By Salina Christmas
What really stuck to my mind after I listened to Ed Kashi explain his Madagascar project at an evening webinar held at the Diemar/Noble Photography Gallery last April is that images are still not considered the main mode of knowledge transmission – especially at academic level.
This is despite the fact that images and image makers are currently at the forefront on the knowledge shift spearheaded by the world wide web.
Towards the end of the webinar session, Ed Kashi spoke of his efforts in getting some of the educational authorities in the United States to acknowledge the use of images for school education, not just as a means of attaching themselves to text, serving the role of an illustration or a token graphic object, but as a valid means of educational tool.
He got something done to a degree, but he admitted there is still a long way to go.
The word people hold the power
During the Q&A session, I asked: “Do you think that’s because at schools and higher academic levels, images are not perceived as the main mode of knowledge transmission? That our mode of knowledge transmission is ‘verbose’?”
I used Digital Anthropology as an example. Here is a masters degree that I am doing which focuses, in some parts, on the use of images as a communication technology. And how images are captured, digitised and transmitted via an interface – a camera or a computer or a mobile phone – as a tool for communication experience, not simply to preserve memory.
And yet, to describe this process, I was told to depict this technology using text. Yes, I can use visual aids such as photography and video, but they belong to the “Addendum” part in the essay.
Kashi wrinkled his forehead, thought for a while, and said: “Yeah, I think you’re right.” The “word people”, he said, still hold the power in the transmission of knowledge, although increasingly, the public has begun to wake up to the idea of how powerful, useful and informative images can be. Having said that, his wife “was one of the word people,” he told us “But she’s now a film maker”.
Photographers are very organised in mobilising change in the media. Lately, and especially on the web, photographers have been instrumental in campaigns relating to freedom of speech and ethical journalism.
The changing notion of ‘evidence’
I thought about what Kashi said for weeks, and one evening, I asked Professor Mike Rowlands of UCL’s Department of Anthropology, why photographers are increasingly behind digital activism. “It’s to do with our changing notion of what is evidence,” he suggested. “Knowledge is based on evidence, and increasingly, the evidence is becoming visual.”
And who else are at the forefront of this phenomenon if not photographers and photo editors? They see all there is to see out there, and they filter what you and I are not meant to see in the media.
“It is no longer sufficient in photojournalism merely to document the challenges,” Kashi wrote in the Madagascar booklet. “We need to empower each other to show just how great the force of collective action can be, and answer the growing global demand to stop and take responsibility.”
Photography can be activism
During the April webinar, Ed Kashi also spoke of the differences between the photojournalist and the documentary film-maker. “The photojournalist is a long-form narrative visual storyteller,” he explained. The photojournalist is also a ‘journalist’. The photojournalist keeps ahead of the news curve by looking at themes and issues that he can examine over time. Being ahead of the pack comes with doing one’s homework or research, and with caring about the world. In journalism, if not in academia, photography can be as rigorous as documentary or investigative news feature in disseminating information.
Kashi’s “Madagascar: A Land Out of Balance” and his previous works on the Niger Delta could be classed as advocacy journalism, but he said not everything he does is on the same vein. “[As a photographer], you can be an art philosopher, as long as you can make an image that makes an impact,” he said.
In her book, “Thinking With Things” (2005), Esther Pasztory said that in the iconoclastic cultures, the visual arts, images included, are secondary in its communicative role, next to the text. As a placeholder of data and ideas, the text carries more prestige. Anyone can get what a picture is, but to be able to encode or decode text, one has to be ‘literate’. There is a status attached to ‘literacy’, and thus, to the text. Over the last few centuries, images have been aligned to text, to behave as ‘symbols’, just like text. Little wonder that in academia, and especially the media, the word people still occupy the top positions. They have the knowledge and the interface needed to mediate and disseminate the knowledge.
As evidence that forms the basis of knowledge, the image now has the potential to be on equal footing with text in our lifetime. Digital technology is making sure that this is the direction we’re heading to. But maybe not in academia just yet.