IAP Reflection on inside/outside

Exercise 3.1 asks us to place archive images into two categories – mirrors and windows. For the purposes of the exercise, these categories are considered from the point of view of the photographer. Thus we are taking the viewpoint of John Szarkowski’s 1978 Mirrors and Windows exhibition and equating mirrors to autobiographical/inward-facing subject matter and windows to world-exploring/outward-looking subjects.

As Bull (2010) points out, Szarkowski’s approach is a modernist one and considers only the content of the image. In this respect it is actually quite different to the similarly-titled categories of inside and outside examined by Solomon-Godeau (1994). The difference arises because Solomon-Godeau takes a postmodernist approach, which considers the context in which an image has been made to reveal as much as, or even perhaps more than, its content. Like Rosler (1975) and Sontag (1979 p.55), who derides the photographer who gazes “on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, […] as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal”, Solomon-Godeau argues that the photographer has to have to have directly lived the subject/s’ experience to be capable of documenting it in a credible and authentic manner.

These ideas have led directly or indirectly to the concept of cultural appropriation and its underlying presumption that only an insider is qualified to comment or build on the experience of any particular socially distinct group, ie one based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or other culturally defined parameters. But where do we draw the insider/outsider line? Is anyone who has, for example, lived on the street on The Bowery qualified to comment on the experience of everyone else who has done the same? Or would a young white man’s experience in that environment be significantly different to that of a black man, a woman, an elderly person?

It is worth pointing out that at the time Solomon-Godeau and Sontag were writing it was generally believed that the framework through which people viewed the world was determined by their own social position and personal experience, and was essentially fixed and immutable. There was of course a long tradition of thought proposing an alternative argument – that our perception of the world is, like reality itself, multidimensional and fluid – but this has only very recently become the prevailing paradigm. Today we argue not about facts but perspective, to the extent that arguments are now opposed not on factual grounds but on grounds of biased perspective: they are simply “fake news”.

The understanding that perspective is fluid and does not necessarily run along the same faultlines as class/gender/ethnic etc divisions has become increasingly evident in the past four years. In an era where it is common currency that all perception and analysis starts with a point of view and there is no longer any credence in the idea of absolute truth or a definitive version of events, perspective is the dividing line between insider and outsider viewpoints. Nothing has made this clearer than Brexit, which has revealed the underlying perspective faultline running through every subject from identity politics to global warming to welfare to immigration. This faultline emanates from the emotion-based principles described in Philipp Hübi’s essay in Tillmans (2018) – care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity – which themselves boil down to a single axis: the ability/willingness to put oneself in the shoes of others, aka compassion.

Where the modernist perspective focused on content and the postmodernists focused on context, the post-postmodernist perspective focuses on perspective itself. Modernism says you point the camera one way or the other. Postmodernism says you have to have lived the experience of your subject. Post-postmodernism says compassion and conscious perspective enables you to place yourself in the shoes of your subject. For the photographer, the question becomes: are we recording the subject’s behaviour (outsider perspective) or sharing their experience (insider perspective)?

I would also argue that while the postmodernist analysis zoomed out from the close modernist focus on the image to include consideration of the photographer and even the context in which the image is viewed, it did not zoom out far enough to include the viewer of the image, and could not have done, because information about the viewer’s response was not available in those days. Images at that time were mostly consumed in magazines at home, and in public galleries viewers’ perspective would tend to be guided by the accompanying materials and there was generally no forum or other medium for hearing and recording viewers’ thoughts. So the viewer’s input is not something that Solomon-Godeau, Sontag et al could even have thought about considering or even encountering.

Today the situation could not be more different, and the perspective of the viewer is perhaps of even greater relevance to the insider/outsider divide than that of the photographer. Images are constantly commented on in social media and other public forums, and everyone can be a curator, interpreter and critic. It is now commonplace that identical images are interpreted in completely opposing ways in different forums with different agendas.

I experienced an enlightening example of this when I worked as an invigilator at the 2018 Brighton Photo Biennial and spoke at length to hundreds of festival visitors. One of the installations I invigilated most regularly through the month was Uta Kögelsberger’s Uncertain Subjects Part II, comprising naked head-and-shoulder portraits of dozens of people of various nationalities who felt their views on Brexit were not being heard. Most people saw the format as an effective way of stripping down the differences between people and emphasising their commonalities, and it was so successful in creating a sense of familiarity/insiderness that several visitors each day told me they thought they recognised one or more of the subjects but couldn’t quite place them.

A small minority of male viewers, however, told me that they found the format distracting and disturbing, because the women’s naked shoulders made them unable to think about anything other than what their breasts might be like. Thus I learned that even in a case where the photographer has consciously taken and presented an insider perspective, the determining viewpoint is ultimately the one adopted by the viewer. This was demonstrated even more strongly by the viewpoint of Kögelsberger’s installation taken by many Brexit supporters, who saw the subjects’ one-line statements on what Brexit meant to them from a totally outsider perspective. Several Brexit supporters were actually incandescent with rage that they felt excluded by the installation because it didn’t reflect their own point of view, and a few even registered formal complaints that the work was biased.

References and resources

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994) Inside/Out. Available at http://www.photopedagogy.com/uploads/5/0/0/9/50097419/week_5_abigail_solomon-godeau_inside_out.pdf [accessed 13.02.20]
Rosler, M. (1975) The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, 1974–74. Available at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/95.117.a-x/ [accessed 13.02.20]
Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin Books.
Hübi, P. (2018) “The Power of Political Emotions: On Political Camp Formation and the New Right-Wing Populism” in Tillmans, W. (2018) Jahresring 64: What is Different? Berlin: Sternberg Press.