In an interview with Indian photographer and environmental activist Ravi Agawal in the book View India, he reflects on the fact that photographing has become so easy today because technology is no longer an obstacle:
”I was (…) interested in investigating what meant that everybody (and nobody) is a photographer. I saw that people were developing their consistent language of works. When one does that, one has a right to be called an artist. One is not a casual Instagrammer. People are of course trying to make sense of Instagram, but that is another story. ”1
The interview was made in conjunction with Ravi Agawal curating the exhibition Intimate Documents with young Indian photographers at the Serendipity festival in Goa in December 2018. For his part, the exhibition was also a way to investigate which issues interest the future generation’s practitioners and how they work – a curiosity which one obviously shares if one works with higher education in photography. What I am particularly drawn to in Agawal’s answer is that he makes a clear distinction between, on the one hand, only taking and circulating pictures and, on the other hand, developing an elaborate expression or language. He does not say that social media does not matter – far from it – but that its purpose, context and expectations are other than within art. The difference that he identifies and thinks is central is that the art images have a function that extends beyond merely being manifestations and information in an ongoing flow. When he speaks of an elaborate language, I perceive that it is something more and different than the question of a recognizable style. Rather, it aims at the photographer’s work portraying compelling experiences, thoughts and ideas, as well as accommodating an ability to resist conventional ideas and circumstances. If the images have a particular language, then it is from these qualities that the style or expression emerges.
A nearby example of a photographer using his medium in such a way is Johannes Samuelsson. He published the book Bärtider (2019) at the end of March. Johannes attended the School of Photography, which in 2012 became a part of the Valand Academy, and his degree project was the book Att skriva ett modernt äventyr (2010). Between these projects, he has produced two works with a strong activist and social orientation; Korvkriget, about and with the hot dog salesman Helmer and his struggle against the municipality for the right to choose how his hot dog carriage should be designed, and Apberget, which is about the political twists and turns around the transformation of a public space in central Umeå. Bärtider is the result of a long and close collaboration with two cultural geographers and, as stated in the introduction, ”a photographer’s gaze on the Swedish and the global market for wild berries”. Johannes uses his photographic skills – like his fellow student Kerstin Hamilton, who is now a doctoral student at the Valand Academy – as a working method and instrument in an interdisciplinary research project. The question is what the photographer’s gaze contributes with? Looking at how Johannes’s images and texts interact, the answer is that the photographic gaze here lies in the ability to depict the seemingly insignificant – but in fact significant – details. Together, the images and texts create links and visualize economic and social structures that interfere with the local, national and global. They are structures and events that affect the lives of individuals and groups in a radical way, but also nature and the ecosystem. Particularly striking is that there is not a single person depicted so that her face is visible. Because portraits are often used to create identification and intimacy, it is fascinating that facelessness makes the work even more acute.
But Bärtider also shows that ”the photographer’s gaze” holds more than the eye that looks through the viewfinder, or on the screen, and delimits the subject before the picture is taken; to then carefully edit the material. It is also about the gaze on the situation and the ability to work in different contexts – something photographers have always done and to a large extent still do. It is this critical attention and multifunctionality that the Master’s program in photography strives for students to conquer.