Postscript: Sarah Charlesworth on Photography

Camera lens against a white background

I stumbled upon a talk that Sarah Charlesworth delivered in 2010. The video was uploaded by the Guggenheim Museum as part of its Conversations with Contemporary Artists series archive on YouTube.

Highlights include Charlesworth’s opening manifesto on photography as art, as well as her brief insights on some of her work. She talks about “Stills” at the 15:14 mark, describing it as an exploration of the narrative capacity of photography. The whole series, she says, asks this: What is our relationship to events via news and newspaper imagery?

That nugget recalls Charlesworth’s statement about how she came to understand art as a concept and practice:

“Art for me was defined not by the medium it employed but by the questions that it asked.”

It’s a perfect encapsulation of Charlesworth’s own work, which she built around photography precisely because she saw photographs as “central to the questions of [her] time.” For her, photography is “the dominant language of contemporary culture” — and as befitting somebody linked to a group inspired by the French deconstructionists, she turned that language in on itself in a reflexive interrogation.

I can’t help but connect Charlesworth’s talk to a Harvard PolicyCast episode I listened to recently. In it, scholar Claire Wardle and journalist Hossein Derakhshan discuss the information disorder plaguing the world. About halfway through the episode, Derakhshan talks about recognizing the extra-communicative aspects of disinformation. He mentions two approaches.

First, there’s linguist George Lakoff’s notion that emotion is fundamental to language, and how that idea leads, in turn, to the notion that language influences how we think (the famous Metaphors We Live By, among other works). Second, there’s the communication studies scholar James Carey’s idea of communication as a concept that goes beyond “mere transmission of messages” and denotes, instead, the process of constructing a shared symbolic reality.

What’s interesting is that Wardle and Derakhshan later single out images (specifically, memes) as “the most powerful vehicles for disinformation.” Images, Wardle argues, work outside the established grammar of news; cognitively, we’re not conditioned to parse them with the same scrutiny.

Popular disinformation techniques, in turn, hinge on abusing that cognitive “exemption.” Images are crafted to arrogate to themselves the dense extra-communicative associations we’ve formed with the particular language of legitimate news — but they bend all that towards, well, unsavory agenda. All this means we can understand today’s disinformation better, Wardle and Derakhshan claim, by evaluating visuals as another language, and by viewing language as more than just information exchange.

That brings me back to Charlesworth and how she works with photography. Her approach carries much of the Lakoff-and-Carey-inflected perspective that Wardle and Derakhshan are advocating. Charlesworth’s interrogation of imagery and representation is driven by an understanding of images’ ability to convey (if not cement) beliefs and shape viewpoints. There’s a whole galaxy of meaning swirling around a photo, its creation, its viewing. As Charlesworth states in her talk, photography isn’t mere documentation.

“All art is political,” blah, blah. Sure, it’s probably nothing we haven’t heard before. But it’s always fascinating to consider why an artwork’s particular politics strike a chord when they do, you know?