Fetish of the Obscure

by Disphotic

Photographers are out there in droves, documenting almost everything imaginable in a frenzy of recording. Places or activities that were once little known, people ‘on the margins’ and so on are routinely splashed in photographic form across front pages and centerfolds, featured on blogs and news sites. In the search to picture the undiscovered and photograph everything it’s hard not to feel that we have ended up in the perverse situation that instead of illuminating our subjects we are left blinded by the dazzling quantity of photographs that have been made and are still being made.

As a photographer it feels increasingly hard not to resort to that old cliché that ‘everything has been photographed’ but even the worst clichés often have some grain of truth buried deep inside them. It is true that the frontiers of photographic documentation have been pushed so far that they encompass almost everything that could or can be seen, what Scott McQuire described as a ‘phantom topography’ a ghostly map, an almost total and yet profoundly incomplete geography of human experience.

But this has not slowed the photographers’ desire to make new images. Many endlessly repeat what others have already done, sometimes shedding new light on these topics, more often not. Others search for the few remaining subjects that are untouched, and photographic documentation becomes a fetish of the obscure. Those new subjects that are deemed worth of photographing, simply by virtue of the fact they have not already been photographed, consequently become ever more esoteric, and ever more strange.


The tendency to regard something as worth documenting because no one else has done it is maybe natural under the circumstance but also suspect because it assumes that all things should be documented, that there are not people, places, activities that should be out of bounds to the camera, that knowing is always better than not knowing. But surely there are situations where it might well be argued that the opposite is true, for example where the value of knowing about someone or something is outweighed by the impact of that knowledge on them.

Taking a photograph of someone and showing it to the world is clearly a reflective process, in which information and effect is transmitted from photo to viewers and often in turn back to subject. As an example the act of photographing in cultures where photography is not permitted, or is permitted but is culturally awkward. To cite an example a past graduate of my course, and recent Taylor-Wessing prize winner (who’s work I really admire and am using to make a point, rather than criticise) documented Mennonites in Bolivia, a community who live apart from society and where photography is not allowed.

The photographs are beautiful, the story intriguing. But every time I look at the images I must admit that I am dogged by the thought that these are people trying to live apart from a world which the act of photographing them inevitably brings them closer to. Of course widening knowledge of their existence potentially contributes to increased sensitivity to them, but it could just as possibly undermine them, if only in that perhaps more photographers, perhaps less delicate photographers, may feel now that this community are subject they should pursue themselves.


What does it mean to be a photographer in a context where images are produced of everything conceivable are being produced, and in quantities that defy any attempt at understanding, let alone viewing? Last year Instagram users were generating around five million photographs daily. It’s impossible to even begin to visualise that number of images, it’s difficult even to visualise a dozen with any clarity. A simple bit of maths tells you the number of images produced by the same users in a year must be close to two billion.

What are the consequences of this? Is meaningful engagement with ‘photography’ impossible? Around the end of each year I look with horror at web galleries put out by leading news agencies of the year in pictures, galleries which often run to fifty or a hundred photographs, irrespective of their individual value as images, who has the time to commit to any serious viewing of such large sets? In this context will images lean towards being more visceral and less geared towards extended viewing and consideration?

I suppose where I am going with all this wondering is towards the realisation that I am less interested in producing more photography to contribute to this visual melee and more eager to spend my time asking what photography is, how it behaves and how we use it. The issue I’m facing at the moment is the question of whether I’m better off investigating and trying to come to terms with it through my photographic practice or by going down the more academic, but expensive and perhaps irrelevant, route of a PhD.