Has your photography a role in defining or redefining a public ethic?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by aplumpton, Dec 18, 2016.

  1. It is hard to be a citizen of the world or of a smaller community, and a photographer attempting to explore and portray a personal perception of what he sees about him or her, and not also be aware of the important changes occurring today on various continents, including populist movements and leaders of the right or left in various countries and their apparent questioning of regional identities and the neo liberal global economy that in some instances ignores what they feel as the needs of the citizen.
    Some thinkers, like the 20th century politician Robert Kennedy, understood the need of defining a public ethic and the role of society in serving all of its citizens. But I do not suggest here a conversation on philosophy or politics, which is not expected on this photography site, but seek instead your thoughts on the question of whether photography (yours) can have a positive continuing and important roll to play in bringing the question of a defined or redefined public ethic to the attention of those in your immediate community, region or nation.
    We can of course site examples of photojournalists or other professional photographers who have captured scenes that reflect on the public ethic or on certain public causes. But that is not the main intention of my question. Instead, can you, a sometime photographer (or maybe a full time professional), not only take pleasure in creating intriguing or beautiful images, but present visually some elements of your perception of a public ethic that you would like to see defined or enhanced in your own community, region, nation or even the world?
    One can of course be inspired by existing photographs of this sort, but is it for you a valuable or worthwhile roll for a citizen and photographer, or not, and why? If you feel that your photography can be a medium to better define, re-define or communicate a sustainable public ethic, do you have thoughts on that and can you give some examples of it?
  2. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

  3. Hello Norman. An economic reply, but the OP did request a little more insight, as in "....or not, and why?"
  4. Arthur, HERE'S a link to my most recent slideshow, part of an ongoing situation and photographic project I've been involved with for the last 8 years.
    Plowshare Farm is a lifesharing community nestled in the hills of the southern New Hampshire countryside. It's a working, bio-dynamic farm with about 17 residents with varying degrees of abilities and disabilities, and as many workers, house-leaders, and volunteers. The philosophy of living at Plowshare is based on many of the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, who founded the Waldorf Schools and has influenced Camphill communities for folks with disabilities throughout Europe and the U.S.
    So my answer is, yes, by giving some visibility to a community like this. My ethical effect pales in comparison to the ethics and positive effects of the community itself. If I had to boil down the ethic involved here it's caring, which covers a lot of territory. Something to consider is that public ethics and photographs or photography projects that have an ethical component don't have to be large scale or a matter of changing the world. I often think the smaller ethical ripples any of us can make are as important as what some more renowned ethical/political leaders can do. I think there's quite a bit of ethical depth and reach from the ground up rather than from the top down. What we can do in small communities and social groups can ultimately be quite powerful.
    I think a lot of my other work helps express an ethic of acceptance and visibility of those who tend to be less visible and less accepted in society. In that sense, my photos from Plowshare tie in with that.
    [The slideshow is intentionally not automated. Click (or swipe on a device) at your own desired pace to go from one photo to the next or use the arrow keys on your keyboard to advance. There are about 50 slides.]
  5. no.
    I might act fair in online trade, showing flaws of things I am selling.
    But how am I supposed to change ethics? - Wouldn't dog owners be embarrassed if I planned to document & glorify their everyday-heroic use of pooper scoopers?
  6. Fred, thank you. This is an excellent example, one for fellow photographers to be inspired by. In fact, it had crossed my mind while I wrote the OP that much of your work has that ethic and this example of your interest in that community and those supporting and caring for it ties in perfectly with what can be considered as part of a public ethic. From the ground up is one way to influence those in government and elsewhere, something important in these times when various political parties throughout the world seem to have lost some of their original intents are being compelled to reassess their place within their communities. If photography at the ground level can present certain aspects of the question and influence or contribute to the public ethic I guess that is something positive.
    I don't have examples as well focused as yours and have tried only to date to communicate in my photos certain understandings of or values associated with my own community. If this OP gains further examples and interest I will find a few that may reflect on the issue.
  7. Jochen, interesting statement on "changing the ethics". Perhaps the ethics are already known and don't need any changing, yet in some cases have been put aside? Perhaps photography can contribute to their restatement, consideration or priorizing within our communities (maybe I am dreaming a little)?
