Photography and Academic Research: Images in the Post-Truth Era

By Dermot Hodson­

“This debate about truth and photography may not be conclusive but it leaves scholars of photography primed for an era of post truth politics in which politicians are ready, on a scale never seen before, to contest facts and trade in falsehoods.”

Photography and Academic Research: Images in the Post-Truth Era

Scholars of photography have long since abandoned the conceit that photographs convey the truth. Images can be manipulated, all the more so in the age of digital photography by those who practice to deceive. Even where no deliberate deception occurs, photographs are selected and framed by photographers and they rarely offer up an unambiguous meaning.

If photography does not provide an objective representation of reality then what does it offer? Photographers ‘are still faithful to a notion of a truth if not the truth’, argues Michelle Bogre, a defender of progressive photography. For Martha Rosler, photographers are prone to moralism, propagandising and control.

This debate about truth and photography may not be conclusive but it leaves scholars of photography primed for an era of post truth politics in which politicians are ready, on a scale never seen before, to contest facts and trade in falsehoods. Whereas political scientists are still puzzling over the willingness of politicians to dissemble, peddle conspiracies, question scientific consensus and cry fake news, historians of photography are all too familiar with acts and accusations of fakery.

On 6th-8th September 2018, over 100 photographers and photography scholars from 29 countries came to Birkbeck, University of London for a three-day conference that I organised with Dr Marcel Reyez-Cortez (Photography+(Con)Text). The theme of this event was the opportunities and challenges facing photography in the post-truth era. Through roundtables, artist talks, research panels, keynotes and networking opportunities, participants engaged in a lively discussion about the power – and limits – of photography as a tool for social research and an instrument for social change.

Photography and Academic Research: Images in the Post-Truth Era

Birkbeck’s Professor Steve Edwards opened the conference with a keynote lecture on the scope and limits of social documentary photography as viewed through the work of Allan Sekula, Mathieu Asselin and John Moore. Highlights from the second day included presentations by Dr Suzanne Carlberg-Rachich on participatory photography and a presentation and discussion of Fiona Compton’s film The Revolution of the Fairytale. The final day of the conference included discussion of documentary projects by Dr Christian Vium and Dr Agata Lulkowska and a round table dedicated to the work of social documentary photographer and Birkbeck Politics graduate Carlos Reyez–Manzo.

The conference was sponsored by the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research and the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Lou Miller, Azzam Al-Kassir, Haroon Forde and Pauline Suwanban from the BISR provided invaluable assistance during the conference, as did Isabel Sanz Fombellida and Dorcas Ayeni Stevens from Team Birkbeck. Special thanks go to Prof. Steve Edwards and colleagues in Birkbeck’s History and Theory of Photography Research Centre for their invaluable support.

Dermot Hodson is Reader in Political Economy in the Department of Politics. He directs the SPACE seminar series, which explores the link between politics and the arts.

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