Imagining Otherwise: The Impact of Aesthetics in an Ethical Framework

There is no foreseeable quantitative correlation between the quality of a work of imagination and its effectiveness. And this is part of its nature because it is intended to operate within a field of subjective interactions which are interminable and immeasurable. This is not to grant to art an ineffable value; it is only to emphasize that the imagination, when true to its impulse, is continually and inevitably questioning the existing category of usefulness.1

Today, photographic artists dealing with issues of the social and political work under conditions of increasingly strict ethical criteria. The focus of criticism has shifted from product to process, and the photographer must navigate a field of rights and wrongs. What Claire Bishop coined ‘the social turn’ is prevalent in how a new generation of photographic artists is expected to shape its practices: collaboration over subjectivity, engagement over observation, ethics over aesthetics. Artists don’t hesitate to define their practices with words such as ‘activistic’, ’participatory’ and ’social’. When the practice of art is fused with that of social work, questions about usefulness are more likely to be raised. A world hungering for solutions asks what art does. What is its effect? The word ‘impact’ suddenly pops up everywhere. Through the roof of the art academy in a neoliberal society sifts the instrumentality of 2019 capitalism, casting its wandering shadow over the notion of art for art’s sake. It’s compelling to consider the imposition of artistic research—the prevailing turn in today’s model of arts education obligating students to functionalise their artistic practices—in the light of Western neoliberal governments’ condemnation of anything useless.

Navigating in a changing landscape

Enrolled in Photography & Society, the new master program at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, we’re asked to consider and assess the impact of our work from before we start to after we finish. Immediately, the old slogan of photojournalism comes to mind: photography can make a change. After five decades of academic problematising of photojournalism and documentary photography, it’s obvious that the aim must be to avoid convention and invent new ways for photography to have influence. To have impact. During the first year of the program, the question of what impact actually means remains open and without criteria for measurability. In some of its attempts to respond, artistic practice winds up confused by, rather than fused with, social praxis. An urgency to distinguish between the two grows inside us because to ask for a determination of what art will do before it’s created seems rather alarming. For today’s photographers seeking to make impactful art, however undefined, the new landscape of social and ethical turns within documentary and art practice must be navigated, and questions must constantly be raised: do we make our work in an ethically acceptable manner? Is our practice inclusive enough? Are we exploiting anyone? Do we share our power?

A double-sided practice

With our heads full of voices, we find ourselves at a secondhand kitchen table in suburban Amsterdam in early spring of 2019. The year’s first warm sunrays come through the room’s only window and illuminate a small square of the parquet floor. We are in Khalid’s apartment, and it’s the first time we’re meeting him. Our friend Eric has organised the meeting, and Khalid has invited Fortune. The three of them at different times left the African continent behind for a promising life in Europe. The five of us are slowly sipping hot instant coffee from different coloured cups. The city outside goes about its everyday business, and today Fortune has crossed it from the squatted building in which he currently lives with around 20 other people who don’t have personal documents or so-called legal status. Their situation is desperate. The group faces immediate eviction four days from now, and they’ll have nowhere to go but the streets. He’s direct and asks us if we can help document their precarious situation and make short videos to spread through the wider support network Wij Zijn Hier2 (We Are Here), a refugees organisation in the Netherlands. With its nearly 15,000 followers, the community’s Facebook page is an indispensable platform, and the group can take charge of the distribution of images and information. We suddenly realise that the situation is exemplary and one that amplifies our concerns. Here’s a clear demand for images with impact, but how we make them cannot be up to us. There’s no way we can put forward our own interests here. It’s not our struggle, and, we conclude, there’s a difference between art and activism. We must first be their supporters, then artists.

Authorial renunciation

Unwinding ourselves from the cloud of cigarette smoke around the table, stepping out into the sun, we feel the uncertainty of the decision we just made. Little do we know how significant this agreement will be for the images we produce in the following months. Reducing to a minimum our roles as makers, we want to invent a new visual strategy that will give Fortune and the other members of the group the right and power to decide for themselves how to be represented through our photographic labour. There seems to be no other way to justify our presence in their environment but to sacrifice the photographer’s privilege to decide upon representation.3 We’re eager to establish a fruitful, non-hierarchical collaboration that, because of its political context, takes on an activistic approach. We and the group aim to work towards the common goal of raising more awareness and encouraging dialogue about their living conditions, and in the long run we hope to perhaps improve their physical and psychological conditions. Not unlike Agamemnon in Homer’s Odyssey we are catapulted without presentiment into a dilemma. Our minds oscillate between art and morality, aesthetics and ethics, artistic autonomy and social conscience, self-preservation and sacrifice. Agamemnon makes the decision to let his daughter Iphigenia die. In the turmoil of ethical considerations we—similarly—sacrifice artistic vision and visual literacy.

