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Damian Sutton speaks at the Athens Dialogues
Professor Damian Sutton has given an invited paper at the Athens Dialogues, organised by the Onassis Cultural Centre, in collaboration with the Academy of Athens, the Accademia dei Lincei, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the German Archaeological Institute, the Institut de France, the Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, the University of Oxford and Stanford University.

Political Portraiture and the Task of the Photographer as Author

Dr Damian Sutton, who is Reader in Photography, has given an invited paper on political portraiture at the inaugural conference of the Athens Dialogues.

Organized by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, the conference was held in Athens on 24-27 November 2010 and was planned as the inaugurating event of the Onassis Cultural Centre – Athens, a new cultural space with the fundamental aim of presenting, projecting and encouraging contemporary Greek culture and its dissemination beyond Greece.

The conference aimed to explore the potential of this legacy as a source for solutions to challenges that the world faces today and to those that it will inevitably come to face in the future. The principal question it aimed to raise was: how can this inheritance be relevant to major changes and shifts in various fields that the contemporary world is undergoing?

Dr. Sutton's paper was part of the 'Stories and Histories' strand [Chairs: Professors Hans-Joachim Gehrke and Johannes Koder], and his respondent was Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, former editor of The Times, and author of On the Spartacus Road.

The paper explores the genre of political portraiture and general questions about the ability of portraits to convey information about the images’ subjects.  Contemporary portraitists do not profess to capture or reveal any insight into the inner lives of their subjects.  For example, Platon Antoniou’s commentaries on his portraits in 'Platon’s Republic 'and in 'Portraits of Power' focus more on the production of the portraits and Antoniou’s experiences rather than providing any psychological analysis of his subjects.  However, many viewers assume that portraiture provides a connection to the sitters, especially when they have an emotional response to the person depicted, such as a politician who has a great effect on society.  Readings from Plato’s Republic help to shape a question that reflects the portraitist’s dilemma:  whether to produce a divinely inspired portrait or a deceptive imitation that provides only surface information.  This dilemma leads to questions about the photographer’s skill set and relationship to the sitter.  The discourse concludes with a recognition of the photographer’s knowledge of presentation and performance, his craft being the production of the images, and of the photographer’s role as the politician’s partner in creating a representation.

The presentation was broadcast, as part of the conference channel, and is full text is available here.