Translating Photography, Part I

Several of us on the photography wing of Zoetrope, the Francis Ford Coppola online workshop, recently got into a discussion of what constituted "good photography." I mentioned how woefully ignorant I felt about Asian and other non-U.S./Euro-centric photography: that I worried how my "aesthetic sense might be too culturally narrow." I referenced the Coincidences blog and Philbert Ono’s site on the rich history of Japanese photography. Eventually, fellow Zoer J.S. (Jim) Oppenheim and I began exploring the reasons for why linguistic and cultural barriers exist around still imagery, when you might think that it would be a more easily translatable medium. We also ultimately touched on points that I thought were relevant to the discussion of social networks and how they affect the transmission of content, so I thought it would be relevant to Jim was a good sport, and said I could quote him at length here.

J.S. Oppenheim:

Those who lead with a new technology, and photography was exactly that just 140 or so years ago, establish its benchmarks. Those who are able to promulgate their technologies similarly do that "show you how it’s done" thing because, well, they can literally do that through developed publishing and trade systems. Finally, ultimately, technology as language — how we exchange ideas with one another — may follow the language that as a technology establishes itself as lingua franca. The English, by hook and crook, blast and battle, and for a while not a little leadership in the opium trade as well, managed to make the world amenable to their presence. At the same time, it seems to have given the world some in-common tools — a dominant language and multiple modalities for communicating — that in turn has enabled the world to send a very strong bounce-back signal of its own. You can bet that American photographers, by and large, know very little about peer and peer philosophies elsewhere, and we/they are curious as all get out about that.

You know, you can’t tell the guy next to you about the fire you’re both watching.  In order to communicate, there has to be a more distant relationship between recipients in light of the content delivered. That is to say — in my infinitely parenthetical way — your photograph of my backyard does not qualify as travel photography from my perspective, but a photograph from your backyard appearing, and as it literally does, on my desktop south of Baltimore very much does.

This is a fascinating period to watch for how the world gets to know itself through other than the movement and mingling of armies and traders whose experiences and stories once framed what Everyman could know about other places.  There’s no precedent for the World Wide Web.  National Geographic? Life Magazine? Playboy and Vogue in every language? Not even close.  Heretofore, international publications represented, at best, the discerning but not omniscient minds of a comparative handful of editors; this medium has thoroughly democratized the development and distribution of content.

It’s not worse for "China, Thailand, and the Philippines" except where Draconian policies on speech squelch the signal: the web is the open gate to a gregarious species not only capable but perhaps destined to work out a plan for itself that knows no boundaries.

One of my favorite photographers, Sebastiao Salgado, might be called one of the forefathers of the Photographers of the World who may have lost whatever national character they had when they began their careers. One might expect to see more of such photographers but, lol, with different sounding names.

I have had a terrible time mastering even beginner French, but with photography among other arts, I say other languages (than Anglo-European) welcome here. As the vernacular goes, "Bring it on!"


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