Exercise 3 Sarah Pickering and The Role of Art Documentary

2015-01-24_17-55-24wrThe course notes ask two questions about the work of Sarah Pickering. Firstly how I emotionally respond to the photographs and secondly whether it is an effective use of documentary photography.

Response to Public Order

Public Order, the series in question, follows on seamlessly from looking at Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder in the sense that it is another piece of work that sets out to photograph the invisible so the viewer has to simultaneously react to factual and visible photographs of a place and the invisible events that have happened at that place, or in this case the implication of events that might subsequently occur whose roots partly lie in this place.

Public Order is a series of photographs that map the British Police riot training facilities which comprise a replica of an urban environment complete with streets, shops and even a night club. In many of the pictures we are only offered very subtle clues that this place is a set, for example the traffic lights are not working and a sense of complete emptiness, no litter, no trace of humans existing. Other images reveal the truth that the shops are wooden facades.

My emotional response evolved as I viewed the series. Initially there is a reassuring familiarity that suggests this is part of a road trip series about Britain but there is also a sense of these places being alien, not quite right, slightly off key. There are traces of violent events, burnt walls, damaged items, wrecked cars, a token barricade  so I was drawn into imagining the training exercises and overlaying mental pictures of real events in Brixton and Tottenham.

This leads to questioning why such places exist, how and why has British society developed to such a point that the authorities need to build permanent civil disorder training facilities. My parents used to live near to the villages built by the British Army in Norfolk where soldiers were training for European conflicts in the days of he cold war and subsequently modified for Middle Eastern conflicts. Somehow, this seems normal or obvious, a need to train the military to survive and succeed in the places politicians might send them. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the reasons our troops are sent to war I want them prepared and trained in the best possible way. However, Pickering, takes us to a place that represents something very different, this is a location where we train police men and women to deal with conflict on our “normal” streets, and that clearly means it is conflict involving us, the inhabitants of those “normal” streets. However, regardless of the reasons why we need such places just like the armed forces we presumably want our police prepared and trained to do their job.

For me the main questions this series asks are how did we reach this point?  why do we have to prepare for civil unrest? and how do we make these places unnecessary? However, I recognise that, like any photography, my reaction is based on the context I bring to the series and that others might ask very different questions about whether trained riot police are part of a self fulfilling prophesy that turns peaceful protest into conflict.

Documentary as Art

The natural process of art appears to have been, a person draws on the wall of his or her cave thus becoming the first artist, his friend suggests that the artist missed the point and the bison looks too skinny, thus inventing the role of the art critic and the next visitor describes it as a cave painting and thus becomes the first art academic by inventing classification. Throughout TAoP and now at the beginning of C&N I find that the labels we apply to photography, whilst helpful as shorthand descriptions of a common approach, are equally unhelpful because they modify our response  and potentially constrain the way in which we consider a photograph.

In the same week I have looked at Paul Seawright’s work, which has an undercurrent of art versus photojournalism, and now Sarah Pickering where we are being asked to consider art as documentary. Is Pickering’s work art because it was shown at the Tate? and did it start as art or is it documentary that has become art? or is it both? The way we interpret this and any other work is more dependent on context than it should be on the label so it probably looks like art because we see it in the context of it being shown at the Tate or published by Aperture  or that Sarah Pickering is an artist.

I find it easier to put that to one side and consider this work as documentary because that merely says it is recording these training centres. The fact that there are political, artistic and social tones in the work does not alter the fact it records and maps a place at a certain time in a subjective way, that is a way that is personal to the photographer.

Her approach is effective because it does achieve the recording and mapping and preserves a document of these places.  It is elevated beyond being a purely architectural study because of the context, note the leading nature of the title, and in the way that Pickering has avoided action shots, i.e. the obvious,  and introduced traces and suggestions of violence and conflict that draw the viewer into laying their own images of civil unrest onto the pictures.

Sources

Internet

Pickering, Sarah (accessed 24.1.15) Artist’s website – http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/index.html

Aperture Foundation Sarah Pickering on Public Order and Explosion (accessed at Vimeo 24.1.15) – http://vimeo.com/11931505

Aperture Foundation Sarah Pickering and Susan Bright on Public Order and Explosion (accessed at Vimeo 24.1.15) –http://vimeo.com/11904198

The Telegraph (accessed 24.1.15) Sarah Pickering – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/6537439/Sarah-Pickering.html

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