The need to break the spell of the single image

This essay contrasts the presumed correlation between knowledge and photographic documents.
Words by
© Mathieu Asselin | In 1996, Monsanto® introduced its first GMO seeds. It ensured that farmers could not save the seeds and essentially lost the ownership of their seeds. Consequently, the power balance shifted away from the farmers to corporations who now own about 80 percent of GM corn and 93 percent of the GM soy market. Now farmers not only have to buy the seeds from the corporations year after year, but they are also forced to comply with the rules and regulations embedded in the contracts, which are designed to put the farmers at a juridical disadvantage.

If we were asked to consider photography's contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the world, we would doubtless think of the medium's ability to accurately record objects and events and the accumulating trove of such recordings that aid comprehension of the past and present. This would not seem unreasonable. Understanding key moments in human history and how the world appeared in former times is greatly aided by the visual record, particularly when the document is - to some degree, at least - mechanically arrived at.

This essay will contrast this presumed correlation between knowledge and photographic documents with an alternative position. Against the idea of freestanding images that encapsulate the essence of their subject, I wish to consider the work of Mathieu Asselin and Allan Sekula to support the concept of a relational form of photography that seeks to map and interrogate our connection with a globalised world.

Presumed transparency

I shall begin, however, with the consideration of photographs as fact-bearing documents and the notion of accessible information stored within photographic archives. To a large extent, this view of photography derives from a general acceptance of the transparency that is felt to characterise photographic images. Kendall Walton tells us photography's transparency gives us justification for speaking of 'photographic realism.' For Walton, the kind of 'perceptual contact' that photography offers means that archive images are, by and large, felt to consist of preserved historical moments that remain available today for scrutiny and 'face to face' engagement. *1

The problem with conceiving photographs in this way, as bearers of fact, is that each stand-alone image is not ingrained with stabilised meaning. Those we instinctively presume to evidence fact invariably offer in-built scope for an after-the-fact attribution of meaning. Any such image can be put to work to substantiate a point that is extraneous to its moment of capture, and in an era of fake news, the meaning of stand-alone photographs seems more pliable than ever.

For example, Mark Mekala's photograph of Hilary Clinton as she stumbled on the steps walking into S.C. Strong in Charleston in 2016 and was momentarily steadied by aides, later appeared on Breitbart's website, which at the time was supporting Donald Trump's presidential campaign. However, with the help of the surrounding text, it seemed to provide photographic evidence of her failing health rather than a simple stumble. The image now resides in the database of Getty Images, but the information it provides as archival material, without the addition of text, remains unanchored and interpretable. *2


In her essay Archive (2015), Ariella Azoulay speaks of how a person who is photographed may be understood as a result of how they are categorised within the archive. She argues that the archive can “violently constitute the photographed person through a category that shapes her/him in its image, thereby deciding the fate of the photographed person in a way that fuses image, concept and reference.” *3

How are we then to regard the potential of photography to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the world, be it past events or current circumstances? I would argue that freestanding images dislocated from the determinants of their production are unduly persuasive in their 'ownership' of reality. I would add that our way of grouping together images that 'belong' in the archive may be helpful, but the factors that recommend one image over another must at all times be borne in mind. Debates around photography and the archive are many. Still, perhaps, at times, it would be helpful to think about this kind of photography in terms of the museum rather than the archive, since archives are silent repositories and so often, our notion of photography and what it represents is shaped by what is selected and displayed. Curated rooms of photographs that offer a distillation of an event or epoch hold the capacity to shape our understanding of whatever is being revealed. The result may be genuinely informative but, for the most part, each image remains an autonomous artefact that reinforces a single image paradigm. Whether a photograph is historic, iconic, prize-winning, or endlessly 'liked' on social media, there is a tendency to appreciate it for how it is distinct from other images.

