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Snapshots of knowledge

Author shows photography as an additional resource in social sciences, and one which is badly used and often despised by researchers

Detenção15-cmykJosé de Souza MartinsMan has never been the same since photography was invented. “As from the end of the 19th century this modern invention made the industrial production of reproducible images possible, something that did not happen with paintings and portraits. And it spread a concept of the human being as double, his photo divorced from his person, the photographic representation endowed with multiple meanings and even manipulable”, says José de Souza Martins, who is launching the book Sociologia da fotografia e da photo [Sociology of photography and the photo], which has just arrived in the stores, published by Contexto.

Martins observes that his study deals with the photograph as an additional resource in sociology and that it is “badly used and often despised by sociologists and historians”. The originality of his analysis, according to the author himself, is that he considers the photograph as a modality of knowledge, while it is only useful in sociology if analyzed from the point of view of visual knowledge, as a branch of the sociology of knowledge.

Martins, who is an emeritus professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (USP), says he is very much more concerned with vernacular and casual photography, popular photography, than with the spectacular, or supposedly spectacular facts, of huge dimensions. “One of the great mystifications in the use of the photograph by sociologists and historians is precisely in its use, in the ‘spectacularization’ of mass phenomena to give certain events the monumental nature they supposedly have”, he observes.

According to the professor and photographer, the spectacle of the so-called March of the Family for Liberty with God, which he remembers as an example promoted by the Catholic Church and by the elite of São Paulo, was real. “There’s no doubt that it gave legitimacy to the coup that was being prepared. But many people who participated in the march were later victimized by the dictatorship, started opposing it and ended up taking part in other demonstrations, like those of the Diretas Já! [Direct elections now] campaign”, he comments.

It is from the perspective of this disillusion that those photographs of the 1964 episode have meaning and can be appropriately analyzed. “In the outcome and social and political consequences of that act that the Left wrongly ironized and disdained is the key to a possible interpretation of the spectacle registered by these photographs.” It is obvious, in his opinion, that those responsible for the coup did not need the march to legitimize it. “But the march helped.  President Lyndon Johnson in a conversation with directors of the State Department, today available on the internet, leaves no doubt as to the way the coup was going, with support from the North American government, which in fact decided it.”

According to Martins, for sociologists any photograph can be a document extremely rich in sociological information. “Even a photograph by an amateur who casually photographs Thomas Farkas taking photos in the street. “But the sociological use of the photograph as a document depends on the competence of the sociologist, his preparation for appropriately ‘reading’ and interpreting a photo, a group of photos or several photos of the same object or the same theme.” As happens with historians, most sociologists are not concerned with this, according to the specialist. “So, when they use photography in a text, they do it to illustrate it, imagining that in doing so they will incorporate it in their analysis. They rarely manage to incorporate it as a part of the narrative itself, as language endowed with its own legitimacy.”

Detenção01-cmykJosé de Souza MartinsThe author also says that with regard to the mythology for using photography, history and sociology have used photography wrongly. Therefore, he continues, the use of photography by sociologists, historians and also anthropologists, needs much more than a method of interpreting the photographic image, so that all the information in the photograph is duly recognized and interpreted.

The theoreticians of photography, Martins believes, have for many years been warning of the fact that the photo is polyssemic. “It involves who is being photographed, undoubtedly, but it also involves the photographer as the photo’s producer, whoever they are, whether professional or lay people. It involves also the photograph, in which is almost always ‘seen’ what the photographer sees and what the photographed person does not know, as in the photos of the March of the Family.” Therefore, emphasizes the professor, a photograph is a set of imagined, overlapping images. “What was photographed is not what is ‘real’, but the real as proposed by its visual indications.”

In this context, Martins explains that social reality comprises what is seen and even known and what is unseen and often unknown. “If sociologists, historians and anthropologists are not prepared to know society from this perspective, then the photograph (and also the video and the film) will be completely useless to them.” In this sense, he says, one of the great themes of the sociological use of the photograph is not what it shows, but what it hides.


The function of the photo portrait, like the painting, is to mask, hide and deform, the author points out. “Because of this no one likes being photographed when they are looking untidy, not even beggars, who have no alternative when it comes to their personal appearance. Social scientists, in general, are wrong in their use of photographs, because they take them as evidence of what they supposedly show, when what they show only has meaning in the mediation of what they don’t show, what they are as a visual document of what is hidden.”

