Photography and the City

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

“The city was seen as dangerous, but also obscure, crowded with secrets and containing districts that were inaccessible to respectable folk. It was to such areas that the inspectors of city life and labour had to journey in order to illuminate them” – Derrick Price, Surveyors and Surveyed, in L.Wells (ed.) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction.

Photography, in the nineteenth century was seen as a kind of social investigation, an “unmediated transcription of reality” (Price, 75). Susan Sontag in her essay, On Photography, sees photography as the most surreal of art forms, ” in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality of the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision” (52)

The Surrealist movement saw the essence of revolution as the ability to capture” the marvelous in everyday” and photography was seen as a conduit for doing so, but not without contention. Photography grew in the days of the Empire and according to Price, became an “important adjunct to imperialism, for it returned to the Western spectator images of native peoples which frequently confirmed prevailing views of them as primitive, bizarre, barbaric or simple picturesque.” (68)

The tendency of imperialist photography to construct “the Other” for the purposes of study and perhaps, control, “privileged the purchaser” and allowed the dominant culture to be defined against those being colonized. The consumer of photographs thus constituted a distinct social class, with a growing appetite for images of people in living conditions that were different from their own (Price, 70).

Photo credit: Amina Waya

Photo credit: Amina Waya

This became even more pronounced with the depiction of poverty, squalor and urban decay that obsessed the middle class spectator. Alan Trachtenberg, the American historian, writes, “exploration of forbidden and menacing spaces emerged in the 1890s as a leading mode of the dailies, making spectacles of the “neither side of New York” or “the other half.”  The reporter appeared now often as a performer, one who had ventured into alien streets and habitations, perhaps in disguise, and returned with a tale, a personal story of the dark underside of the city.” (126)

Sontag further argues, “For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence – with spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, hidden from them.” (55)

According to Sontag, the camera became the extension of the eye, for the middle class flaneur. 

Photographs are still used to represent “other” realities. Realities that were considered out of reach or exotic to the consumer. This commercialization of voyerism is used extensively by the tourism industry in order to “sell” places to potential visitors. The mechanics of how a photograph is taken is rarely evaluated, despite the awareness that they are taken to elicit a certain response.

 

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Fortunately, today there is a proliferation of excellent social media sites that offer a wide range of perspectives on any city. Dubai has recently launched an e-museum on Instagram made up of photos taken by its residents. This fantastic current exhibit running at the International Center for Photography in New York documents the changed political and social landscapes of South American cities. A post about urban photography wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the father of the medium, Henri Cartier Bresson. Also, check out the Telegraph’s showcase of award winning street photography under its culture picture galleries.

 

 

 

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The Non Place

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

There was a time when people explored cities with just an eye and a notebook or perhaps, even a camera. Today, however, explorers are more keen to remove themselves from their immediate surroundings and mediate the world through a digital interface. Consider this paragraph from Kazys Varnelis’s Networked Place,

“You’re in the café with your Moleskine notebook—a non-networked object ubiquitous among the digerati—trying to start an essay on the role of place in network culture and finding that the only way forward is to detach yourself from the network as much as possible. But the people surrounding you have other ideas. The man behind you is trying to commit himself more deeply to the network, purchasing a plan that will allow him to talk on his mobile phone for one-tenth of his waking hours every month. A woman next to you is browsing the Internet with her laptop, a late-career executive is thumbing his Blackberry,two students are studying together, and some teenagers are hanging out listening to music on their iPhones. While one texts her friends, the other downloads music from the iTunes store. A thirtysomething man is on his laptop working on a screenplay, while a few people are just reading books or the paper. You are all somehow drawn together by the lure of the generic (but branded) caffeinated beverage and the desire to share a similarly generic, but nonetheless communal, space with other humans with whom you are likely not to have any direct interaction.”

How has technology changed our cities? By converting them into non-places.

In her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs links the collapse of the public sphere to the lack of “architectural infrastructure” that encourages face to face interaction. What we have today are a profusion of transitory places – malls, supermarkets, airports, hotels, restaurants, cafes, modes of transport – purposeful, commodified and mediated by text rather than speech. Otherwise called the Non Place

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Each place or (non-place) requires a certain protocol of behaviour, which minimizes interaction with strangers. Take the airport, for instance. After you’ve traveled once, the protocol becomes familiar. If you’re lost, look for the signs that lead you to where you want to go. Your identity is checked once when you enter and once when you leave. The airport is the perfect embodiment of the non place.

Coined by Marc Auge, and explained in this video about “Architecture and the Non Place” the non place is the most significant aspect of supermodernity. While places are created through identity and memory, are finished and ordered, non places are distinguished by the fact that they’re constantly changing, are created to meet a certain end, they’re mediated by text and are governed by spectacle (Auge, M (1995) From Place to Non Place. Non-Places Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity”, London: Verso)

As Auge says, “it creates the image, produces the myth and at the same stroke makes it work”.

