Stephen Willats

The Camera as as Object of Determinism and as an Agent of Freedom, 1983

The Camera as an Object of Determinism
There’s no denying the important role as an object that the camera assumes in modern consumer culture – valued not so much as a means of self-expression or a practical tool for framing records of reality but as a possession and adornment denoting to others the owner’s social power, attainments and aspirations. The physicality and styling of the camera, its architecture, has become increasingly monumental, radiating a confidence in the object that has been carefully culturally propagated and conferring on it an authoritative presence for possessor and witness alike. Thus even the camera’s physical form has been influenced by norms for its use that reflect a dominant culture founded on an authoritative determinism, the fabric of which is transmissional and exclusive. While the scientific mechanics of photography may well be more or less unalterable, it is the way in which those mechanics are used to frame and encode reality that is so biased towards the possession-based ideology of the dominant culture that is closest to owning the means of the camera’s production.

Within the dominant culture’s conventions there is an accepted way to use the camera, in which the possessor imposes authority through the camera lens onto reality by being solely responsible for deciding what will be included in the frame, and thus ultimately encoding those elements of reality onto the photographic negative, acquiring them as forms of possession.

This activity is undertaken without the subject of the photographer’s attention being able to feed back directly any decisions into the framing process, which corresponds closely to the transmitter-receiver network of information and command that underpins the interpersonal fabric of present culture. The encoding process of photography made in this manner is inherently reductive: in this transmitter-receiver mode, the photographer and the photographic print cannot acknowledge the full dynamic complexity surrounding the subject but rather reduce it all to the level of static objects.

The cultural elevation of the camera to icon and its projection of a transmissional mode of making photography is further reinforced by the creation of an authoritative mythology of professionalism. This linkage between an image of professionalism and authority is increased by the similarity of the camera’s finish, now usually matt black, to other professional and middle-class desirable equipment, such as hi-fi systems, executive cars, kitchen installations, etc. Also the sexual projection of the professional photographer’s lifestyle through advertising and other media forms, with the camera portrayed as an essential adornment, puts it in the same bundle of carefully orchestrated mythologies that underlie the essential stimulation of consumer wish fulfilment. Now, as an inhibitor to free creativity and the self‑organization of meaning, professionalism has a major effect, as it presents the camera owner with already formed ideal types that are there to be emulated, which can only be achieved through the acquisition of difficult to obtain special knowledge and equipment. These projected ideal types invade everyone’s consciousness; there is simply no escape from what become stereotypes, giving a desirable (right) and undesirable (wrong) way to frame reality, leading to such simplistic notions as good and bad photographs. Such rigidity exerts a pressure on the photographer that neutralizes any acknowledgement, let alone acceptance, of the relative meaning the photograph might have in the context/situation in which it was made.

Thus there has grown up a strong distinction between what is professional and what is amateur – centring on judgements such as where the subject should be placed in the frame, what to include or what not, colour or black and white, in focus or out of focus – that perhaps is really only overcome in the tolerated innocence of holiday and home snaps. Unlike the professional photograph, the holiday snap is firmly rooted in the knowledge of the context in which it was taken, and is usually not only made socially, but is subsequently, as one in a packet of prints, or as a framed picture, etc., used socially as a vehicle for interaction. Here quality as a criterion determined by professionalism is subsumed by what the content means to those related to the situation in which the photograph was taken. Though even here, the simple apparatus and unassuming look of the traditional home camera has given way to increasingly more complex, sophisticated but user-proof cameras (again usually now matt black) that enable anyone to feel they can emulate the idealized framings of the professional. So within the most spontaneous social occasions it is still a social norm to be seen displaying the right equipment, as well as being seen to follow a correct and stereotyped way of organizing the subject – just think of how people are herded together to fill the frame in a wedding photograph. The effect of these imposed norms results in the camera owner, the photographer, being made to feel self-conscious as to its legitimate use, and inevitably that must result in an inhibition to creative free expression.Thus in our daily experience of culture as it is projected to us through the institutional fabric of society we cannot help being bombarded with a multiplicity of idealized images of objects, amongst which the camera is built up into a super object, an icon, for us to desire, possess and display. At the same time we are also immersed in a mediaized environment of images that confront us with perfect framings of an idealized reality. So that, within our seeming random experience of the mosaic of perceptual reality, there are in fact precisely laid out attractors for us to focus our attention upon, and then to emulate, which of course leads to our conformity.

The Camera as an Agent of Freedom
For the camera to take on a new role as an agency for intervening in the culture-forming process, so that an ideology based on people and social interaction can be forwarded, the potential inherent in the relativity of our perception needs to be fully exploited. While I don’t have the means to change the physicality of the camera, I can certainly redefine how I perceive and relate to it, and consequently how I want to use it now, as a creative medium, in the social exchange between people. In this guise the camera is no longer held in reverence as an authoritative icon, but is shorn of its fetishist trappings to become the intermediary in a flow of information that gives people access to the creative potential that exists in any heuristic made between them. Hence there is no set position of ‘framer’ and ‘framed’, but a social interpersonal situation, in which there is a mutual influence on what is to be expressed. The reductive, simple, transmissional mode of operating the camera is replaced with an altogether more elaborate and dynamic situation for the photographer that recognizes the psychological complexity of other people. This recognition takes the photographer into the realm of the heretic, given the accepted conventions of camera use, where other people directly connected to the photographic subject are invited to decide on the content and form of the frame.

The idea of using the camera as a component part in the agencying of social exchange has become an integral feature to my working practice. Here the camera is seen as a channel through which people can externalize and order their implicit and privately held perceptions, and articulate them by their public representation in my artwork. The camera is used in conjunction with other interactive situations, such as the making of tape-recorded interviews, firmly to locate my work in the actual reality of people’s lives. All this is part of a wider strategy where the audience is made the rationale both in the composition of a work and in its presentation and reception. My work presents the audience with the conceptual possibility of their own self-organization and the potential of their own creativity, which as an actuality is realized not only in the process of making a work but also in the means given to the audience to internalize and act on this realization. The audience’s cognitive experience of these concepts in my work is articulated by them entering a Symbolic World that, while founded in an actuality that is recognized as familiar, is distanced enough through its photographic encoding to enable them freely to make inferences and remodellings within their own lives.

Thus in the forming of a Symbolic World my use of the camera takes on a new meaning: I am opening it to other people, so that by working with me they can unlock and articulate the self-organization within their own cognitive domain. The decision about what should be included in the photograph and how the subject should be positioned in the frame I feel is finally up to the people I am working with, who specify to me how they and anything within their environment should be represented. The divestment of my traditionally given authoritative position in the origination of a photographic image does not lessen its strength but rather, I have found, ensures its pertinence and meaning; for who are better able in the end to present themselves in the reality they inhabit than the subjects.

The very acknowledgement of the relativity of meaning, in the way in which the camera is presented to the subject and used, results in a printed image where the authoritative criterion of a right and a wrong way to represent is quite inappropriate, for now the image is rooted in the contextual variety of people’s lives. Handled in this way the camera can be wielded in the service of undermining the rigid perceptual structures propping up the determinism endemic in our contemporary culture of objects.

‘The Camera as an Object of Determinism and as an Agent of Freedom’ typescript 1983/9; a version of this text was published in Perspektief, No. 38 (Rotterdam, 1990).