photography and the experience of the unknown

italian version

Without ambiguity, no change, ever.
Paul Feyerabend 1989

…as if Nature could support but one order of understandings.
Henry David Thoreau, 1854

There are many possible individual and collective attitudes towards complexity uncertainty, and ultimately, fear of the unknown. Two of them appear as lying at opposites sides of a dichotomy: one consists on developing tools to deal with the future, minimizing the possible adverse events and maximizing the occurrence of positive developments. The other one implies working on becoming sufficiently aware of the present, and therefore ready for the unfolding of time. The first attitude is centered on acting primarily on the outside world, therefore on developing and maintaining power and control over natural phenomena, the second is focused on preserving and refining the capacity of human beings, and more generally of all living beings, to react and to adapt; therefore it is founded on supporting and enhancing our individual and collective resilience.

The contemporary technoscientific apparatus, in its highly contradictory and paradoxical nature, including its undeniable successes, can be interpreted as a response arising from the first kind of approach. In this scenario, complexity is a hindrance to be designed out of the system, to be simplified into manageable complication. Uncertainty and fear are translated into risk assessment and risk perception.

On the other hand, indigenous, animal and traditional epistemologies and praxis can be correlated with the second type of scenario. Complexity can become a resource when connected with cultural and natural biodiversity. Uncertainty and ignorance can work as creative hinges [1].

In this overall framework, it is possible and fruitful to rethink about the role of art and art making, with regards to its relationship with complexity and, more generally, with the unknown.

Collective aesthetic experiences can be proposed in public and academic settings, as ways to set up a common arena for a constructive dialogue. What we mean here by aesthetic [2] experience is the idea that one can be engaged both emotionally and cognitively at the same time, and this creates the possibility for unlocking an internal space, to be then explored by sharing narratives, experiences and ideas. In this way, one can challenge the modern divide between art, as founded on purely subjective expression, and science, as based on solely objective observation.

In experiencing the humanity of another I can sense my own humanity and my world expands in that moment.
Philip Perkis 2001

Position is where everything happens from.
Frederic Sommer

Photography is usually associated with the act of seeing, like modern painting. It was born in connection with science, as a tool for recording the results of neutral observation. In this framework, the photographer is not a poet but a scribe [3] (who aims at becoming invisible, disappearing from the scene; objective reproduction is conceived as an epistemic virtue [4]. Scientific, naturalistic and the more recent theater photography are most common instances of this attitude.

On the other extreme, photography has to do with visual hunting: the photographer has an intrinsic power over its observable subjects and this power becomes part of the picture making. Most fashion and street photography are based on this approach: Antonioni’s vision in Blow Up or Diane Arbus’s portraiture can be considered as examples.

In both cases – either disappearing from or prevailing over a subject- what is central to this type of visual work is capturing a, more or less, aware and recognizable object in order to show it to viewers in different times and contexts. Walter Benjamin’s concern about the loss of artistic aura is rooted in this kind of objectifying displacement [5].

Indeed, photography can also be considered in a whole different way. A first step is to focus on the connections between things – the rhythm of the seen- as opposed to the identity of the objects out there. In one of his most famous book, “The Democratic Forest”, the renowned American photographer William Eggleston argues for the necessity to “treat things democratically”, in a poetic ode to systemic vision [6]. The act of photographing can be then performed with a paradoxical stance: using a framing instrument in order to un-frame, that is to explore, one’s own capacity to see.

Moving one step further from this kind of systemic approach, photographic research, practice and fruition can be undertaken as ways to work not only on vision and perception, but on a more general state of being: reminding and refining one’s own capacity to be present, therefore aware about what is there, and open to what will be next. In this sense, it can be associated to a performative art: learning to be in a definite space and time and ready for internal and external events to happen.

The idea is to develop a craft – camera adjustments but also body adjustments in space and light – and then expose this craft with intention and effort to the occurrence of chance, in a specific chosen arena. In this framework, intention becomes the conscious act of choosing a time and place with a certain medium and skill, and chance involves the occurrence of correlations between internal and external events. The images become evidence of encounters between intention and chance, so defined, in the arena of natural environments. This type of process has then to do with experiencing complexity in nature and taking a deliberate epistemic, emotional and physical position in it.

The divide between neutral observation and subjective expression is critically challenged: the idea is not to control and eliminate unwanted noise in order to produce perfect, aesthetically standardized, reproductions of a reassuring objective or conquered reality, but to witness the occurrence of complex correlations between the inside and the outside world. Presence is preferred to perfection.

The hope is that the viewers – ranging from the scientific community to the civil society – can then be exposed to the intuition and the immediate experience of a complex, paradoxical and creative relationship with the unknown and develop their own, by taking an open, adaptable and yet definite position towards it.

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1 Benessia, A., Funtowicz, S., Bradshaw G., Ferri F., Ráez-Luna E.F. and Medina C.P. 2012. Hybridizing sustainability: Towards a new praxis for the present human predicament. Sustainability Science 7(1): 75-89, DOI 10.1007/s11625-011-0150-4.2 From ancient Greek αἴσθησις, aisthesis: perception, sensation, feeling.3 Fox Talbot in Sontag S. 1977. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday.4 Daston L. e Galison P. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books

5 Benjamin W. 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Benjamin W. 1969. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Schocken

6 Eggleston W. 1989. The Democratic Forest. London: Secker & Warburg