In good faith, we and the group, though doubtful, believe that this strategy will empower the latter to decide on its own images and fair representation. What we miss is that these clear and unguided images can be Janus-faced. In sum, our conceptual gesture of authorial renunciation becomes tantamount to the group’s understanding of how images should represent the situation of its members. In other words, desperate to do things right, we, by compromising our interference in their representation, overlook the risk of the imagery becoming yet another repetition and reinforcement of the existing, victimising pictures of undocumented migrants in Europe. Only afterwards do we realise that the group didn’t just ask for our hands to hold a camera. They, without being able to formulate it themselves, asked for our knowledge, experience and awareness as image-makers today. Nearly paralysed, we hesitate to put our knowledge to use and, as a consequence, the image that would counter the existing visual regime and contextualise the situation is never produced. Against everyone’s will and intention, the images we produce emulate those already established and thus don’t actively resist the perverse structure of politics and the media. What we’re not often enough reminded of is the fact that the use of the regime’s vocabulary, be it through images or words, can narrow our horizon and make us unable to see and act in the world. Hence, it continuously threatens our ability to imagine beyond its framework.4

A tightrope (imp)act

In the attempt to find the visual vocabulary corresponding to our doubts as to how we’re entitled to represent people, the footage—even though it evidently states that the situation of people forcibly denied documents and rights in Europe needs to be improved—isn’t enough to help us imagine a more positive future. Today’s tendency to emphasise ethical guidelines in art production actually grants us permission to be gratified, and so we are. Identity politics have succeeded in teaching us to respect fellow human beings—the people we’re working with—and acknowledge diversity; the resulting assurance of personal autonomy can be seen as positive. Nevertheless, conducting a faithful artistic project in a vulnerable context like suburban Amsterdam can be a tightrope act. In a finger-pointing culture, where the precocious guardians of political correctness and moralism are waiting for you to stumble into a pitfall, a well-intentioned enterprise can become increasingly delicate. Intimidated in our work with the group, we too easily justify the lack of commitment to aesthetic choices.

By underestimating the possibility of creating images that potentially perturb and agitate, we also belittle the fact that tenderness, discomfort and contradiction—together with fear, frustration, exhilaration, pleasure and absurdity—can be central to any work’s aesthetic impact.5 These aspects are quintessential in pushing the audience’s boundaries as well as to the aforementioned framework for promoting new perspectives on the conditions and the image of migration to Europe. In this respect, Frederick Douglass was a leading pioneer in understanding the impactful social power of what in his time was a young medium by realising that ‘[i]t is evident that the great cheapness and universality of pictures must exert a powerful, though silent, influence upon the idea and sentiment of present and future generations.’6 Thus, images operate as a blueprint for a reality that can be shaped the way it was supposed to be. In connection to this, images become the fundament of reality, not the other way around.7 Consequently, their content filters back into the everyday and can advance people’s attitude as citizens.

New imaginative impact

The contemptuousness of the individual’s encounter with the visual and sensory within the circles of the ethical turn, according to French philosopher Jacques Rancière, disregards the fundamental understanding of art in the West that’s grounded in the ambiguity of its autonomy and heteronomy. This implies that the attempt to resolve this confusion, to unravel this ball of wool, is a misunderstanding. For Rancière, the aesthetic experience and contemplation of art is the experience of pondering a positive contradiction,8 which is the tension between the belief in art’s autonomy and the confidence in art to promote social change and transform social realities. He believes that in order to influence social change, the aesthetic need not be sacrificed. It’s at this intersection where the sensory experience of an artwork—its artistic quality—shouldn’t relinquish itself completely to the reduction of analytical information about target audiences. Even though he argues from a philosophical rather than art-critical perspective, he’s an important figure with regard to unmasking the binary tone that predominates the conversation around politicised art: collectivity vs. subjectivity, process vs. ends, generality vs. specificity, participatory vs. exploitative, performative vs. authoritarian, social effect vs. artistic quality. As a result, he cultivated a new terminology and emphasis on spectatorship. Following this thought, perhaps the most enriching artworks interrogate exactly these dialectic characteristics between art’s authority and social interference by addressing its context, form, conditions of production and reception.

Back at the kitchen table in suburban Amsterdam, all of us share the same vision. However, the challenge is to find a common language to formulate that vision. Spectators, subjects or participants are more than competent in handling different types of approaches striving for more sophisticated narratives of social truth. Otherwise, we’re in danger of art reduced to weaponry9, meselectaning its utility and efficiency become foreseeable. Further, the assumption of an already existing audience neglects the artwork’s ability to create its own situation.10 With the shift to foreseeing the effect of a photographic artwork within the context of the omnipresent ethical and social turns, there has to be a refined language that also takes the imaginative strength of the non-foreseeable and unprovable into account when speaking about the situation of illegalised migrants in Europe. And even if neither words nor images will ever give definitive answers to the complex situation the group in Amsterdam faces, new humanising, sensitive and dignifying perspectives are required. If tomorrow we sit again with Khalid, Fortune and Eric, what would be the way to establish a non-hierarchical collaboration that doesn’t sacrifice the aesthetic but rather subsumes both it and the political within an ethical framework? Would we be able to create these empowering and contradictory images that counter the already existing tropes and help imagine an alternative future?


Berger, John. 2013. Understanding a Photograph. 29. Penguin: London

2 Wij Zijn Hier (We Are Here). Facebook page. [last access: 06.09.2019]
3 Cf. Azoulay, Ariella. 2018 ‘Unlearning Imperial Rights to Take (Photographs)’, Fotomuseum Winterthur (blog), 01 September 2018. [last access: 06.09.2019]
4 Cf. Azoulay, Ariella. 2008. The Civil Contract of Photography. 16. New York: Zone Books.
5 Cf. Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells. Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. 26. London & New York: Verso.
Stauffer, John. 2015. ‘Lectures on Images’. Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American. 130. New York: Liveright.
7 Cf. Steyerl, Hito. 2008. Die Farbe der Wahrheit. Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld. 80. Wien & Berlin: Turia + Kant.
8 Rancière, Jacques. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Berger, Understanding, 28.
10 Minh-ha, Trinh T.2013. ‘Trinh T. Minh-ha on Images and Politics’, TV Multiversity (blog), 9 September 2013. [last access: 06.09.2019]

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© Chris Becher 2024