Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Drawing the Line

I've talked before a couple of times about censorship in art, and what could be considered art (I'm too lazy to go and find the links for those posts, but they're around somewhere). Today I was looking at the blog of one of my favorite photographers, Jonathan Canlas, and he posted a series of photographs (which you can find here) that he took of a family in the hospital for the birth of their child. Jonathan has posted several shoots of hospital births, etc, but I noticed this one was different, and when I got to the text at the bottom of the post I realized why. The baby was born with a number of severe complications, and is not expected to live much longer. Jonathan wrote that the mother called him in to take some photographs when they realized their baby was ailing, and he did come, and took some beautiful photos. None of them really show the baby, more the people present, and from angles that communicate emotion of the various subjects. But what was shocking to me was first of all that the pictures were so sad, and that a professional photographer had been called in to record the moment.

I know that art is a very delicate subject at times, but I wonder where on the line between "personal" and "public art" this situation falls. I know that photographs (and art in general) is often created to provoke uncomfortable emotion, and that we may not always be comfortable with it. For example, a friend of mine is opening a display of her photography in the HFAC on campus in a couple of weeks, and the topic of her collection is the unrealistic image of women that has been created by our culture, and how it affects women in real life. She told me about an image of a girl draped over a toilet wearing almost nothing, her bones jutting out from her skin; and how she's certain this image will be censored the moment she hangs it in the gallery. People are simply not comfortable viewing things that provoke unhappy feelings in themselves. And yet, they miss the point. If we push these things away, we lose sight of what life is really like.

Maybe that was the point of Jonathan Canlas' posting of the photos I think perhaps should have been kept private. At the end of the post he said "Now all of you, close this browser and go spend some time with your family/loved ones. Life is so delicate." These images-- or other works of art in various forms, such as the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen-- are meant to cause emotions in us that stimulate a change in our lives, or help us to see the reality of life. They hold a power that other things do not.

What do you guys think?


Ferdinand said...

Censorship is an interesting thing. I notice it comes in two forms split between definite and indefinite forms of control and can be reflected in a classic cost to gain analysis.

The more easily classified group, the goal oriented one, or definite control, has censors for very specific reasons... like North Korea. It useful too for controlling the masses.

The other is still control, but has non-specific results. BYU would censor art to prevent people from coming and being 'offended', complaining, or raising a fuss over the pictures. You can't say that BYU is trying to control the guests, because this wont limit how the guests think on the subject, but works to sidestep the subject altogether. The goal is indefinite because it is working to avoid the possibility of 'the one', even if the majority of those who would see it and agree with or even enjoy it.

It is a logical approach. An entity like BYU or MOA that censors in the latter fashion has little to gain for the masses appreciating something compared to the damage/losses that a single individual can cause due to the offense. You can see how cost to gain in both examples (BYU and N.Korea) would suggest censorship would be beneficial and explainable.

Interestingly, the reverse seems to occur in people on individual scales. Meditation and reflection are hugely beneficial, especially when someone has very painful or unpleasant emotional issues they need to work through. They would rather censor where their thoughts go on the hard subjects to avoid the pain than it brings, living with a life full of additional obstacles and difficulties accompanied with living with unresolved problems. The cost of introspection is trivial compared to how much long term gain can be had, but some people would rather choose to live in the compromised state.... indefinitely. Maybe they are so prone to censorship that they are even censoring themselves from doing a cost to gain estimate on resolving their social issues.

Jonathan Canlas said...

i think it should be shared. obviously, because a blogged it, and did not have to. yes it was a private moment for the family when it was happening but there is no way in hell i would have blogged it had they not given me permission first. i think the fact that they did give the permission is what speaks volumes. should something like this be censored? what about what i feel is the best body of work i've ever shot?


that is death itself right there but there is nothing i've done in my career work wise that i feel is as strong as that body of work for natalie.

if it made you feel uncomfortable and rattled you out of complacency, or realize that life is delicate, then i did my job.

LP said...

Interesting comments from Ferdinand. I know BYU has had art displayed before (a copy of Rodin's 'The Kiss' was one of them, I think) that someone complained about because they were offended, and so they removed it, which I think is caving in to the lowest common denominator.

I also think it was kind of different to bring in a professional photographer at such a moment, but since he was their friend, I can understand this particular situation. Same with making the photos public - it was the family's decision, and maybe this is one of their ways of coping with grief. Well, who knows? (The photographer does realize, doesn't he, that you personally are not saying his work should be censored? He sounds a bit rattled himself.)

Thanks for posting on this!

Megan said...

Okay so we really already talked about this on the phone, but I still wanted to write my comment.

There's a lot to be considered with the question of censorship. As far as ethics, I tend to go with my gut reaction, and that is that when done with consideration as J.C. did, it's a good thing to take somewhat controversial pictures and show them publicly. There have been lots of famous journalistic photos (that I mentioned on the phone) that have showed disturbing or very sad things that people could judge incorrectly because they don't know the story behind the photo and the taking of it. Most of the photos are a force for good, though, because they spur people into action to change things, to make the world better. When the purpose behind taking a photo like that is to make people think and want to do good in the world, and more especially if they have real concern for the subject not just as a subject for art or motivation, the act of photographing these things is good.

I don't know if I completely got my point across, but hopefully you got the idea.

Also, when it comes to BYU or displaying art in the HFAC, we discussed that as well. BYU has a certain image to uphold, an honor code and as is the nature with universities and businesses in general, runs on money. Whether people in charge like her art or not, they have other people to consider and as a whole, it's about politics and money. Yeah I don't know if I said that right, either.


Megan said...

Wow... just reread my comment for the 5th time... It's quite clear I didn't finish college. =P

Shannon said...

Perhaps it's my fault for not making sure my distracted, over-tired voice came out more clearly, and that my message made sense. I've always had trouble sticking to my thesis.
Anyway, I just wanted to clear something up. I'm absolutely NOT saying that these things should be censored, I'm actually saying more that they SHOULDN'T be, for the reasons I listed (or tried to). I apologize if people got riled up.
And Mr Canlas, if you see this, I want you to know that was a beautiful video. Those kinds of things should not be hidden. Perhaps it's just that it is unusual to me to have a photographer record such personal, perhaps tragic moments. And yet, I'm glad you did.