Invisible power

Concerning what a single image might reveal, it might be helpful to consider Bertolt Brecht's remark regarding photography when he pointed out that 'less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality.' *4 Brecht had the Krupp's munitions factory in mind when he warned that mere external appearance could not represent the working conditions or power relationships within. Still, such a position should put us on our guard when viewing all (presumed) photographic documents. Curator and photographer David. A. Bailey connected Brecht's remark with how, during the 1980s, the British Museum in London represented 'invisible' institutional power at a time when embedded ideas of race marginalised black artists and communities. He states: “However realistic a photograph of the British Museum might be, it will not offer any knowledge of this truth, for we cannot photograph the history of social structures.” *5

At this point, we could move to a discussion of Foucault or Derrida and their positions on the archive to fully cement the idea that images invested in by institutions of power come to constitute the acknowledged past and reinforce conceptions of order in the present. Instead, however, I wish to draw on the work of another pioneer of postmodern thinking to propose an alternative link between knowledge and photography. In doing so, I will aim to turn the emphasis away from photographic images as museum objects. Rather than focusing on the precious sifted from the raw and photographs being seen as autonomous and cogent conveyers of meaning, I want to introduce a shift towards the idea of connectivity within discursive photographic practice.
Fredrick Jameson argued that European realism in the nineteenth century, for all its efforts to reveal everyday life, offered little more than a localised impression that failed to consider the geopolitical determinants of modernity. Jameson argued in favour of cognitive mapping and the need to place oneself in a bigger picture of social, political and economic relationships. Jameson speaks of 'a fixed camera view of a certain section of London or the countryside or whatever' and tells us that the 'truth of that daily experience in London lies, rather, in India, Jamaica or Hong Kong.'  *6

© Mathieu Asselin | Thuy` Linh, 21 years old. Third generation Agent Orange victim genetic malformation, born without arms. Thuy` Linh finished high school 2 years ago. She applied to many universities to study but most of them didn't accept her because of her missing arms. Her mother finally found a school willing to admit her. She finished her course in design a few months ago. Currently, she is looking for a suitable job. She went to Tû Dû Obstetrics Hospital when she was 3 years old and stayed until she was 18.


In contemporary photography, how might this non-localised, daily truth manifest itself? What is the alternative to the row of photographic prints that function as a series of islands, each one a private, inhabitable space? In the first instance, I would cite Mathieu Asselin's project Monsanto, A Photographic Investigation, which he completed in 2017. After working on the project for five years, Asselin gave it concrete form initially as a book. Still, exhibitions of the work have appeared at numerous galleries, including The Photographers' Gallery, London, in 2018.

Pictures of people and places linked to Monsanto are combined with newspaper cuttings, promotional postcards and shots of Monsanto merchandise.

In probing the controversies surrounding the agrochemical giant, Asselin was far-reaching in his geographical scope. Some images transport us to Anniston, Alabama, where Monsanto's contamination of the land with PCBs made it one of the most toxic cities in the country. Other images show us people affected by Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used in the Vietnam War, linked to cancer and congenital disabilities. Asselin photographed casualties in Vietnam, such as Tuy Linh, born without arms, and the children of American G.I.s who fought in Vietnam and were inadvertently contaminated. In one image, a woman in Ohio born with fingers and part of her right leg missing holds a photograph showing her father in U.S. military uniform in her deformed hand. But Asselin does not simply introduce us to lives impacted by Monsanto's products. Pictures of people and places linked to Monsanto are combined with newspaper cuttings, promotional postcards and shots of Monsanto merchandise. The company's scale and economic value are highlighted. In the Photographers' Gallery exhibition, wall-mounted tablets provided a live feed of share prices for Monsanto and Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company that Monsanto merged with in 2016.

Complex relationships

No single image or artefact embodies the aims of Asselin's investigation or its findings. Perhaps no single image or artefact would be able to capture the complex relationships between Monsanto's continuing growth and its management of collateral damage. In the case of lawsuits brought against the company, Asselin uses newspaper cuttings to suggest that legal proceedings are mitigated by lobbying activities that enlist the help of influential politicians. As we move around the exhibition, we are able to chart the stolid manoeuvres of Monsanto in an age of hard-nosed corporate capitalism.

