When the Media Machine Suddenly Starts to Grind
Michael Schäfer’s Role Model for Suspects is a caricature. A visual provocation that cynically serves up a host of clichés about Arabs, the kind that are currently circulating in the media and running through people’s heads. A man with Arab-looking features stands scowling behind a partially drawn curtain. At the bottom of the photo four house plants complete the image, a perfect composition culminating in a cactus that shoots straight up, pointing right at the man’s face. As we look at the picture, we find ourselves increasingly entangled – in silent rage at the brazen stereotyping or secretly consenting to this image of the stranger – until our mental whirligig is interrupted by the series title Press Images. This is not some pointed caricature. It is a news photo that Schäfer has appropriated, including the caption. It is actually from the September 2005 issue of the news magazine Focus, taken from the column “Periscope: Brief, precise, and straight to the point”. The picture in the magazine is 4.8 x 3.9 cm in size and bears the caption “Role model for suspects: [highlighted in bold] Top terrorist Mamoun Darkazanli finds imitators in Karlsruhe”.1 The accompanying article succinctly outlines the story of Darkazanli’s legal appeal against deportation for his supposed membership of Al-Qaida. There are other suits filed by people who have been convicted on similar grounds. In the wake of 9/11, incidents and pictures like this were quickly turned into political capital. Today, fifteen years after the terrorist attack in New York, the so-called Islamic State and the refugee crisis are sending new shocks through our system.
Schäfer’s version of the Darkazanli picture quotes the original photograph in minute detail. Unlike the image in Focus, Schäfer’s photograph does not flash by so swiftly. It measures 152.5 x 117 cm. When viewing the picture at this scale, you are confronted by a figure who is somewhat larger than life-size, revealing how the image teeters between presenting a suggestive caricature and fulfilling Focus’s claim to provide “facts, facts, facts”2. There is a similar potential for cliché in the images of a bewildered politician in Refusal and of muscle-bound US soldiers in Last Signs of Life from the same series. What are the press serving us with here? How do the pictures operate? At what point do they begin to flip?
“the illiterate of the future will not be those who cannot read and write but those who are ignorant of the camera”3 – László Moholy Nagy’s much-quoted plea of 1928, calling on us to learn to read and to use photographs just as we do letters, words, and sentences, seems to have acted as an unspoken leitmotif for Schäfer. When he fishes photographs from the stream of pictures, isolates them, and sets them free from the pages of newspapers and magazines, releasing them from the corset grip of columns, headlines, and reports, he is challenging the construction and character of the images. This becomes even more apparent in the Models series. The starting point here are half-length portraits of policymakers and executives from the worlds of politics and business that originally appeared in Der Spiegel, whose marketing slogan since January 2015 has been “Not Afraid of the Truth”. The extent to which the truth can be constructed is revealed in the process of posing for the photographer, as Michael Diers describes: “Since pictures, as it were, render the speaker mute, ‘eloquent’ gestures are used as a substitute, their rhetoric tailored accordingly. The caricature records the consequences: the speaker is silent, instead of speaking, no longer exercising his native profession but beavering away at constructing his public face, which in the popular parlance of the twentieth century will come to be called ‘image’.”4 To intensify these “eloquent gestures”, Schäfer covers over the high-profile faces with studio shots of unknown actors. What remains are gestures that are laden with meaning and the question of who the picture is actually authored by: the photographer or the person photographed?
Schäfer does not conceal the substance of the two different image types that come hard up against one another in Models. There is a head-on collision between his own super-sharp portraits and the found and massively enlarged halftone offset. He does not use Photoshop to blur, flatten, or pimp the individual offset items. There’s nothing agreeable about this merging of images. Instead the picture elements grind together in the digital compositing, like a spanner chucked into the works of the media machine, disturbing the flow of images and forcing us to apply a critical eye. In the process of blowing up the newspaper photographs, the structure and material of the print are made plain – the uniform tapestry of printed dots, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, reveals the limits of what can be visually represented. In contrast to this, the extreme sharpness of the faces reveals every stirring of feeling, no matter how tiny, while saying nothing about what this may signify. It is easy for us to start skidding on this perfect surface. Whether the look is anxious or full of guile is left indeterminate, whether the outstretched hand is willing or forced, whether the female associate is a support or a source of trouble.
How is technical progress changing our image culture? The printed raster is losing currency as it starts to show its age; pixels are taking over, often only moving in digital form and strewn across the Internet via countless links. Everything gets photographed and filmed – everywhere and by everyone. Masses of images stream past us on a daily basis. Nearly everyone knows how to manipulate pictures; the question of authorship is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. With rising levels of transmissibility and speed, it is becoming ever more urgent to bring the flow of pictures to a halt.
