In this day and age, images have become dangerous, even furious, and require an attitude of resistance on the part of intellectuals and artists. For Joan Fontcuberta, responsible photographers should know how to use visual ecology strategies to deal with the overabundance of icons, at the same time as finding those images that are still missing.
When you enter Joan Fontcuberta’s studio, the first thing that strikes you is that there are no cameras around. When I ask him about it later, he takes one out of a drawer and points to the mobile phone. Unlike the stereotypical dirty studio of old, full of spotlights, flashes and lenses, the immaculate walls of Fontcuberta’s studio, located in the Roca Umbert factory in Granollers, epitomise the artist of the 21st century. “The studio is in my head”, he later explains. The life of Joan Fontcuberta, the most world-renowned Catalan photographer, recipient of a Barcelona City Council “Ciutat de Barcelona” prize in 2016, is one of constant travels and projects all over the world. He divides his time between preparing for new exhibitions, producing new works and reflecting on photography through reading, writing and curating. “When I travel I make notes on my mobile phone of everything I want to remember, filling up a figurative drawer of themes to research or go into in greater depth.” He also confesses that he does not keep to a schedule and never takes holidays. For him, spending the month of August writing about photographs taken by carrier pigeons during the First World War is as exciting a prospect as going on holiday to the Caribbean is for other people.
Two factors in your life have had a decisive effect on your career. The first is that you come from a family with a background in advertising.
Indeed, it was a huge learning experience. I studied advertising and at the same time worked at the Danis advertising agency. It was like attending writing school: summarising in a slogan all the information provided by the manufacturer is a very powerful exercise in rhetoric. Many writers have learned their craft as advertising copywriters. I also learned creative techniques there. When it’s your job to come up with ideas day after day, if you have methodological aids and systems to help your imagination flow, all the better. But, above all, what working at the agency taught me, both conceptually and ideologically, was the techniques of persuasion and seduction that advertising uses, and having an insider’s knowledge of them has made it much easier to deconstruct and expose them.
You say that growing up during the latter years of the Franco regime hardened your scepticism, so that you do not take information at face value.
The generation that grew up during the late Franco period lived through a set of unique historical circumstances in terms of freedom and access to information, and that leaves a mark. Out of this conditioning, I created a space for critical thinking, with work that enabled me to turn around everything I experienced during that era and to produce a lesson for the generations to come.
Do you think we are more gullible nowadays when it comes to information?
There have always been those people who ask more searching questions and those who do not, but the pitfalls still exist. Right now we’re seeing this torrent of fake news or “post-truth” on the Internet. There is a whole series of phenomena that continue to confront us with the need to shed light on what is true and what is not; for that reason, we must maintain a degree of suspicion and distrust and refrain from being credulous and having blind faith in everything we see.
Your most famous works make us distrust photography, forcing us to doubt what we are seeing before our eyes. I’m thinking specifically about Herbarium and Fauna, which depicted a series of plants and animals that you invented, and your most recent hoax, the invention of the photographer Ximo Berenguer.
The photograph emerged in the 19th century as an instrument for verifying reality: whatever was photographed was real. Nowadays, this authentication-of-reality function falls to Google and, depending on the results we find, the quantity of responses and how convincing they are, we either believe it or we don’t. However, in the same way that we can manipulate a photo, so too can Google be manipulated. What is the first thing a counterfeiter would do these days? They would enter information on the Internet so that when we look for a certain thing we would find a plausible number of results that reassure us. That is why we must maintain a sense of scepticism.
Your photographs also have a very literary angle: they are always accompanied by texts and always tell us a story.
I’ve always been interested in the concept of photographic positioning: where does an image belong? Photographs never appear alone; they are inserted into significant constellations. Images exist side by side with text, they coexist with a space, a specific prop, the channels through which they are disseminated. All of this moulds the function and nature of the image. The meaning of the same photograph changes depending on whether we see it in the pages of a newspaper, in an exhibition hall, in a forensic report or in someone’s wallet. In all these cases, the photograph jumps from one meaning to another, from one value to another. What has always interested me is not the image itself but the value we ascribe to it.
