Contemporary Vernacular Photographies Symposium – Saturday 3rd September

This image taken from Photographer’s Gallery website and shows a family made ‘anonymous’ in the newspaper. Part of Sophie Beard’s paper.

I attended the Contemporary Vernacular Photographies symposium on Saturday which was organised by the Photographer’s Gallery and the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at Westminster University. The speakers were Dr Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton); Prof Gillian Rose (The Open University); Prof Julian Stallabrass (The Courtauld Institute of Art); Dr Sarah Kember (Goldsmiths); Dr Sas Mays (Westminster University); Dr Sophie Beard (UCA); and Trish Morrissey (Photographer).

The term ‘vernacular’ was discussed in relation to photography and (rightly) problematised throughout the day. It was suggested that the popular definition of vernacular photography as amateur, domestic, private and localised (and all that is not fine art photography) does not even begin to describe the multiplicity of contemporary photographic practices that exist now.

Annebella Pollen suggested that vernacular photography should rather be considered majority photography. The binary that has been set up between majority and fine art photography is problematic. If we want to study the practice of photography as opposed to the objects of photographs we must understand all types of photography as a continuum. Contemporary photographic practices are plural, messy and complex; the boundaries between ‘types’ of photography are porous and constantly shifting. Notions of public and private, amateur and professional are being eroded with the massification of the digital image and its mass distribution.

Through her reading of Sontag Sarah Kember argued that photography produces events. For example the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was designed to be photographed. Without photography perhaps these atrocities would not have been committed? For Kember (and Sontag) photography makes and reinforces the self. How do we exist if we are not photographed?

Kember also warned us against our incessant use of social media to reinforce the self and suggested that we are willingly “re-order[ing] ourselves as data objects for the market.” Similarly Julian Stallabrass suggested (via Foucault) that as we freely add content into the web the more exposed we make ourselves to state control.

Gillian Rose walked us through her research into how white, middle-class mothers use and distribute the photograph to negotiate individual and family identity as well as a form of social exchange. Trish Morrissey showed some recent photographs inspired by her family’s photograph album. She explained how families write or speak their own histories through the album and described the slippage between fact and fiction that can occur through this act. Sophie Beard’s paper was entitled the temporality of the family photograph in the newspaper and discussed the (usually) tabloid’s obsession with the “last snap” and their ‘anonymising’ of victims.

An interesting set of papers that gave some food for thought.


About sophiebbarr

I am an artist and a teacher in higher education. For me art is a re-organisation of stuff that's already in the world.
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