“We all go at 90 mph looking in the rear-view mirror.”
Fred Ritchin says that we are obsessed with ourselves and images of the unreal. That we are escaping from very real photos of destruction into visions of idyllic fantasies, and that this escapism is being branded by governments and corporations for their own ends. We are being sold products and social scenarios that appeal to our fantasies but ultimately fail us.
Unlike many critics of capitalism, however, Ritchin offers solutions. And he has a long history of putting his sophisticated theories of imagery into practice.
During the eighties, he was picture editor of the New York Times Magazine, executive editor of Camera Arts magazine and founding director of the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program at the International Center of Photography. He founded and directs PixelPress, an award-winning organization that champions new documentary and human rights through the creation of innovative web sites, books and exhibitions.
Ritchin also created the first multimedia version of the daily New York Times. In 1997, Ritchin was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service by the New York Times for the website, Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace, and in 1999, awarded the Hasselblad Foundation grant for the future web project Witnessing and the Web: An Experiment in Documentary Photography.
In his books After Photography (1999) and In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography (1990) he has argued that images today are manipulable and as such are political territories for governments and corporations.
Over the past 30 years, he has also curated over a dozen photography exhibitions and is organizing the upcoming What Matters Now? show at Aperture which will attempt to propose new ways of interaction with images and information in the post 9/11 era.
He’s currently professor of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Wired.com: Consistently you’ve called for honest labeling of images in media, increased engagement between media and citizens and a rejection of consumer interests. Is our media landscape broken?
Fred Ritchin: Media has always needed correction but it is presently exacerbated by the fetishization of the self. I always use a quote by Paul Stookey (of the singing group Peter, Paul and Mary) about popular magazines. They used to be called Life (about life), then it was People (not about life, but just about people), then it was Us (not even about all people, but just about us), then it was Self (not even about us).
The consumer capitalist society has elevated the individual and by that I mean the individual’s buying power. The individual merits the fulcrum of fantasy, only it’s the branding of fantasy. With cars, you don’t buy them because of what they do, you buy them because of what they mean.
Now, people photograph themselves obsessively until they get that perfect shot. We’ve divorced ourselves from reality.
The celebration of the branding of desire, yes, it’s all hype, but it’s our love of the unreal. We look at landscapes of idyllic and unlikely places, but we don’t look at landscapes of environmental destruction.
Wired.com: You’ve called for individuals to undermine the image and therefore to undermine power.
Fred Ritchin: When I suggest undermining photography today, it is because the distortions of the powerful must be undermined. What a government or a corporation want you to think is in imagery. There’s not one truth, there’s multiple truths, we know this, and we know there’s no bedtime story.
I argued in In Our Own Image, that vision became malleable, it became possible for us to reject the painful parts; photography could be manipulated to exclude the pain.
On the other hand, during the Vietnam War there was no out for the viewers. If someone was being napalmed, they were being napalmed.
I didn’t call for us to undermine photography in the Vietnam War because it was useful, but now we’ve been co-opted.
Our agreement with media is an act of self-preservation. It’s you buying into a society; and it’s a society that doesn’t work. As a consumer, the products fail and as a human, the social scenarios fail.
The merging of the real and unreal, it could be said, began with Ronald Reagan; the Teflon president. He was the first actor to attain a serious politician position. The fictions are what people listen to today, to the point that Jon Stewart is the filter. Thirty years ago, it would have seemed ludicrous to have a comedian telling us what was worthwhile and what was lies.