When you began your career, photography was an artistic discipline, but over the past three decades it has exploded and now everyone is constantly taking photos with their mobile phones. You have spoken of this as the post-photographic era.
Up until now, photography as we knew it was a response to the industrial revolution, the values of the 19th century and techno-scientific culture. It emerged at the same time as archives and museums, at a time when travel and colonisation were just beginning. Back then, photography was a symbolic form of appropriation: first came the photographers and then the soldiers. That is why 19th century photography is unable to respond to the problems of the 21st century. Post-photography is something else entirely, not necessarily because the technology has evolved but because it corresponds to a completely different context. Why do we need images today? We need them to tell us “I’ve arrived”, to tell us “I’m coming”, to tell us “look what I’ve seen”. Photographs have become our voice, our words.
So, with post-photography, images are language?
In fact, this linguistic conditioning of images has always existed, we just hadn’t used it until now. Images were the reserve of certain professional minorities – artists and photographers. The revolution we are seeing means that now everyone can make images without having had any training or having to invest in expensive technologies. In a very intuitive, very spontaneous way, anyone can take out their mobile phone, take a photograph and send it, imbuing the image with a certain communicative meaning.
You say that this democratisation of photography is particularly important for women.
The fact that, today, we are all Homo photographicus and can take photos without any kind of barrier means that, for the first time in history, we can manage our own image. And that is particularly important for women because, after a long tradition of men’s perspective shaping a certain sexual, erotic and objectified cliché, it provides them with the power to construct their own identity. For the first time, they don’t need to appeal to a masculine elite; instead, every woman can control and manage her own image.
With the advent of digital technology, photography is also dematerialised.
Although the digital image has the soul of photography, it has lost its substance, its matter. “Matter” is derived from the Latin mater, or mother, which means that photography has lost something of its lineage in the digital photograph. In post-photography, images become a message and therefore shatter one of the major historical functions of photographs: memory. These days, we take a photograph, send it and delete it, because once we have transmitted whatever content we wanted, there is no sense in keeping it. In the past, when images were more valuable and less common, this duty to preserve memory was inherent in photographic images, but nowadays it’s just an option. Before, creating a memory was an obsession, now it’s an option.
One of your latest projects, Trauma, uses deleted images that you obtained from the Photographic Archive of Barcelona (AFB).
For Trauma, I’m looking for defective images, images that have some kind of pathology that renders them ineligible for their primary function, which is to transmit information. The Photographic Archive of Barcelona keeps images of urban landscapes, local personalities and historical events, and they are there because they’re a source of information for scholars and historians. But what happens when these images lose their reference to reality, and all that is left are the vestiges of stains and chemical materials that do not identify the event that prompted the photograph in the first place? They become ghosts, and that is what interests me. Trauma is about what happens when memory disappears, as though the images had Alzheimer’s. Strangely enough, I created the series at a time when my father was dying of Alzheimer’s.
One of the paradoxes described in La furia de las imágenes. Notas sobre la postfotografía (The Fury of the Images. Notes on Postphotography) (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2016) is that the democratisation of access to photography has led to saturation. We are surrounded by images; they are absolutely everywhere. In your essays, you speak of “iconic pollution”.
The current overproduction is causing an immersion that is almost stifling. That is why I think images have become dangerous, even furious, and that they require an attitude of resistance on the part of intellectuals and artists. This resistance could be expressed in two ways. First, using visual ecology strategies, which means only taking essential images. We need to avoid contributing to this pollution by reusing previous images, provided that they give meaning to what we want to express, without necessarily having to repeat them, without being redundant. There is therefore a need to manage this abundance. Second, we also need to reflect on the images that are still missing. The fact that there are so many images should make us question those that do not exist, those that have been rendered invisible, have been censored or have not even been taken. That is the ultimate challenge for the responsible photographer. What images are we currently missing? The overabundance of photographs is also a form of censorship, because it prevents us from finding what we need. Traditional censorship consisted of banning an image; now, censorship involves giving you an image and ten million more so that the one you are looking for is obscured.