  8. Arthur: Assuming that photography working toward a public ethic would be best expressed by photojournalistic and documentary work, I've never consciously tried that direction. My photographic work has always been a visual, physical and spiritual relief from my other work, which was heavily focused toward a public ethic. I'm a preacher. It comes better through words for me.
  9. Howard, I appreciate the power of words, which reach many of those who take the time to read and digest them, but sometimes simple visual communication of values can contribute as well, especially when video and illustrations are so easily and rapidly communicated by modern communication.
    I share some of your approach to photography as a non-career pursuit. Your career focused on some aspects of a a public ethic, so I wonder also if you ever came across the the use of photography or similar visual messaging in that cause?
  10. Nice essay Fred. I always enjoyed your work with that group. Arthur: my work is aesthetic purposes mainly although our photo club had a subject for members to take pictures of our town here in New Jersey. We then set up prints that were on display in our clubhouse. Not sure it had any "ethic" in terms that you were spelling out.
  11. Alan, I am sure that topics such as where we live can convey some elements of a public ethic and a photograph, whether beautiful or not, can also do that. I have spent some time recently in documenting and interpreting subjects within my own small region and one of the outcomes may be to communicate to others my perception of some aspects of a public ethic (photos related to identity, memory, nature of daily activities, rituals). While unfinished and mainly in the form of prints, I may think of making a slideshow at some point.
    There are different overlays of human activity that we see when we point our lens at our subjects. Some may be those "layers" we wish to define or redefine as important in our public ethic, while others we may prefer to abandon or make less important within the (evolving) ethic. Many long for the good old days, viewpoints that helped to make Brexit successful in the UK, but things change and any agreeable aspects of former times have to be reinterpreted in respect of changes, while perhaps retaining core values. What those are, are perhaps things that are not completely shared by all, and certainly not portrayable by photography alone, but we are a very visual population and we respond to information in images as well as texts or sounds (commerce realized that a long time ago).

  12. I do think photography can play a huge role in defining both public ethics and public behaviour. You only have to see the way that automatic cameras, taking photos of the morons who speed, have reduced accident rates.
    My own use of this is more localised - being both disabled (thanks to a motorist) and a non-driver, I am attempting locally to raise public awareness of problems caused by selfish motorists. My local area was laid out and built over 100 years ago, when there were no cars. The streets are therefore narrow, as developers wanted to put as many houses as possible in a small area.
    Nowadays, every family living there seems to feel it necessary to have a car for each member (including the dog). There is no off-road parking, so they park along the edge of the pavement (or sidewalk, as I believe it is called elsewhere). To fit as many cars into an area totally unsuitable for them, they park with two wheels on the road, two on the pavement. This makes it either difficult or impossible to manoeuvre either a perambulator or a wheelchair past these tin cans on wheels.
    We are therefore forced to use the road itself, leading to frequent arguments with car drivers, who cannot see it is their selfish counterparts who have caused the problem.
    To return to photography, for some time I have been photographing this flagrant abuse of the pedestrian areas, and sending copies to my local councillors, and the Highways Department of the Council. Their argument is that people need somewhere to park - mine is that if this is so, then the council should provide it, not permit the current dangerous situation to continue.
    This citizen action plan is now being used in many major cities and towns - without the photographic evidence, we would not have nearly such a strong case.
    Gerald Cafferty likes this.
  13. Tony, your questioning of some aspects of the public ethic in your town or city, and doing so with the camera, is a fine example of how citizens can seek change. Inner cities or old towns with narrow streets and limited parking space should not be considered like more recent suburbs. It may not be easy, but perhaps if you were able to turn your camera on other UK towns or cities where (albeit small) carless public spaces have been created that may be interesting to contrast with your situation, especially if the former images show engaging and relaxed human activity in those spaces.
    My first short term job was in Buffalo, New York, where my apartment was in a sprawling suburban area in which no sidewalks (pavements) existed. The shopping area was only a half mile away but separated by a traffic artery. Walking there was a challenge and the use of the car almost essential. Perhaps photographs may have persuaded some town councillors to reflect on that.
    At about the same time public photographs in a nearby city (Toronto) which I then inhabited helped in persuading the city to stop planning and execution of a central expressway (Spadina). That type of interaction has been seen in many other communities, either Old World or New. The image, and the visual prediction and modelling of changes before they can occur, can be powerful arguments for and against.
