This week in my pursuit of an Art Ed degree…

Introduction:For almost 150 years, we’ve perceived photographic images as real, because they caught a moment in time, and gave no compelling evidence to contradict anything other than what was shot. This belief was first solidified by the scientific community to document the facts of explorations, which contributed to public credence in the field of reporting, and gave birth to photojournalism. A willingness to believe in the images we see was beautifully stated by Lippmann (1922) as follows: “They come, we imagine, directly to us without human meddling, and they are the most effortless food for the mind conceivable” (Allan. p.127). Since the first reading (Allan 2019), a consistent question remains: Is it possible for any image we see to be an objective representation of its subject? 

The theme of our course has been to build awareness between what is real and what is not, either through art or photojournalism. Every class discussion solidified my feeling that objectivity is impossible and we need to define a new purpose when teaching with images: to nurture critical & reflective learning. First, this paper will debate definitions of objectivity through an analysis of art. Second, it will illustrate the challenge of impartiality and objectivity  through Robert Polidori’s photography of the disasters in Chernobyl and New Orleans. Finally, it will give a perspective of the benefits of leaving objectivity behind in the new co-learner minded classroom.

In “What makes art, Art?”, Bedsworth (2017) suggests we can get the no single answer.  Which in itself can be interpreted as art is what the viewer chooses it to be. Art becomes a subjective concept, entirely open to interpretation by the viewer. This can be made clearer when considering at the following definition of what makes art political, message driven, and/or subjectively meaningful: “In the sense that art presents direct and indirect perspectives on society, all art can be described as political art.” (from Croidheáin (2018) suggests the intended message of the artist further influences the perception of the viewer by stating: “the representation of particular actions or the inclusion of particular types of text ties an image down to an explicitly political perspective.” Therefore, considering the artist-photographer’s intention and skill to be inseparable from the image, no image can be truly objective. 

Polidori, R. (2004). Pripyat and Chernobyl. Steidl Books.

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Polidori, R. (2006). After The Flood. Steidl Books.

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Robert Polidori’s work is filled with emotion and colour. In reviewing his images I found myself haunted by a desire to know more about the scenes and the people who left them behind. His ability to show so much detail and bring me so deeply into the picture, lended an unexpected intimacy to the photos. I felt a little guilty looking so closely, like one might feel looking at an accident. Our first glimpse might be accidental, then more purposeful. Through his images we become voyeurs. Our eyes discover a vulnerability we sympathize with, or are frightened by. We notice his composition and feel a tension between the gruesome reality of the subject and the beauty of it, then become fascinated by the contradictions and collaborations between beauty and ugliness. 

Both images captured the vestiges of human presence after a disaster. Visually, constructed with long exposures to capture more light and colour in what was probably quite dim rooms. His choice of shots seem to be, in part influenced by a love of colour and the emotional impact of contrasting colours. In Zones of Exclusion (Polidori, 2004), he uses Red over Green, delivering feelings of pain and decay. In After the Flood (Polidori, 2006), he used yellow(orange) over purple, possibly to indicate a bruising with the potential for recovery. Both indicated fresh wounds and left the question of how fresh they felt to him when he took them. Many of his other images in these two series showed colour contrasts, but these two felt the strongest examples for me. The angles he chose were very curious in that they obliterated two of the four walls of each room. I wondered if his intention was to add doubt to the authenticity of the setting and suggest the possibility of staging. This would have added a level of emotion and surely garnered angry reactions from survivors of these disasters. Perhaps, just questioning the intention leads to a reflective learning experience.