During the tercentenary of the fall of Barcelona during the Spanish War of Succession, you inaugurated the mural El món neix en cada petó (The world begins with every kiss) in Plaça d’Isidre Nonell in Ciutat Vella, a participatory photomosaic made up of 4,000 images provided by Barcelonians.
The mural of the kiss is an example of this idea of managing overabundance. From thousands and thousands of photos already in existence, I looked to make something bigger. In this type of participatory project, rather than making the music, the artist has to act as the orchestra conductor, managing the energy of the collective and organising the images in order to imbue them with a specific meaning. The kiss mosaic commemorates the historical events of 1714 from a different perspective by creating a tabula rasa and looking forward, rather than searching for dramatic or tragic aspects of the past. We looked not for gunshots but for kisses.
How do you feel about it having become such a popular public space? The kiss mural has even been featured in adverts.
What happened is fascinating; I’m very happy to have contributed to giving the city an icon, a place where people will remember their experiences if they participated with a photo, but that also serves as a backdrop for photographs, kisses, selfies… Some English tourist guide even asked me for photos of the photomosaic because it was one of the top ten places to visit in Barcelona, after the Sagrada Família and Camp Nou. Barcelona has given me a lot, and I’m glad to have been able to give something back to the best of my abilities.
Public spaces in cities are full of sculptures and works of art, but strangely there are very few artistic photographs on the streets. By contrast, commercial photography seems to be everywhere.
It’s true, there are very few public works by photographers or artistic images in the public space. There is lots of commercial photography on the streets, but it’s not a form of photography that makes people think; it just makes them buy things. In Canada, a place I visit often because my partner is from Quebec, they use the one per cent rule, whereby one per cent of the cost of any public development can be allocated to the commissioning of a piece of contemporary art. So, for example, when constructing schools and hospitals it is completely normal for a piece of work to be commissioned from photographers.
For a long time in Barcelona, if you saw anyone sporting a camera round their neck, they were usually a tourist. Although now everyone has a camera, tourist photographs have continued to multiply, to the point that, according to Flickr and Instagram rankings, Barcelona is one of the most photographed cities in the world.
Tourist photography is a genre, but in the midst of this post-photography craze we no longer tend to photograph the clichéd monument or part of the city; instead, we capture ourselves visiting them. The selfie and the selfie stick take precedence as proof that we are here. In contrast to Roland Barthes’ “ça a été”, or “that has been”, inherent to photography, these days we say “I was there”. We’ve gone from a document to registering ourselves in a place and time.
Is the selfie the perfect metaphor for this post-photographic era?
It’s one of the most visible signs, yes. But the selfie is not a unique phenomenon; it’s multifaceted because there are so many types of selfie, ranging from celebrations, documentary, erotic, rites of passage, and so on. But, for me, what is important to point out about the selfie is that it’s not a fashion but rather a category of images that will remain established, just as wedding photographs and passport photographs have.
What do photographic social networks, like Instagram and Snapchat, tell us about our times?
In the past, photographs were for private consumption: they were for us and us alone; at most, we showed them to a small circle of people. Today, in comparison, the aim of images is to build social consensus, to become an element of communication. They are images that are made to be shown to a generic group of recipients. These days, privacy does not exist, it has gone to a better place. Almost everything is public and everything is shared. As for Snapchat, it seems to be a good example for understanding the difference between photography and post-photography. Snapchat is the great metaphor for a photograph that is taken, completes its task — to transmit certain information — and then automatically disappears. Just like the messages in Mission: Impossible: “this message will self-destruct in ten seconds”.
As a society, are we addicted to photographs?
We grew up during an age when images were few and far between, and now that we use them almost like second nature it might seem that we are overusing them. But would we say that we have become addicted to words? If we compare our era with bygone times, when people were illiterate, would we say that now that we know how to write we have become addicted to writing? Everything depends on how we make use both of writing and of images. Widespread use is not harmful in and of itself.