On Violence, Photography, & Craft

Arts + Culture

On Violence, Photography, & Craft

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

On the night of April 19, 2022, at around 11:45 p.m., a stray bullet from a building behind us pierced our bedroom window and ate a chunk out of our hallway before coming to rest at the foot of the door. My wife and I were in bed, safely out of the bullet’s trajectory. I didn’t hear the actual gunshot; what woke us was the sound of the bullet piercing our window. Of the five shots fired, none seemed to have an intended target. No one was hurt, save some glass, composite wood, and plaster.

The morning after, I did what I often do to process—I picked up my camera. I made twelve images of the scene, exactly one roll of medium-format film. That night, I sat in my darkroom and developed the roll, let it dry, and took it to my desk to digitally scan and render the images. A bullet hole from a distance could be anything—a quiet menace. Sharing a frame with a bulging laundry basket, an unmade bed, and an under-watered monstera, the hole in the window almost feels like the next logical step in the disarray. At that scale, it could be anything. A benign accident. But as the crop tightens and the lens draws your face closer to what becomes more clearly an explicit trajectory, something shifts. What once might have fit its context can now be more clearly seen for the disruption that it was and is. It almost makes you want to duck. Looking at these twelve photos was the first time in the hours after being woken by the sound of the bullet breaking the seal between our double-pane vacuum-insulated windows that I felt fear. That sound of matter being pierced, not the sound of the gun’s violent outburst, is what haunts me. That’s the sound of these images.

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Photo by Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

I didn’t start thinking about the violence in photography’s practices and vocabulary until Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. Suddenly, the camera I was holding in my hand while walking Black down the street felt like a matter of life and death. The lived experience of most marginalized people around the world is that of being perceived in all the ways and places you’d rather go unnoticed and being invisible in all the places you desperately want to be seen. If the soft, colourful contour of a candy wrapper in the hands of a brown child can be perceived as a weapon so threatening as to cost him the adolescent breath in his lungs, then how much more might my six-foot-plus, 250-pound frame holding a cold, glimmering, black-steel mechanism that speaks the language of a weapon deserve the same?

The lived experience of most marginalized people around the world is that of being perceived in all the ways and places you’d rather go unnoticed and being invisible in all the places you desperately want to be seen.

Before Trayvon, I’d used the language of my craft without questioning it. I “shot” without much care or concern. I pulled a “trigger” thousands of times, “firing” a shutter and “taking” something that maybe was mine to take . . . though often was not. The language of photography, a phrase that became the title of a 2002 eight-part docuseries on the art, is most often understood to be a visual one. But indigenous peoples in many parts of the world believe that to take a person’s photo is to steal their soul. And in an era when more photos are taken in a single day than in all of recorded human history before the nineteenth century, I wonder if it might not be time to start asking some questions.

Camera Violence

The mechanism of photography under a microscope is more than a little vicious. A collage of released pressure, tension, chemical combustion, light, particle, molecule, and time collide in an instant to create something, almost like creation itself—a big bang at a human scale. No matter how many hours I spend in a darkroom, seeing an image I took a week ago come spooling out of the tank or watching a photo reveal itself in a development tray, it still feels like a miracle—every single time.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s heliograph camera, the first that we would recognize today as a camera capable of not only casting an image but also rendering it permanently on a surface, was invented in 1816, over four centuries after the first firearm. The term “shooting” didn’t become common parlance until about half a century later, when cinematography was just taking off. And then in 1965, Kodak Eastman introduced the Super 8 camera. Compact, affordable, and more accessible than its predecessors in the same format, the Super 8 suddenly made cinematography available to the hobby-curious masses and family documentarians.

It looked like a modern handgun. Previously, one operated a camera by cranking a lever that would turn the film in its spool. Suddenly, the Super 8 had a handle and a trigger. The spool’s movement could now be automated, only one human hand used, and instead of cranking a lever, it now simply had to pull a trigger. I wasn’t there, but it’s not far-fetched to imagine that filmmaking and image-making were reduced right then to simply shooting.

So what came first, the chicken or the egg? Before the camera, images were crafted by the human hand. The earliest renderings that we’ve been able to find of the human form perceived by another can be found on the walls of primitive cave dwellings in what is now Sulawesi, Indonesia. “Formal” portraiture finds its origin in ancient Egypt and has been used since to depict every facet of the human condition: strength, beauty, virtue, pain, affluence, even divinity. The work of image-making was slow. To render a likeness was to see it fully. To study and understand, subject and artist would spend hours together, locked agaze. It was an exercise in vulnerability, trust, and, in many cases, physical and emotional endurance. A likeness was given, an image was taken, and a portrait was made. Each step in that sequence had its process and mechanics. There were no shortcuts, only craft.

The invention of the earliest cameras didn’t see much change in the time and craft required to create an image. A scene was set, the subject brought in, studied and posed, light would be considered and reconsidered (because the sun stops for no one). Then, an image would be taken by exposing a reactive surface to the light. After exposure, the final image would be made by bathing that reactive surface in chemistry. Again, a likeness was granted to the artist by a subject, an image was taken, and a portrait was made. The mechanics were cumbersome and unreliable, and the chemistry was often unstable. A photographer was part engineer, part alchemist, but still entirely artist. The seeing that defined and determined the quality of a painted portrait was still fully present in this new craft.

But as with all technology, advancement brought with it the seduction of efficiency. Efficiency in the taking of a photo saw timers added to lenses to streamline the camera system. Single-use flash bulbs were created so we would no longer have to consider the sun if we didn’t want to—the natural replaced by the unnatural. The bulky iodine-sensitive wet plate that bore the subject’s image was replaced with a large sheet of light-sensitive plastic, which was soon replaced by a more compact, consumer-accessible film. The camera’s body, once a formidable, space-taking, human-scale sculpture in its own right, would, at that same time, diminish to about the size of a small boule of bread operable with a single hand. Suddenly, taking a portrait required little thought and almost no connection to the physical being of the photographer, save for the pad of her index finger.

At the same time, advancements in the photo-making process sprinted toward instant gratification and the removal of the image maker from the process. Wet plates became film but still had to be bathed in chemicals to produce negatives, which would themselves see another photo-chemical process before a photo was made. Then came the Polaroid, a novelty medium used at home to document the sentimental and in artist studios to test composition and light before the “real” portraits were taken. Polaroids and instant paper mediums removed the need for a negative but still bore a keen resemblance to the craft by containing the paper and chemistry all in one—just add light and time.

To this point, a photo was still something you held, hung, and pressed into albums that you’d visit once a year around the holidays. And that remained true until the revolution when analog met digital, and the world would be changed fundamentally forever. Now not only were we free to “create” without making, but the product of our creation could live and die without ever being touched. Again, the camera shrunk, and the mechanism of making disappeared entirely. Soon the whole thing, the taking and the making, would be compressed into a phone—becoming one of a thousand different functions to engage with and never understand. We’d slowly become gluttons of images, with access to more pictures than ever and an exponentially diminishing capacity for seeing one another or the world around us.

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Photo by Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

This piece was written by contributor Obiekwe Okolo for Comment Magazine, a quarterly magazine engaging on issues of public theology for the common good. Continue reading at Comment.org.

Editor's Note

This piece in essence challenges your approach to photography (to craft as a whole), beckoning you to ponder the repercussions of your actions as image-makers. Explore the role of craft in developing ethical, genuine creative pursuit, and allow your perceptions to be reshaped. To dive into this engaging discourse and be a part of the dialogue, read the full article in Comment Magazine.

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Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

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