Tag Archives: 1991

Safety in Numbness by David Campany

Safety in Numbness – I have just read this essay by David Campany that he has re-published on the internet.  http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/



He makes some interesting observations that modern still photography photojournalism has moved from the moment of action ‘hot-action’ to ‘cool-photography’ as Peter Wollen has named them or the late-photograph as Campany describes them.  Referring to the official photographs produced by Joel Meyerowitz who photographed the ruins soon after the tragic events of 911 and was the only photographer permitted full access to the site during the clean-up operation.  These types of images are intended to suggest to the viewer what has just happened and often show only empty buildings, rooms, the smoking reminisces, suggesting the past battle or tragic event.

He suggests that with the development of the video photographer the still photographer has had to move from covering the action to following up on the stories and recording recently past / post event.  He reasons that technology has dictated the pace of change and as video technology has become cheaper, smaller and portable and with higher picture definitions the images can be transmitted from source to consumer much faster cheaper and easier the video image can also now be frozen for quality still images as and when required.  This has also blurred the boundaries between still photography images and video images.  Hence why more and more still life photographers are specializing in the ‘cool-photography’ photojournalistic genre (and although Campany doesn’t comment on it, this type of photojournalism comes with fewer risks to life and limb).  Campany also points out that although the Vietnam war has been called the photographers war and to some the last photographers war he points out that Vietnam presented photographers with a lot of opportunities thanks to amongst many things American administration and army that kept changing its agenda.  In comparison the first Gulf War in 1991 presented photographers with very few ‘hot-action’ opportunities due to both the restrictions placed upon them and the focused and brief period that the war lasted.  As a result all the memorable images of the Gulf war were just that ‘memorable’ images taken days after the battle, burned-out tanks, burning oilfields, burnt skeletal remains of the Republican Guard.

Campany states that a thousand words can be said of a photograph rather that a photograph can say a thousand words.  By this he means that a photograph taken after an event can be examined and re-examined over and over and without the actual event recorded the post event can be re-interpreted and remembered differently from the actual event as time passes.

Campany points out that still photography by it’s very nature works well for cool-photography as it’s images can produce a real sense of stillness, quietness, like that experienced after the bombardment has stopped.  Video has to transmit images of still pictures often focusing in on a small detail or panning around in the frame to different elements in the picture in order for the viewer not to confuse the photograph with simply a static image.

Campany comments that although Meyerowitz said that he simply took the photos as he saw them and as they were presented to him, Campany recognized in one image a similarity with another picture that Meyerowitz took some 20 years before of an old torn down film set.  Campany suggests that photographers may carry a set of mental compositional templates around in their heads which can be unconsciously pulled out and used, he wanders if Meyerowitz had even thought of his earlier photograph when composing his picture at ground zero.

Campany ends his essay with a warning that, “The danger is that it can also foster an indifference and political withdrawal that masquerades as concern.”-” There is a sense in which the late photograph in all its silence, can easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance. In its apparent finitude and muteness it can leave us in permanent limbo, obliterating even the need for analysis and bolstering a kind of liberal melancholy that shuns political explanation like a vampire shuns garlic.”