Suppose we recognise this approach to documentary as one in which the traditional form is discarded, and priority is given to how the viewer might be encouraged to build a cognitive map of a socioeconomic condition. In that case, it is perhaps Allan Sekula whose name surfaces in a particularly prominent way. Sekula famously coined the term 'anti-photojournalism,' and like Asselin, at times combined photography with objects and text to move the emphasis away from the virtuosity of the photographer towards the polemic of the work. Throughout his career, Allan Sekula examined the impact of corporate globalisation on individual lives, with many of his projects centring on the workforce of the shipping industry. Projects such as Fish Story (1995) represent the ceaseless flows of capital between nations that take concrete form in the international shipping lanes. The surface appearance of ships laden with containers may reveal the scale of sea freight transportation. Still, Sekula aims to show the political economy of the maritime world, and in this regard, the surface detail of any single image is insufficient. Mapping the relationships between the facades of capitalist spectacle and the disempowered and disenfranchised of the neoliberal fallout, Sekula urges us to look beyond mere appearance and build an understanding of our current global trajectory.

Sekula urges us to look beyond mere appearance and build an understanding of our current global trajectory.

In Dead Letter Office (1997) and TITANIC's Wake (2001-2003), two projects which Sekula had shown together, connecting lines are drawn between the Hollywood movie industry, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, an art purchase of Bill Gates, and a 'hidden' underclass of low paid workers. The emergence of the Titanic on a set in Baja California features in one work. Of interest to Sekula is the fact that, for James Cameron's movie, cheap Mexican labour was needed, and adjacent to a fishing village without running water, forty miles south of the U.S. border, the largest ever freshwater filming tank was created. For all its postmodern spectacle, Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum emerged on the site of the port's shipbuilding industry. Battles were literally fought in an endeavour to protect the livelihoods of the shipyard workers.

Sekula recognises Gehry's reference to sea life and seafaring in his architecture as a similar erasure of uncomfortable fact as those that abound in the case of Cameron's project. Erasure may be the wrong word here as capital, it might be said, prefers to absorb and alter the meaning of that which might be seen as oppositional to its enterprise. Sekula introduces a further clash of economic cultures in the form of a letter to Bill Gates asking why he had paid 30 million dollars for Winslow Homer's Lost on the Grand Banks (1885). The work depicts two fishermen in a small boat and a perilous sea. Sekula adds to his questioning of Bill Gates by asking (in connection with 'the net') ', are we on it or in it?' In so doing, he perhaps frames twenty-first-century ideas of leisure in more sinister terms.

Non-photographic elements

Asselin's and Sekula's deployment of unauthored photographic or non-photographic elements within their exhibitions signposts the criticality of their projects. Often, these elements, drawn from outside the 'museum' of fine art photography, enable us to navigate our way through and beyond a terrain of visual culture where merchandise, advertising and other forms of manufactured persuasion are intended to steer our perception and reception of a particular enterprise. Whilst I am not suggesting that exhibitions of photography require such ready-made additions to be politically credible, it is nonetheless true that some kind of intervention is needed to break the spell of single image engagement. All of us, of course, can think of photographs we would not want to be included in such an ascetic abandonment of visual pleasure, but the point here is that in the image economy, the need for a rigorous investment in how we make and present images has grown. Freestanding photos, more than ever, are superficially judged and cynically appropriated. It is beholden on those who care to guard against any move towards undoing knowledge through the manipulation of persuasive photographic 'facts.'

*[1] See Kendall Walton’s essay Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism. In Walton, K.(2008) Marvellous Images: On Values and the Arts, Oxford: OUP
*[2] Mark Mekala’s image (along with a similar shot by Jonathan Ernst) accompanied an article by Patrick Howley, dated 7 August 2016. Howley describes how Clinton‘needed to be physically helped up a moderate flight of stairs.’
*[3] See Ariella Azoulay’s essay Archive. In Downey,A. (ed.) (2015) Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Competing Narratives in the Middle East, London/New York: I.B. Taurius, p206.
*[4] Brecht is quoted by Walter Benjamin in his essay A Short History of Photography, first published in Die Literarische Welt, 18 and 25 September and 2 October 1931.
*[5] DavidA. Bailey’s essay, Re-Thinking Black Representations: From Positive Images toCultural Photographic Practices appeared in Ten.8 Magazine, No. 31, 1988.
*[6] See Fredric Jameson’s essay Cognitive Mapping. In Nelson, C. and Grossberg, (eds.) (1988) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture,Champaign: Illinois University Press, pp 347-357.

Roger Hopgood is a British photographer and writer: website
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