Is Humanism Dead?
After looking at black and white photographs of Italian 'social outsiders' from the 1950s for my PhD on Italian humanist photography at the Courtauld Institute of Art, I became interested in what the genre has become in the 21st Century. In researching the ethical ambiguities inherent in humanist photography, I wanted know who the humanist photographers are now. Do they see photography as a tool for activism? Do we define a new genre, such as humanitarian photography, post-human or post-humanist photography? And how do the photographers negotiate the genre's ambivalent status between art and documentary, visual pleasure and political protest?
During my research I realised that there was a cultural gap on this topic between the Anglo-American academic and photographic world and the French-Italian one, which I hope to bridge by commissioning scholars from different cultural backgrounds. Alexandra Tommasini and Sylwia Serafinowicz, who are treating the theme of landscape photography and empty spaces are interested in the institutional and theoretical aspects of humanist photography. Corinne Silva, whose photographs of depopulated landscapes are featured on Either/And, engages with war photography, bringing into conversation social activists like Iain Boal as well as academics, like Ariella Azoulay, on questions of photography and human rights. They are better equipped to talk about their plans for the project though, so I look forward to hearing what they have to say.
Sylwia Serafinowicz and Alexandra Tommasini
‘Emptiness’ in landscape photography is a theme that both of us explore in our individual doctoral research projects at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Insightful and fruitful discussions on this shared interest gave way to our decision to collaborate together on this project. We wanted to take our investigations of this trend in a new direction and the possibility of re-reading these images within a humanist photography framework was the ideal starting point. Our strand of the project suggests that contemporary photographs of deserted and un-peopled spaces not only respond to the poignant socio-political issues of today, but also mark a significant retreat from portrait-focused photography. They function as ‘counter-images’ for media coverage of contemporary conflicts, as was demonstrated most recently for the exhibition Image Counter Image held at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Our online discussion is punctuated by interviews with Achim Borchardt Hume and photographers Gabriele Basilico and Elzbieta Tejchman, a photo gallery of work by emerging photographers Corinne Silva and Sofia Mañan Lopez, and responses by academics and critics. By bringing these diverse voices together, we hope to incite further dialogue about the potential for humanist reflection on this genre of images.
I began considering humanist photography in the context of war and conflict when I worked as the Curatorial Assistant to Julian Stallabrass, who was guest curator of the Brighton Photo Biennial 2008, Memory of Fire: The War of Images and Images of War. Working in this capacity led me to reflect on the ways in which pictures of war and conflict might be made, viewed and disseminated.
I am particularly interested in photographic strategies practitioners might employ when working within the constraints of institutions – military or otherwise – and how such strategies might be used to make pictures that expand on or subvert the representational experience of warfare and complicate the representational distinctions between victim and perpetrator.
Whilst traditionally humanist photography has mainly been concerned with notions of victimhood, there seems to have been a shift in the perception of roles and subject positions in the context of war photography. From a historical perspective, this perhaps could be considered as a process that revises the conventions of humanist photography.
I have solicited a number of email dialogues between theorists, activist practitioners and curators, using specific photographs as starting points. I hope that these fluid discussions might suggest a sense of current perceptions of the term humanist photography in this context, and the usefulness of this term.