photographic index

ba digital photography london south bank university

Dick Hebdige: Hiding in the light

Dick Hebdige: Youth surveillance and display, in Hiding in the light: On images and things (chapter 1), London: Routledge, 1988, pp-17-36

Point for discussion:
Hebdige argues youth cultures have been codified along two opposite/contrasting aesthetics: youth as fun, play, consumption on the one hand (the colour picture); and youth as trouble, riots and unemployment on the other (the black & white picture).
The author aims to challenge this distinction between pleasure and politics, in favour of a new perspective on youth cultures: politics of pleasure.

Hebdige also argues that the power relations inscribed in documentary practice from the mid 19th century first uses of photographic police records, persist in photographs of youth in trouble as represented in the media, ie, when the media is not busy representing youth as fun and marketable.

To substantiate his argument, Hebdige situates contemporary photographic representations of youth cultures in the background of historical photodocumentary representations of the urban underclasses, specifically the mid 19th century when children and adolescents of the poor were considered a problem, and the role of photography in the monitoring of potential juvenile offenders (as in the photographic records for institutions for poor children, ie, the Barnardo’s). In this way, Hebdige can link the photos of the 1981 Brixton riots to another iconography-the one of the urban poor, who in the 1981 inner city clashes with the police is replaced by the delinquent black mob.

Consuming youth as fun

The word teenager, imported from the states into UK, creates a youth market, for those that are neither children nor adults yet. This young working-class form the new youth cultures whose identities emerge around the consumption, of an emerging range of commodities (from clothing to music to leisure) that absorb their disposable income.

Previous distinctions between “respectable/criminals” are translated into the 1950s youth-market into the dichotomy “conformist/nonconformists”. The riots that accompanied the UK launch of Blackboard Jungle, the first (American) rock’n’roll film, represented a new convergence: trouble=fun.

By the mid 1960s, youth culture had become a matter of commodity selection, with image serving as a way of marking boundaries and articulating both identity and difference. Photography ‘s redemptive status as a sign system starts to be appropriated by the subjects, and used as space that encapsulates youth culture as a communicating system based on the celebration of the body and the pose, where the power can be exercised, as it can be nowhere else.

Neither nor
Politics of youth are always ambiguous. On the one hand because they exist in the realm of signs and metaphors having grown in the interstices of discipline – Subculture vs. the multiple disciplines (family, school, workplace)- they survive in the space in between surveillance and its evasion.

“Translates the fact of being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched. It is a hiding in the light.”

Secondly, in terms, of response, the subculture, is an “insubordination”, meaning neither revolt nor compliance, but a state in between: a declaration of independence and powerlessness, simultaneously.

Politics of youth as a spectacle: Started in the 1950s as a new market phenomenon- the consumption associated with new life styles, but transformed in the 1980s, into the symbol of a new economic recession and unemployment, symbolised by the Brixton’s street riots.

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