  14. In regards my personal photography, then the answer is largely "no". They are for my enjoyment and that of a selected audience. I don't pretend to a higher purpose, with some very few exceptions. The photos I make as a component of my architectural practice can sometimes be intended to influence public opinion or action. For example, I recently documented an historic Sexton's home in a local cemetery. Those images are purposeful towards two ends. First, as documentation of an architectural artifact. The historic elements of this building are preserved to an extraordinary degree, and they are worthy in themselves of competent documentation. Second, the study is being conducted as part of a larger master plan effort. My photos will serve to inform City officials and the public of an architectural asset they might not otherwise understand or appreciate. Hopefully, that information will assist in development of a master plan that deals with historic features in a sensitive manner. To the degree that my photography contributes to this and similar efforts, then, yes, it has a role influencing public opinion and the ethics related to the built environment.
  15. David, your conservation study and action is laudable. Perhaps it will entice others, even the very often heritage and architecture-blind city officials (I speak from some experience on that, as a former councillor).
    Built heritage is part of the collective memory which also includes non material heritage, but they are not tangible priorities in many regions, including my own, which has been occupied for more than 400 years (a short period perhaps for the Europeans or Middle Easters). I am working with an architect on projects to restore and rehabilitate two and three hundred year old agricultural buildings, some of which have no counterpart elsewhere, with the objective of generating interest to conserve these buildings before it is too late and to propagate some of the more unique architectural elements in more modern buildings of the region.
    I use my camera to photograph heritage architecture and its interesting elements, the occupied and decaying buildings and their relation to the landscape and to economic changes. The architects, heritage groups, the government culture department and public have some interest in that, where the councillors seem to have other fish to fry. Like all photographs, they cannot be forced on those who prefer not to look.
    As a researcher by profession I interact well with the aims of my architect friend, a noted heritage architecture professional. However worthy on a small scale, I am not ignorant of the fact that the result of our efforts will only have a small influence on the defining or redefining of the public ethic, which I believe requires much more broad base and less specialised inputs than that of heritage architecture conservation. And those inputs, if they are to occur, are more urgent. As a technolgist, I think that science and technology have outpaced man's ability to wisely organize his society and to live together. Hopefully sci and tech will take a back seat to other human initiatives.
    I am no expert on the subject, but my feeling is that what the public ethic is, or means, varies from individual to individual and seems somewhat undefined for many. That is expected, as consensus requires time, although the process requires elected officials and media to put it high on the list. Photography may aid that discussion when it occurs. Possibly one of the last times the public ethic was talked about in the press or appropriated by the public was in relation to the mid 20th century (it started earlier of course) Hollywood definition and diffusion of "The American Dream". That, "The New Deal", McCarthy, the 1968 uprising in France, anti-segregation and women's rights, to name only a few movements, seem to have reshaped the public ethic, long before neo-liberal globilization had an impact on our lives. Perhaps if it is back on the table in these changing times, photography may allow some examples for debate.
  16. Arthur, I truly wish that my work could have the sort of significance about which you are asking. Below is a copy of a set of comments I posted to Fred's most recent slideshow.
    Life at Plowshare continues. These remarkable images document events, to be sure. They also document the cooperative spirit every resident and every staff member display toward each other. Best of all, they document the potential depth of human feeling. Each one of them stands alone, on its own merits; yet viewing them strictly in this way is to miss a significant point. Take one image out of the equation and the entire body of work may suffer.
    This work represents photography at its very best. I consider it an honor to have viewed it now and before.
  17. Michael, I fully agree that Fred has captured the spirit of ethical and moral interactions in his Plowshare portfolio. The culture of that group (resident and staff member) is a good lesson for the larger culture (region, country, world). It is a very specific case and hopefully people whom become aware of it will not just pigeon hole it as something simply outside the overall ethics of the larger culture, which it is not.
    In this OP I used the term public ethic to characterize the culture, values and moral of larger societies (regions or countries) and not uniquely that of government ethics or the more specific ethics of public relations. Perhaps public is the wrong word to refer to the ethics of a total population. Each country has its own culture and definition of common ethics. All are faced today with the question of how to define their values in regard to world movements such as globalization, evolution of information technology, population movements, integration of immigrants, the relation to the third world, manโ€™s effect on nature, and so on.
