On tribalism and photography- a thought piece
Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too – photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny but that carry with them a reminder of community. – Robert Adams
I try to resolve a picture in PhotoShop in less than 8 minutes. If you take hours it is because you’ve fallen in love with it….and it won’t love you back.
~ Dan Margulis
It is that time of the year in New Zealand photography, a time when chickens sent home to roost return empty-handed.
Every year at about this time, the PSNZ Honours Board get together to look at all the portfolios submitted for society letters, and to pass judgement upon them. While some will be allowed through the gate, the majority will be drafted out and sent back to the paddock to graze for another year. Every year at about this time there is frustration and disappointment and bitterness amongst those who do not pass muster. Every year at about this time my phone begins ringing and my inbox is filled with communications from people who have not succeeded, and who need to share their frustration. So I listen, and I offer hope, and do what I can to help to heal their wounds, which is not, I suspect, much at all. Given that most photography bodies operate in a reasonably similar way, whether the RPS or the PSA or the PSSA, I suspect this grief and disappointment is repeated across our planet.
It would be easy (and vindictive) to take the side of the people who ring me, to attach myself to their grief and their pain, and to join them in it, to share their frustration, throw petrol on the fire of their discontent and to encourage their denigration of the Honours Board. Doing so would be quite hypocritical, since I have passed those gatekeepers (albeit a decade ago), and since I have been a gatekeeper myself. My opinion of the current gatekeepers might well align with the feelings and expressions of those who have not been successful. But then again it might not align at all. I might well consider them to be perfectly competent at their jobs. Or not. Whatever I may think, and in spite of what some of you may think, my opinions are my own and shared with very few, and anyway I am here to help, wherever I can, to support the photographic community in its widest sense, and that means being party to a diverse range of opinions and approaches. While each community may feel it holds the high ground, in fact none do. It seems to me that it does not matter whether you are a club photographer, professional, or you are a fine art photographer. Each one is as valid as the next, simply the same, only different.
The friend who rang was angry, because it was his second attempt, and his second failure at this level. They do not understand my work, he said, and are not willing to stretch themselves to really look at it. As we spoke, I looked at the proof sheet he had sent me, and I admitted that, had I been one of the judges, i would certainly have passed it. It was simple, elegant, sophisticated in its presentation, and full of emotion and connection to his subject. Having walked with him from the idea’s genesis, in my opinion it was a superior body of work. That, however, was not the point. The Honours Board, as a body, had voted against giving it the honours he sought. And that is their prerogative. That is their right, that is their responsibility, and the weight of the decisions they make are theirs alone to bear. You pays your money and you takes your chances…
I am continually fascinated, however, by the tribal nature of photography, and indeed by the tribalism inherent within human society. I attempted to explain this to him. You want, on the one hand, I said to him, to be able to do your own thing in your own way, and yet you want to be accepted by the tribe. The photographic society movement is a tribe, no different really to the army (Ngati Tumatauenga-lit: the tribe of Tumatauenga, the God of war) or the staff of a company or high school, or indeed any group where people come together for a common purpose. A camera club is intrinsically no different from the local gorilla breeding association, or a lions club or a church community.
Wherever people gather together, they tend to form a tribal culture to serve them, but end up serving the culture itself. Self-belief is a critical part of a tribal culture, the glue which binds it together and reinforces its identity. Credo ergo sum. I believe therefore I am. Badges and honours are important to reinforcing a tribe’s self-identity. You achieve status within a tribe by fitting in with its mores, learning to function within its guidelines and laws and, if you are perceived by the rest of the tribe to be successful at this, elevation and status will follow. If you want, I said, to be headman of the tribe, then you have to convince the tribe that you are willing to serve it, and you do so by demonstrating that you not only wholeheartedly subscribe to the ethos of the tribe, but are able to apply the tribe’s laws in a way which bring no surprises to the elders and are an example to those lower down in the pecking order. A photographic fellowship implies that you see things wholeheartedly from the tribe’s perspective, and are able to demonstrate this in your work.
Look at it another way, I said to him. Imagine you are the chief of the Zulu tribe. You fully understand the workings of Zulu tribal culture, you have a passionate belief in the superiority of your own tribe (this is important), and you are willing to go to war to defend your tribal culture. Please note that this does not extend to individual members of your tribe. The whole will always be greater than one of the parts. It is enough to deal with the day to day affairs of the tribe and its survival. You may be aware of your immediate neighbours, the Xhosa and Sotho, but it is highly unlikely you will have ever heard of or be interested in the culture of the Toureg, many miles to the north. And, indeed, if they should show up, wanting to impose their tribal values upon you, you will feel threatened and war will follow.
Welcome to the human race.
The option is always there, I said, to wander in the woods by yourself, to be a lone wolf. But that has its own pitfalls. It is too easy, I continued, to believe your own propaganda, to come to a watering hole and, like Narcissus, to be entranced by your own reflection. As long as you do not take yourself too seriously, then there is a path through the forest, and experience of other tribal cultures can help you triangulate your own position.
You know, I went on, I remember when I applied for my own fellowship . I was fascinated by the project I was working on, and it was only when somebody suggested that since this was work nobody had ever done before, that I should go for my fellowship, that I decided to do so. I sought the advice of a couple of wise old tribal elders, who helped me put my submission together. When we worked on the layout, with them directing the selection and me assisting, we included 2 to 3 works which didn’t do anything for me at the time, but which gave the set coherence, and reminded me that each of us as his/her own worst critic. I submitted, the gatekeepers approved, and I was drafted into the inner pasture.
You know, I have come to a conclusion about people, I added. You cannot pass judgement on another human being and you should definitely not pass judgement upon yourself, which is easy to say but awfully hard to do. More and more I have come to the idea that everybody is doing the best they can with what they have and with what they know, and to judge another human being is to hold a mirror up to yourself. Granted, a degree of tribal status goes with the position of being an Honours Board member, but it is a thankless and unpaid task, a relentless three-day grind which leaves many board members shattered at the end of it. Or it should.
It seems to me, I continued, the anthropology of the thing is quite simple. If being drafted to the inner pastures is important to you, then you need to study the culture and the rules and to meekly crave the gatekeepers’ indulgence by giving them what they want. If that feels dishonest and at odds with your own aesthetic, then do not join the tribe. Walk away, do your own thing, and wander in the forest until you find a tribe you are more in tune with. There are many out there, like-minded souls who have come together in agathering to share a fire, who discover they have much in common, like where they are, and establish their own village.