Today, most cities of the world build “sights” for the explicit purpose of attracting people to enjoy them for a brief periods of time. Their marketing machines go into overdrive, giving rise to a proliferation of literature that together produce the myth of the city. The experience of the city is then packaged as a product and sold to be consumed in a particular way. Today the world is a an interconnected network of non places.

The drawback of this whole operation is the inability of places to shake off the myth created so aggressively by their tourist offices. Even inhabitants of cities that are market aggressively, buy into this image and, in the process lose a deeper, more meaningful engagement with the city and its inhabitants. Interaction become purposeful and driven by expectation.Cities are now consumed and used like products to meet certain ends.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

On the flip side, the confluence of globalization and the technology enabled networked economy that brings to life the non place, can also give rise to “place” in the most unexpected way. Like in this fantastic  TED talk by photographer Iwan Baan, “Ingenious homes in Unexpected Places”, he documents the lives of people who took over an abandoned high rise tower in Caracas, Venuzvela and how through ingenuity, creativity and a little hacking, have made it their home. In another Ted Talk, Robert Neuwirth talks about “Shadow Cities”, or squatter sites in which more than a billion people live.

Do you unconsciously endorse the non place? Are you ready to break out of structure and discover something truly unique about the city you live in and yourself?

Go for a drift today!

 

The Flaneuse – Women in the City

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

“Whether women are seen as a problem of cities, or cities as a problem for women, the relationship remains fraught with difficulty” – Elizabeth Wilson, The Invisible Flaneur (1992) 

Now, here’s a contentious idea. The city has been, for the most part and still continues to be, a predominantly male domain. The 18th century flaneur (or poet explorer) constructed by Baudelaire, held both the city and its women at the end of his gaze. Janet Wolff in her essay, “Feminism and Modernism“, wrote:

“The experience of anonymity in the city, the fleeting, impersonal contacts described by social commentators like Georg Simmel, the possibility of unmolested strolling and observation first seen by Baudelaire, and then analysed by Walter Benjamin were entirely the experiences of men. By the late nineteenth century, middle-class women had been more or less consigned (in ideology if not in reality) to the private sphere. The public world of work, city life, bars, and cafés was barred to the respectable woman . . “

In Baudelaire’s Paris, “the women of the street” participated in the flesh trade, creating the perception of the wandering woman as unvirtuous or loose. According to Wilson, the flaneur himself was a marginal figure, hyped by the poetic gesticulations of authors such as Baudelaire, Benjamin and Simmel. But his “gaze” characterized the male threat to women in the city.

If one were to think about the persistent rhetoric one hears about single adult women, unrestrained by family or law chat,  who “roams around”  even for perfectly legitimate business, one could perhaps attribute the roots of such thought to the “gaze” of the flaneur.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

The flaneur was seen as a free willed figure, who experienced the city as he willed, with no thought to boundaries or division of any kind. His experience was whole, not limited to or any type of space; he was moved by the spectacle that was the city. In contrast to this almost omnipresent privilege was the woman’s relationship to the city. Marsha Meskimmon, in her book “Engendering the City: Women Artist and the Urban Space” talks of the woman as a pedestrian, rather than a flaneur, who is aware of the physical limitation of the space that surrounds her. She writes:

“She is not a disembodied eye like the theoretical flaneur who wanders through the city “invisibly” and untouched, but a sentient participant in the city. She realises boundaries as embodied and refutes the flaneur’s privileged boundary transcendence and Utopia, unified city.”

The pedestrian is more aware of the local space, the communities, the politics of that space, while the flaneur is flighty, seemingly free of anything that might hamper his consumption of the city.

The appropriation of the city by women is seen as a crucial outcome of the feminist movement. And to a large extent, in the West and in certain countries of Asia, this has occured. West of Rome, a multi experiential urban art project, recently hosted an ongoing viral art exhibition focussed on “Women in the City“, which “showcased the art of women in empowered positions”

However, major cities of the world still struggle to balance the safety of women with their rising economic empowerment. In the light of a recent spate of violence against women in India, an organization called “Women in Cities” released a set of videos portraying how women in vulnerable communities were taking responsibility for their own safety. A safety map was created, through dialogue with young girls in the community, which highlighted the most dangerous spots for a girl to visit.  Unfortunately, these included common public places like parks, bus stops and even the communal toilets.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

For true progress and political stability, it is imperative that women have equal access to a city as men. Dubai is possibly the safest place for a woman to live and work. In this article published by the Huffington post, the writer states:

“Dubai allows you to be you. And controversially especially if you are a woman. I’m not the only woman to think that. I feel safer here in Dubai than I do in London or Paris. There is a healthy respect that means you are just left alone, so long as you in turn respect the local values and customs.”

And that is how every city in the world should be!