    Whether photography can be a factor in inciting its viewers to consider the state of culture and ethics is perhaps uncertain. I am sure of one thing, the need in these times to consider our profound common ethics and to verbalize and share them, in order to encourage just and wise actions of our elected citizens. In addition to verbal communication, images may be one way we photographers can possibly do that.
    So can a photographer communicate the non-material? There are some ways I think and one may be to refer to symbols that are or were a part of our culture and values. In my work this year on the non-material aspects of the idea of spirit of place I perceived or conceived some images that reflect on the immaterial, which I present below as examples of representing nonmaterial reflections.
  18. "Reflection"
    The two photographs are part of the series of sense of place, identity and nonmaterial collective memory and values.
  19. Arthur, the two images you show do a good job of representing, especially via symbols but also via the supporting ideas and qualities in your photos (such as the expressive angles and colors in the first and the suggestiveness of the woman stopping to look and the consciousness of the leading line of the road into the distance in the second), the non-material you're talking about.
    In order to get more of the sense of ethics you might want to convey, I'd need to see more of the series and read anything you might include with it. I'm not getting a particular ethical nudge one way or the other, though I think both are thought-provoking and suggestive photos.
    Is there an ethics involved in simply seeing places non-materially? I think so. I have an archaeologist friend who works with (and sometimes, unfortunately, against) the U.S. Forestry Service preserving ancient Native American burial sites from the likes of PG&E and the Nestle Company. If the goal is preservation of historic places, then there's certainly an ethical component to that.
    I think the use of a known religious symbol in each of the photos (which is only a small subset of the photos I imagine you are using as part of this series) in some ways may actually usurp the sense of place in the bigger picture scheme of things. The photos taken together get me thinking more about religion's stamps on the world. Isolated from context or a series, these two photos get me thinking more about the material and non-material aspects of these symbols and our relationships to them than they get me thinking of place per se. But I sense seeing more of your project/presentation would put place itself more in mind. I remember, for instance, your dilapidated barn photo where the gentleman looking at it is seen from behind. Once you start adding photos like that, I think the sense of place in these two photos would reach out.
    Michael, thanks so much for your supportive words.
  20. Arthur, I'm watching a great movie from 1947, Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur. There's a very pastoral scene, in the midst of this classic film noir, where Robert Mitchum is romancing Jane Greer while fishing in a river below beautiful mountains. She says to him, "You've been to a lot of places, haven't you?" He responds, "One too many." She askes, "Which did you like the best?" He answers, "This one, right here." She coyly says, "I'll bet you say that to all the places."
  21. I like the coy double entendre in Jane Greer's intelligent remark. Maybe I can find a copy of that movie although I am not subscribed to the commercial movie sites.
    Two of my series sub-themes were "Material identity" and "An architecture of character", which are material in nature but evoke (my hope, at least) sentiments of belonging to my local viewers. The "Requiem" photo (actually a woman in farm clothes looking at the downed barn) was a material, yet not material, part of the sub-theme, yet most of the images attempted to underline local values and culture and in that sense a part of the collective ethic. Like the general ethic I subscribe to, much of it today seems to be obfuscated by other considerations.
    The architecture images of the second sub-theme, mainly agricultural and rural dwellings, reflect local history and land occupation over several centuries and are I believe close to the ethic of those whose ancestors developed the area, but they probably would talk less to those "from away" (a Newfoundland expression), which is of course normal. Unfortunately, even the locals are rejecting much of their heritage and former values, which was part of the motivation for the photography.
    With the holiday season almost here for many, I may have to accept that the OP will be secondary to spiked egg nog, turkey and yorksire pudding, and dishabilitating quantities of irresistable deserts. Once digested, I hope that some will continue later to provide examples for this little photography of ethics run. It leaves a lot of questions and ideas unanswered or unresolved, for this curious mind at least.
  22. I like to think, in a vague way, my photos will lead to a kindness among my fellow brethren.
    But it is a vague thought...especially the thought of kindness. We have moments of kindness but it soon fades away.... especially if it has any impact on self.
    Self for us is most important.

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