The Context of Things

nothing_robert montgomery

During my first year of university teaching when I was only about twenty two years old, I remember feeling as if I was in a constant state of dazed shock. I was a type A personality as an undergraduate (and still am really). I read everything because I enjoyed it. I researched the background of poems and books and authors because I was fascinated by them. I wanted to know more about them and what made them tick. The Romantic authors didn’t just write beautiful poetry, they also responded via literature to political events during their times, commented on The French Revolution and criticised the ravages of industrial growth in the nineteenth century. Within this context, when William Wordsworth writes about clouds and daffodils, I understood the full meaning of his words: the fragility of nature in the face of human industry and growth.

I wanted to be totally immersed in the literature I was studying, and that meant learning about its context. The thing that shocked me the most when I moved from being a student to a teacher was the extent to which I had to gradually, gently and patiently introduce students to the original context of literary works and constantly express why I think this is important. I’ve never been one of those people who assumed that art and literature are about abstract or universal concepts alone, existing on some airy plane of transcendental truth. I’ve tended to approach art and literature as coming to fruition within a distinct social, cultural and historical context. When I first read Emily Brontë’s British novel, Wuthering Heights, in Hebrew in Israel, I understood its foreignness and it own unique logic, created within a different context to my own.

I was thinking about this when I was mulling over the problems I have with Tumblr, Pinterest and blogs in general when it comes to a much-debated topic on the internet: image crediting. Usually, this topic is raised by a photographer, artist, or blogger, rightly complaining about the lack of crediting and sourcing when their work is blogged or pinned by others. I completely understand their frustration, but there is also a wider issue here. I become most annoyed when I see historically significant images being de-contextualised from their original context. What do I mean by this? I’ll give you two examples:

: : I’ve seen countless images of Anne Frank being pinned on Pinterest under categories or labels such as “style”, “black and white photography”, “beautiful”, and the like. No mention of who she is, no mention of why this photo of her is particularly well-known or important, no indication that the pinner even knows who she is. This disturbs me.

: : I’ve seen this image of a Holocaust memorial being rampantly blogged and re-blogged on Tumblr with tags such as “decor”, “interior” and “wall art”, as well as various comments by bloggers saying how they’d like to decorate their homes like this. There is no mention of the caption that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provides and distinctly requests be included with the image when and if it is shared online:

Tower of Faces: This three-story tower displays photographs from the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. Taken between 1890 and 1941 in Eishishok, a small town in what is now Lithuania, they describe a vibrant Jewish community that existed for 900 years. In 1941, an SS mobile killing squad entered the village and within two days massacred the Jewish population.

-United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

There are many other examples of this going on, I’m just using these two Holocaust ones as the most obvious examples. Why does this bother me? Well, these images do not represent “decor” or “style” and it’s extremely problematic to include them on “inspiration” boards for decorating your home or fashion. I get that we all like collecting pretty images. But this one-sided fixation with “style” and “inspiration” is starting to leave a bad taste in my mouth. What worries me is that I’m participating in websites that feed this constant consumption of images without context or knowledge. I worry now when I re-blog and re-pin an image whether there is a story behind it that I’m not aware of and a context that I’m unwittingly ignoring. I’m concerned that if we allow these images to be pinned and blogged in such a superficial manner, we’re just contributing to historical ignorance and forgetfulness.

Although this may sound like harsh criticism, I actually feel no malicious judgement toward anyone when I see this occurring. Because let’s face it, on crappy days when I feel like procrastinating, it’s much easier for me to just click “re-blog” or “re-pin” and not think about the image. I enjoy Tumblr and Pinterest too, I’m not about advocating polarising opinions about these websites or presenting myself on a moral high-ground. But I do think I need to, we all need to, consciously consume. That is, we need to start being aware of the narratives surrounding the images we put out there: what’s the context of this image? Who took it? Why? Maybe it’s a good idea to start approaching images from a photo-journalism perspective where images form a significant part of a wider narrative, and where there is a distinct relationship between images and words, history and the present. I’m afraid that if we don’t do this, all these “inspiration” pin-boards and blogs will just end up being one big vacuum of nothingness.

Image credit: Billboard Art by Robert Montgomery. I often find his words speak well alongside mine.