shafter. In contrast to Acts of resilience, text plays a less important role in the story, at least to a less extend of contextualisation. In the previous story, there was enough description to give a sense of place and activity, but in this story, I was given context through the eyes and the mind of the photographer. To better understand, this is the first major paragraph of the work by the artist:

“Thinking back, what I remember most vividly were sounds of intense conversation – a lot of helping each other – dancing, singing, and laughing – people checking on one another – a real strong sense of community. I remember the chanting – “Tayyip Istifa!!” over and over again, crying for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign.”

As you can see, there’s a lot of information about the people rather than the supposed action of a protest. But the protest should be the major part of the story, in fact that’s why the photographer is there, right? Indeed, we get images of the protest, but not as we know it. In the provided slideshow, which can be controlled manually or let images play automatically, there are images of activity, camps, people interacting with each other, people smiling, people interacting with their partners. Most of the images are what I would call decisive moments, especially for being just a few, but that’s the whole point: they get a message across. They are subversive because they show the people within a typically portrayed subject matter within mainstream media, otherwise depicted in the heart of the event, of where the violence and money-making “news”  images are likely to occur.

Jodi Bieber’s work Real Beauty was shown as just a video for me to watch. It’s a video accompanied with music, comprising of a series of portraits of women from different backgrounds and cultures, depicted in their own spaces, all appearing differently in terms of what they wear and how they pose. Each image is accompanied by a quote from the sitter, providing an empowered opinion on beauty culture, or how they see themselves.

Jodi’s work is interesting as it directly questions what beauty is, in a more in-depth manner. Though clearly not my most favoured subject matters, the mixture and expansiveness of sitters in their environments provides a strong spectrum of curated and empowered meaning and reasoning; so instead of focusing on perhaps a strong opinion and basing it across select people, there is a more openness connection with our unmeasurable perceptions of beauty. It’s more of a reassurance as it is empowering for viewers.

The music and text voices of the sitters adds a much needed layer of complexity with the subject matter. I knew this as I looked at the artist’s original work on her website. The work is contextualised differently, with the images appearing first, sequenced the same as they were in the video, whilst a personal essay from the artist closes the work, providing the information and working behind her images. There  One thing that the dedicated website does well is control pace and initiate a steady questioning of the work. In some ways it worked better as separate images instead of a video sequence, and I would argue the readability of the work through the different forms of presentation. What if, for instance, there was no music, and no quotes? Would anyone be able to become witnesses of an amplified, subversive approach to the discourse of beauty? Would music essentially helped some audience members understand the nature of the work, to become more immersed? If the digital environment is respected to be useful for reaching more and more audiences then perhaps Jodi’s work could essentially be considered as cross platform media.

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