Locations, temporal distances from, and natures of the individual events aside, the main difference in the two images were his focus on who suffered in these disasters. In Zones of Exclusion (Polidori, 2004) he captured the devastation on an entire community. It felt as though he was more emotionally detached from this image. Perhaps he was more able to give it a documentary feel, because he heard of it second hand from news media, there were years of distance between himself and the disaster, or because he wasn’t from Pripyat, nor had any obvious relation to it. An interesting note in these Pripyat images is that we see lots of dust on them, possibly to emote the passage of time. There is a strong sense of abandoned spaces. The chaotic mess denotes a possibility of rushed exodus and adds an opinion on the carelessness of humans. However, in After the Flood (Polidori, 2006), the images seemed more reflective of a personal disaster. People, possible some he knew very well, were impacted. His book revealed he was from New Orleans and it was understandable that he might have had a much harder time distancing himself emotionally from these horrors. Furthermore, the images seemed sharper and had little or no dust on them, and most of the flotsam and jetsam were in grey tone. Perhaps to represent our grey-toned, aesthetic vision of the dying. We definitely got a stronger feeling of destruction instead of abandonment. In this image, we might not have been surprised to have found bodies under the piles of rubble and I was sure many viewers could have projected seeing evidence, such as a hand sticking out, if though none were actually there.

Polidori’s images illustrated the influence of the artist’s aesthetic vision on the interpretation of the images. As much of his work was presented without in-depth explanation, we have been left to interpret what we saw on our own. The risk of adding our prejudices into these interpretations may have been part of the experience intended for us by the artist. His work allowed us to consider different perspectives and create different stories about what we saw. The framing and editing of these images allowed us to discuss possibilities of interpretations over answers in our class. This may be in line with the ultimate role of art; to inspire inquiry and expand reflection. Photos, such as these allow us to create stories about them. It seems the less we know about the real story, the more we can feel our own interpretations and those of others. In this way, these photos inspired curiosity, critical thinking, reflection, and empathy towards our fellow classmates. They fostered community.

Viewing photography with ambiguous meanings, expands our awareness on more than the specific subject matter, it develops our awareness of possible interpretations. If we believe that as teachers we need to offer our students opportunities to develop self-awareness, as well as awareness of others, then images given to open reflection and sharing of interpretation must be included in our curricula. Besides, it is a deeply enjoyable experience imagining what might be there. From the teacher’s perspective, inquiry-based lessons foster a less oppressive pedagogy (Freire 2002) and open more room for co-learning with the students. A better understanding of our students can only help us create more individualized and meaningful learning experiences for students and teachers alike. I believe this is applicable to all learners, regardless of age. 

My curiosity would love to use a slightly modified lesson plan for several age groups and compare and contrast the beautiful answers each group gives. Further research would demonstrate Knowles’ (2002) assumption that adult learners use life experience as a basis for all learning; rendering new knowledge subjective by its attachment to previous knowledge, and revealing why we may become decreasingly objective as we acquire new experiences with age. With elementary children, conceptualizing disasters may be a little traumatic, however, showing surveillance photography and decontextualized imagery from the internet could be an insightful subject for explaining the very modern state of the public image and fostering critical thinking on the reality of media imagery. For adolescents and adults, we could have a greater flexibility to use more dramatic images and nurture creative storytelling, as well as critical analysis of the images. Offering equal parts technical skills in photography and fostering different modes of expression, especially for shyer adolescents. 

From the earliest years of filmmaking, we have been asked to enter into a state of suspended disbelief while embracing the moving images on the screen. Light and elaborate set design helped the early moviegoers achieve this state. Photography was released from this requested state, when scientists used it as a documentary tool and journalism embraced the notion of photos as undeniably factual. This persistent belief system, truthful or not, is now being shaken by leaps in photographic technology. With photo-editing in the hands of the public and the possibility that almost everyone can soon have access to making deep fakes, we are being told to question everything. The pendulum has shifted completely, despite our resistance, and we are now disbelieving everything we see. Photography as art has always demonstrated the subjectivity of created images and now we can turn to that as a way to build our understanding of modern images. The classroom must now use images as the starting point for discussions about technology, politics, humanity, reality, and communication. Photography becomes the tool for inspiring critical and reflective thinking. Polidori’s images are both realistic in what they show and allegorical in their ability to inspire reflection on their possible significances. When there are no definite answers to the possible meanings of images, all interpretations become personal, or subjective. Therefore, as long as humans are interpreting those images, they cannot be considered objective representations.

References & Additional Readings:

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