Saturday, December 10, 2005

Say Cheese

A few words on the genre of the photo essay on various federal government websites . . .

I don't know much about the history of the photo essay, but I generally associate the genre with the personal, individual, and admittedly subjective viewpoint of a particular photographer or group of photographers. Until now, I hadn't thought of the photo essay as a collection of essentially anonymous images in a "gallery" that are presented in the lenses of an institutional panoptican, but that is what the photo essay has become on many government websites. Many of these pictures come from stock image companies, such as Corbis, in the business of providing material to supplement corporate visual identities.

Most notably, I think of Photos of Freedom from What is strange is that most of these photos from Iraq aren't really photos of "freedom" but rather photos of dependency on foreign aid.

When you compare them to the iconic images of the Liberation of Paris and the celebration of sexuality that is also represented there, these pictures from Iraq seem comparatively lifeless. (Having recently seen reenactments of the Liberation of Paris during a research trip there last year, I would doubt that the Iraqis will be doing the same thing sixty years later. The Paris spectacle included banners coming down the Hotel de Ville, opera singers, vintage cars, actual veterans on tanks, stock footage, and theatrical gunfire out of the windows of a simulated battle in City Hall.)

On current government websites, there is also the "faces of" genre intended to personalize public policy positions. For example, the INS produced Faces of America. The State Department's U.S. gives us Faces of Islam. And there is also Faces of the Fallen at the Department of Defense. Not all the "faces" essays actually focus that much on the subject's countenance, although some of these works definitely call up the ethnographic gaze of a National Geographic photo.

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Blogger Lupton said...

You raise a fascinating question here. Like your powerpoint analogue, it is a case in which a web genre(the "photo gallery" or "slide show") has swallowed up an earlier genre (the "photo essay"). Although the name remains the same, the element of authorship and p.o.v. has been largely erased in favor of more corporate image presentations. To put it differently: a "gallery" is not an "essay."

7:40 AM  

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