Michael Cowen loves many genres of photography including landscape, travel, and social documentary. Born and raised in New Zealand and living in the United Arab Emirates since 2006, he has tended to focus on landscapes as this genre offers both a safe manner to practice photography in the UAE, and offers health and well-being benefits that come from getting out into nature. His passion for photography and life has seen him travel around the world in search of beautiful locations, seasons, and light. His style can be said to be minimal, calm, and artistic but with a complementing emphasis on politics and ethics, particularly in terms of bringing public awareness to issues that confront our time, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. He works in Abu Dhabi on Environmental strategy and has recently completed a doctorate from the University of Manchester, in the area of post-structural philosophy.
Michael, you're currently working on a book about Photography and Philosophy... Tell us how you think those two disciplines are related?
What a wonderful first question! For many, philosophy is irrelevant in 2021, but I regard both photography and philosophy as very important subjects. We need them both more than ever! But, the answer to this question depends on how one sees both photography and philosophy. In my opinion, photography has been plagued with a schizophrenic existence. On one hand, it was born out of science as a technique for capturing the real (i.e. straight photography), photography as objective; On the other hand, it was born out of art as a technique for expressing the subjective (i.e. pictorialism and photo successionists), photography as aesthetic. So right here, photography is sitting on a fault line that has divided the discipline of philosophy and practitioners of photographers for more than one hundred years. That said, I prefer, just as this marvellous Excio platform does, to move the philosophical discussion from scientific and aesthetic concerns to ethical concerns! To do this we are not interested in asking what something is but how it functions, and how we can use photography to do social good.
What do you think about the power of photography and how we can use it in the 21st century - Is there a way to make people pause and think about the photographs they see?
If you have read any John Berger, or others, since we moved from the age of the novel (and text) in the 19th century to life in the age of the image in the 20th and 21st centuries, photography has been fundamental in that shift. Photographs no longer accompany a written piece, the written piece is read through the image – text supplements the image; and the image frames the text.
At one time, when an image was viewed, it contained the notion of objective truth and something that we can trust. We’ve come to accept that through both straight photography and expressive photography there is ample room for the image in front of us to be positioned, doctored, framed, cropped, edited, composited, etc. So the naive acceptance of the position and power of the photograph has been eroded to such an extent that as readers/spectators we now view all images with a healthy amount of scepticism. But as Ansell Adams said, “A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.” The public trusts less the photograph; and the public seldom study them closely, so, it is certainly challenging to “make people” pause and think about the photographs they see.
Post-modern philosophers, such as Deleuze, Baudrillard, and others have been extremely harsh on the photograph/photography and its power to do anything. For most of these philosophers – the photograph makes a cheap reproducible copy of the reality in front of them. Essentially, photography is only a medium that represents reality and fixes identity. This claim and the implications have been the focus of my recent meditations. However, I do believe that the photograph has the power to influence and shape our lives for good. I think this fixing of the photograph’s place in the world by postmodern philosophers is quite a startling error. I want to argue that instead of looking at the photograph as somehow a copy attempting to fix identity – the photographer is always and necessarily operating from a position – positionality. This positionality is in both the perspective sense in space, and historical sense, in time; the space and time of an eternally changing world. A world that needs both photography and philosophy to cast a critical eye, to help us make sense, and to help us create a better world.
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