"Facing Otherness in Contemporary Photography" was presented in 14 informative and engaging lectures by Professor Sharon Murray over the summer of 2013 at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Murray also teaches the History of Photography, and Studies in Contemporary Photography. She is a PhD student in Art History and part-time faculty member at Concordia University with an MA in Art History (Concordia, 2007) and a BFA in Photography (NSCAD, 2005). The lectures were complemented by several very relevant case studies and interesting readings from various sources.
The course begins by defining "otherness" and looking at a brief history of how "others" are portrayed through photography from the colonial period to present day. "Othering" has been used mainly as a process of exclusion, of creating and maintaining power relations. "Others" include non-white, non-Western people, non-Christian, poor and disadvantaged people, abnormal, criminals, mentally and physically retarded, exotic, erotic, oriental, gender differences and in the way men and women are characterized in cultural tourism and advertising. The course teaches photographic literacy using an approach to visual analysis of photographic images. Questions are posed such as 1. how has photography created or contributed to discrimination and the marginalization of others; and 2. how is photography used to disrupt, question, analyze and challenge otherness?
Otherness is not just created by the photographer but also by the viewer who brings their own "gaze", interpretation and meaning to the image. The viewer may demonstrate a particular "gaze" - a look or stare of eagerness or desire reflecting a viewing relationship based on social norms, values or power. Viewers may take pleasure in looking, in being looked at or in looking while not being seen. A viewer may be led to recognize themselves and identify with the ideal subjects offered by the image. As a spectator they may suspend disbelief in the fictional world of the image and identify with the characters, ideology and fantasy symbols and structures of the image. Images can be considered as a language of codes and conventions subject to textual analysis. In many cases, it is only through studying the context of the image and/or the background of the creator that the connection is made.
In order to understand how otherness is used or countered in contemporary photography, Murray spent some time mapping out its history. Victorian, colonial and post-colonial images of the Middle East, Africa, India and the Far East were examined as examples of "orientalism" and "ethnography". We looked at how photography aided Western society to survey, inventory, catalogue and stereotype the people and cultures of those areas. In many cases, a stereotype was created of primitivism, uncivilized societies and dire need of Western civilization, sophistication, aid and development. The lectures were complemented by several case studies which clearly demonstrated how photography was used to create, reinforce and perpetuate and also to counter otherness.
The case studies included 1. National Geographic Magazine - pre-World War I to just after World War II, 2. United Colours of Benetton advertising campaigns, 3. Shelby Adams work on the people and culture of Appalachia, and 4. Foreign Aid - how the images used by NGOs (such as World Vision) and governments (e.g. UNICEF) for fundraising have produced "compassion fatigue" by constantly bombarding us with images of the poor, hungry, diseased and war ravaged third world. It straddles a fine line between moving us emotionally or making us feel guilty and motivating us to contribute, and making us feel too uncomfortable and repels.
In the mid-19th century, photography was used in criminology and medicine as a tool for diagnosis and even cure. The police used facial features and skull proportions (phrenology) to identify the "criminal type".
Some in the mental illness field believed that they could cure a mentally ill patient by showing them a photograph of the patient in a fit or delusional state.
The content of the lectures is far too expansive and rich to due justice to in this short review. Contemporary themes of otherness discussed included:
Cultural Tourism and the tourist gaze
Documentary Photography and its subset of social documentary
The Human Body, the mechanical clinical gaze and the objectification of the body
The Global and the Local - the contemporary photographic response of others in Aboriginal
communities, immigrants, Africa, India, the Middle East and China.
The course presented a very interesting and important part of the history of photography and how it is being practiced in a variety of situations today. In particular, it revealed how photography can, by design or by chance, be used to construct and maintain or to break down barriers between people. The course offered a useful approach to visual analysis in deciphering the meaning of photographic images. Murray reminds us to be mindful of what we bring to the image, that is our own perceptions, biases and prejudices. It raises questions about the ethics of photography, who has the right to photograph whom? What is fair and right? Highly recommended for those who want to think more about and discuss in detail the role and responsibilities of photography and photographers today.