The so-called personal or family photograph is very fascinating because of the nostalgia, memories and longing, which allows the past to be visited. In his book Martins deals with this from the point of view of sociology. “Dissemination of the portrait as a likeness of the person has had various functions throughout social history.” For the author, man has not always seen or recognized himself from his portrait. “I think it can be said that the photograph constitutes a moment in history of the visual representation of the person, in the culture of the portrait in which the person is presented as a being separated from allegories of a religious nature. As capitalism flourished, portraits were spread not only as the configuration of moral attributes but also of material attributes.”

For the author, society began to become theatrical, above all with the spread of Protestantism and the belief that the portrait is what the person wants others to think they are. “Individuality is constituted both by visibility as well as by diversity. In a certain sense, the personal photo frees itself from its function of presentation to become likeness and identity. It is in this type of photo that people represent themselves as the result and artisans of the social plot, which therefore makes it a sociological document, par excellence.”

Detenção13-cmykJosé de Souza MartinsIn his study Martins proposes improving the photograph by means of a new “sociology of visual knowledge”, i.e. in the words of the author, visual sociology, a name suggested by the renowned American sociologist, photographer and musician, Howard Becker, the translator of Antonio Candido into English, was heavily linked to the factual objectivism of visual anthropology, from a predominantly positivist perspective, “which, surprisingly enough, distances it from Becker’s own sociology, because it differentiates it from visual anthropology which is very marked by its use of photographs, as an extension of the ethnographic description, I think that in sociology it’s only possible to incorporate the photo as a document, particularly the photographic photo, if we treat it as a form of knowledge.”

In this sense, Martins emphasizes, the truly sociological lies in interrogating it as an expression of the imagination of who is photographing, who’s being photographed and who sees the photograph. “The important thing, therefore, is not the photo as a thing, but the photo as an interpretation and story.” In this sense, he explains, it is possible to treat the photograph both as visual knowledge and as an object of the sociology of knowledge, and not simply as a means of documenting objective facts. “Let’s take the famous photographs for documents; identity cards, driving licenses and passports. In these pictures we’re not who we think we are, but who the police and the State want us to be, potential criminal individuals who can be identified if we transgress the law.”

The launch of Sociologia da fotografia e da photo includes a photographic exhibition, Carandiru – A presença do ausente [Carandiru  – the presence of absence]. The researcher explains that the photographic essay carried out in the buildings of the prison that was about to be demolished was produced in 2000 and is one of several photographic essays he has produced over the last ten years. Three of them constitute his first book of photographs, which Edusp is launching in November, in the USP Artists collection. Three photos from this book are included in another exhibition, The Arts at Edusp, in the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University City campus, which began in October and runs until the end of the year.

The essay on the prison was done in two visits by the professor and photographer with the students for a lesson on the street, in connection with another lesson in the same format in Paranapiacaba, a workers village conceived in accordance with pan-optic logic of Benjamin Bentham: “The place of work, like a prison without walls, in which each the foreman of each worker has the fear of being seen, a fear which he internalizes”. A second visit was carried out with the Phora-de-phoco group of amateur photographers, comprising students, former students and visitors to USP and of which Martins was a part, – the group no longer exists). “The essay was included in the book as a visual text and sociological discourse using images.”

Martins says that he has been taking photos since he was a teenager, above all during his broad research into conflicts in the Amazon, when he took a lot of photos, “but far fewer than I should have and could have taken”. That was when I decided to take photography seriously. “A photo taken by chance or badly costs the same as a good photograph”, he concluded. He did several courses, beginning with what there already was in the small Polytechnic School’s Club course. “I began buying second hand cameras, because each type serves for a particular type of photography.” Today he has ten.

At the beginning of the 1980s he wrote articles about photography in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper and in Fotóptica magazine. On several occasions he has given talks and published essays on photography. One of them, in the form of an essay about the photography of Sebastião Salgado, was included in the book by Lilia Schwarcz and Lorenzo Mammi, Oito vezes fotografia [Eight times photography], published by Companhia das Letras.

Martins recently wrote another text on Aurélio Beccherini, who photographed the transformation of the center of São Paulo between 1909 and 1929 – the text forms part of the book that will be published in November by Editora Cosac Naify. “It’s a study on the historical and sociological revelations of detail in street photographs.”

Sociologia da fotografia e da photo was the result of two talks he gave in England, one at the Ashmolean Museum, at Oxford University about the works of four Brazilian photographers, and another at Cambridge University on the conformist imagination in the clay sculptures of Mestre Vitalino.

*The photos in this report are taken from the book ‘Sociologia da fotografia e da photo’ and form part of the exhibition ‘Carandiru, a presença do ausente