Schäfer has taken two types of pixel-based images and examined their texture and consistency. These are digital pictures that seek to seduce us. Generation focuses on the world of fashion, whose sophistication is particularly attractive to young people. Schäfer puts catwalk models together with the faces of children and combines two different digital storage formats. Children and models are connected by the shared urge for physical self-optimization. The compressed JPEG and the high-quality TIFF pull in opposite directions. The JPEGs are “poor images”,5 whose size is reduced for the Internet so that they can be viewed and moved around quickly, to the detriment of their resolution and colour depth. In this series of pictures, the pixels are rendered visible like the dots in a print, dicing up the skin of the models into pale squares and giving their bodies a ghostly quality. The blurriness and de-composition of the image creates a vacuum that can be filled with ideas and desires. In contrast to this, the children’s faces, photographed in the studio with even lighting and maximum resolution, are clear and unmarked. The combination of bodies – child and model – and of JPEG and TIFF accentuates the idea of innocence and the abyss.
In Invasive Links Schäfer makes use of LiveLeak. Operating under the slogan “Redefining the Media”, this Internet platform opens up a virtual space for reportage in the section “News & Politics”. As with YouTube, each user can upload, share, and comment on the videos they have shot on their own phones. Video sequences or film stills like this taken by citizen journalists have been proliferating since the Iraq War and have found their way into even the most conservative news formats. Frequently somewhat wobbly and out of focus, the videos come across as authentic and emotional, at once both tantalizing and distressing.6
The phone camera’s perspective is straightforward. It is suggestive of the conditions in which the material is recorded – someone right in the thick of things pointing their phone at what is taking place in front of them. And in a trice the filmed material is flashing across our screens. We could hardly get any closer to events. But the proximity is a fallacy. The immediacy contains a hidden distance, even if we seem to be looking right into the heart of what’s happening. Mareike Meis even speaks of a “physicality intrinsic to the mobile phone, engendered by the blurred image, by the sounds that we hear there”.7 When we watch the films, we may be holding our phone in just the same way as the person recording the film. In essence we adopt the same position as someone peeping through a keyhole. The door, or the screen, remains in-between, serving at once as a protective barrier and determining our perspective. Like the latent, digital image, we remain disembodied, because we can only watch transfixed, unable to directly intervene.
With Invasive Links Schäfer uses a pixelated phone video, in which he places – as stand-ins for us – a couple of young people in their early twenties. It is a simulation of what might happen if we found ourselves in the midst of the action we see photographed or filmed. The video is paused. There on the spot where events are unfolding, we can look around at our leisure. A young man in shorts looks helplessly at a soldier, while a little further off a tank is moving. In the second picture four people are standing together as if at a party, while an explosion cloud can be seen rising up behind a wall. The distance between foreground and background, between the visual world as found and that which has been added, is enormous. Over here is where the Generation Y party people hang out; over there is where determined acts are performed in defence of country, life, and ideologies. While some people blunder about with an egocentric insouciance, for others the world is disintegrating into its existential components – just like the photo fragmenting into a grey morass of pixels.
Open Archive has an oblique relationship with Press Images, Models, Generation, and Invasive Links. It unfurls Schäfer’s latest research material and will expand at each stage of the exhibition tour. The screenshots the artist has assembled are reminiscent of picture sequences on contact sheets, which show the “before” and “after” in the flow of iconic media images. Politicians move amidst their entourage like characters in a flipbook, while citizens stage protests – the protagonists still have their own faces, and the explosion cloud floats alone in an expansive landscape. As an insert in the catalogue or a loop on a monitor, the archive functions as a reference chart, which we can use to compare and classify Schäfer’s images.
In selecting and sorting, densifying and displacing facial expressions, gestures, constellations, pixels, print dots, and picture formats, Schäfer exposes the structural framework of news images. He saws courageously at its supports. In the end, his work is a call for us to look closely, to acquire our own visual vocabulary, and to keep asking the question: What does the image actually show?
1 ↩ “Auslieferung: Immer mehr Klagen” (Extradition: A Mounting List of Lawsuits), Focus 9 (2005), p. 13.
2 ↩ Since Focus was founded in 1993, this has been the magazine’s advertising slogan, as formulated by Helmut Markwort.
3 ↩ László Moholy-Nagy, “Fotografie ist Lichtgestaltung” (Photography Is Light Design), in Bauhaus: Zeitschrift für Bau und Gestaltung 1 (1928), pp. 2–9, here: p. 5.
4 ↩ Michael Diers, Schlagbilder: Zur politischen Ikonografie der Gegenwart (Eye-Catchers: The Political Iconography of the Present) (Frankfurt am Main, 1997), p. 181.
5 ↩ Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image”, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ (accessed: 3.2.2016).
6 ↩ See Hito Steyerl, Die Farbe der Wahrheit (The Colour of the Truth) (Vienna, 2013), p. 7.
7 ↩ Mareike Meis, cited in Klaus Deuse, “Handyvideos: Den Tod dokumentiert” (Phone Videos: Death Documented), http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/handyvideos-den-tod-dokumentiert.761.de.html?dram:article_id=316192 (accessed: 29.1.2016).