The Camera and the Crown

Having read the Wikipedia entry on Zygmunt Bauman and one of his papers, “Alone Again: Ethics After Certainty”. I’ve been thinking about the camera. Bauman looks at the camera twice, firstly as the creator of still images, and then as the creator of moving images.

He points to the still image as a cultural anchor, framing our world in a permanence of the past and a token of certainty, the moving image by contrast frames modernity as transient and insubstantial. In all fairness, Bauman is quite old and clearly not a child of the internet. If the previous two incarnations of the camera create a sense of permanence and then impermanence, what does the current crop of youtube clips indicate?
I would suggest that they point to a community of production and consumption, where permanence and impermanence is not the central issue, but the relationships between the images and their authenticity is the most pressing concern. Relationships that are authentic now guide the zeitgeist.

This is not however my main concern, another idea that Bauman traces is the idea that modern society tries to take out the uncertainty of life, but such an endeavor is simply not possible with all people in every society. From this arises the specter of “the other” or as Bauman calls him, “the stranger”. The fear of the unknown and uncontrollable now has a face; it’s the pedophile, or the Jew, or the Muslim, or the black, the gay, the refugee. Some of these groups are shadows (such as the pedophile), some are real (such as the Jews), but what they have in common is that none are threats unto themselves. All the hand waving about the risks of anyone of the previous groups has nothing to do with actual risk, and everything to do with fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable.

After the great depression, the stranger was the Jew; and we all know how that turned out, don’t we?
So as a photographer, where do I see the lens now? Society has come to see the camera as a symbol of authority; the news cameraman and the CCTV are both symbols of power. When I publicly wield a camera I do so to take pictures. Culturally however, I have assumed a tool of authority for my own ends. People are shocked, SHOCKED, to discover that people can take their photo in public and there’s nothing they can do about it. After all, the image is mine. I used to tell people that cameras really can’t steal your soul, but I sort of missed the point.

People aren’t actually concerned with their souls being stolen when their picture is taken in public. They’re worried that they will become unwilling participants in a cycle of production and consumption. They fear an asymmetrical relationship between the viewer and the subject; and this state of mind is only possible because of a disintegration of the concept of society, and the attendant loss of the public-self. I am “The Stranger”, and suddenly everyone believes that they are islands unto themselves, and the camera becomes the conquistador.

The camera is not a crown, but in a society where individuals distance themselves from moral duty as being “a private concern”, the camera with its power to document and critique the subject beyond the influence of their own network of relationships, it becomes an instrument of power. I personally welcome the scrutiny, as a person who is publicly moral, and the rest be damned.


Author: Joseph

Writer, educator, and bon vivant.