Object-oriented photography

I am a photographer. I photograph things, objects, material nonsubjects as Jane Bennett calls them (2010:ix). I understand these things from an object-oriented point-of-view, as actants in the world, as vibrant quasi-agents or forces (Bennett) that exceed their relations (Harman) – that are somehow more than the field of accidents, qualities and relations with which we think of, see or photograph them.

This is my way into documentary. Rather than trying to find a way to photograph relations (of capitalism, globalisation or biopower), I look to draw attention to objects and also create new ones (my images) that, as with all objects, connect and reconnect within the molten core of new objects (Harman).

From an object-oriented perspective, objects encounter each other in the heart of a new object. They never fully meet because objects withdraw from relations. Rather, an object forms a connection with an intentional object, the image as Harman sometimes calls it. Furthermore, this connection does not happen in an external field of relations but within an object.

The rags ‘n refuse I photograph around 2012 are unhuman actants, unsubjects. One can never encounter them in their totality, rather we (and any other object) encounters their image, a dimension of their reality, within another object.

Things connect in the real world. The plastic bag encounters the Fence, light encounters the grass etc. These connections happen within objects. The plastic bag (with it’s long history, politics and vibrant materiality) encounters the Fence, but not the reality of the Fence. It could not encounter all of the dimensions and qualities of the Fence. By necessity it encounters only an image. Similarly the Fence, again with its multidimensional nature and materiality) cannot encounter the reality of the bag but only a dimension, an image. NB I am conscious of how anthropomorphic this account sounds but as Bennett says: “We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world” (2010: xvi). This encounter happens not in some field of relations or potential but in the molten core of another object. As Harman says: “The twofold intentional relation between me and the tree is located inside the unified object that the tree and I form” (2008). The bag and the Fence or Harman and his tree encounter each other within a new object, the Harman-tree encounter, the bag-fence encounter. Those are objects because they have a form of unity and also withdraw from view.

Harman argue that this way of thinking about objects and their connections allows for a new approach to thinking of time, space and essence. I would argue it also allows for a new way of understanding photographs and photography particularly in the new space of distributed imaging.

One can see the photographic composition itself, the decisive moment, as more than a visual accident, it is an ontological event. Each photograph or photographic moment (whether the button is pressed or not) is an object, the site of connection for the rags ‘n refuse I chose to frame and encounter.

But photography is even more object-oriented. It is the site of objects connecting. My camera brings objects into contact. Its software (object) is the site for light objects and data objects to connect. The resultant image file (object) is the site for other software search as search algorithms and information to connect setting governmental relations in motion. Particularly as photography becomes more social and distributed and images and images files circulate and connect as data, it becomes ever more necessary to understand imaging in terms of objects with their own vitality connecting within objects.

One can address the web as a network, look to account for the structural powers that determine its form and content or trace relations as the site of that power. Alternatively one can look at the human, non-human and unhuman objects circulating and connecting online. The flat non-relational ontology that Harman provides allows us to see all the players – human photographers, physical and digital objects, software and protocols, cameras and computers, even the light and electricity across the CCD – as important. The fact that they can be addressed as connecting within photographic objects, Facebook objects, Google objects, surveillance objects, means there is no foundational relation or wider field to give meaning to these object connections. A non-relational object-oriented account allows us to follow Jane Bennett’s account of vibrant matter, remain focused on those objects (and not a human or wider dimension) but still account for how those objects connect.

What does all this mean for my photography?

In terms of what I choose to photograph it means I see the bag I photograph as an object, a vibrant material presence that withdraws from view but connects in powerful ways.

In terms of how I understand (and indeed research) my photography, I see what I am engaged in as connecting and reconnecting objects ‘in camera’. I am implicated in creating new objects across imagespace, not just images but data files, information and governmental objects. I look to explore this object practice through a reading of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s account of the ‘decisive moment’, a mythic account of professional practice built around arranging elements.

In terms of the images and data files I create, I understand them as more than the representation of something, an image or even an object awaiting deconstruction or demystification. Rather I see each as an object, a vibrant material presence that is not exhausted by its relations. Each is the site of multiple governmental connections across Facebook, Flickr and Google but each is somehow more. Those connections within social media objects are never fully realised. There is always more to an image or a data file. I look to understand this excess through a reading of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida where Barthes sought to account for what was specific about photography, what was the extra, the punctum.

In terms of the photographic work I produce, I understand the photographic work as a collection of objects – cameras, images, digital files and even the original material objects themselves. All are object-players in the creation of the photographic work. There is no primacy nor teleology. I look to engage with this flat, diffuse idea of the photo-work through a reading of Robert Frank’s The Americans, a photo-book that in its narrative and formal consistency established an influential model for understanding photographic work.