Look! I Was There or I Have a Photograph As Proof!

I often bore my family with stories of the adventures that working within the creative industries for four decades has afforded me. I have little if any proof of these adventures and they have to believe what I say is true and accurate. The passing of time, and age may blur the accuracy a little at times, but the truth remains a constant.

Today of course I could photograph everyone I meet and every experience with my smartphone, my constant camera companion. Actually, I don’t, it is not something that sits well with me. I do make images that seem to make sense to me as a visual record of my life, but that is different to being obsessed with living life through a smartphone screen. Watching thousands of on-lookers at the series of events leading up to the official Queen’s funeral, people with their phones in the air recording moving image and capturing stills made we wonder why they were doing this. What will they do with the images they have created? I had the same thoughts when I watched the funeral of the Princess of Wales in an analogue age.

A funeral procession is not Glastonbury, and yet it is being recorded in the same way that any large scale music event would be. However, I do not expect or presume that the funeral images will be re-visited in the same way that images of a three day festival would be.

Why? Well, to answer my own question I suppose the answer is simple. As proof of attendance. I have seen a few of my professional photographer friends post images of the funeral and associated events on their social media channels, this is what they do with any job they do or body of work they are working on, but I have not seen any of my friends post images of the events surrounding the death of the Queen. Perhaps I don’t have friends who are doing this and therefore I am not seeing them. I don’t know.

This idea of documenting every event through the screen on a phone has been written about at length and I do not intend to enter the discussions around the psychological effect such recordings have on the recorder and how they in turn can become disassociated from the experience they could be experiencing. Primarily because I think any photographer will understand how that feels. I know I do. I am in the moment when looking through the viewfinder, intently engaged with the image, disassociated from whatever else is going on around me.

Instead I would like to address the idea of evidence, or at least the belief of a need for evidence. To prove something in case it is questioned and the pressure to make that evidence. In a fake truth age photographic evidence has become an essential addition to any story. It provides the validation a story needs. Many photographers would disagree with this and question the accuracy of truth a photograph provides, but I am not talking about people who define themselves as photographers, theorists or academics. To the masses making these images they are recording truth, fact and evidence.

I have recently been watching the second Alex Jones trial concerning the terrible Sandy Hook Massacre, in which the photographic image sits alongside factual documentation of analytics and profits when presented by attorneys both for and against the plaintiff. Text messages, sit alongside emails and photographs as proof of income and intent. There is no differentiation made between any of these artefacts, they are all evidence, proof of a reality.

It is therefore, not surprising that the photograph remains such a powerful artefact, acting as a form of evidential currency.

The act of recording a funeral procession is an act of creating proof of attendance, but it is also an act of removal from the experience. Like watching live television showing an event in process in a safe environment detached from the emotion of the event. Partaking in a group process that provides security and comfort through a sense of community involvement.

This is understandable in an environment of grief, but why is the same process adopted by an audience attending a music event that they have paid to see in the flesh?

I am due to see Bob Dylan this Autumn in Oxford, in a small and intimate venue. Dylan has long voiced his distaste for the illegal bootlegging of his concerts, unlike The Grateful Dead who embraced the recording of their concerts. The advent of the smartphone caused Dylan further concern with members of the audience trying to photograph and film as well as record him and his band. On one occasion he stopped playing and lined up his band for a group photograph to make his anger clear to his smartphone holding followers. On his current tour he has banned all smartphones from the venues. When you buy your ticket you have to agree to hand over your phone on entry to the venue, and have it returned when you leave.

Dylan wants his audience to be in the moment and connect with them rather than the rectangular form of their recording devices. The tickets are e-tickets so there is no physical proof of attendance, merchandise can be bought online without attending. The only proof of attendance will be the oral recollections of the event.

Such recollections are available to those currently photographing the events surrounding the sad death of Queen Elizabeth II. I am sure that they will have stories to tell their friends, family, children and grandchildren. This is an historical moment for many in the UK and across the world, to be involved in that moment has its own emotional draw. Those that attend have spoken of a sense of community, of friendship and shared experience. Making new friends and memories. They have also been filling their phones with images.

I just wonder how often they will look, show and share the photographs or film footage they have created of the death of a monarch. Or question why they made them.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

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