teresa cos – i was there – observations on “the Society of the spectacle”

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Teresa Cos

I Was There – Observations on “The Society of The Spectacle”

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“I Was There” is the first chapter of a long term (lifetime) project which explores western society and its obsession with success. I started by depicting the worlds of art, fashion and culture, where anxiety and struggle for success, together with the desperate need for recognition and approval are ubiquitous; where people live with the constant fear of being considered losers. The images have been taken in 2010 at Venice Architecture Biennale, Venice Film Festival, Milan and London Fashion Weeks, Frieze Art Fair in London and Paris Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC).

I chose these events because they are globalised examples of a bubble (for instance the art industry) that is on the verge of explosion. As wrote Jean Baudrillard: When one looks at the emptiness of current art, the only question is how much such a machine can continue to function in the absence of any new energy, in an atmosphere of critical disillusionment and commercial frenzy, and with all the players totally indifferent? If it can continue, how long will this illusionism last? A hundred years, two hundred? This society is like a vessel whose edges move ever wider apart, and in which the water never comes to the boil.

If one substitutes current art with current society the equation doesn’t really change, does it? And who are these indifferent players, if not us? I want to keep on exploring and understanding photographically the Hyper reality created by consumerism, where people aspirations are dangerously confused with the models of living that the society of the spectacle is constantly selling us and where need has become desire and admiration envy.

To me, it is fundamentally important to understand these social dynamics because, by creating the idea that through a selfish individualism everybody can finally reach extreme forms of wealth and success, one drastically contributes to the social and economic disparities in this world.



I was born and grew up in a small town called Latisana, in the North East of Italy, a one hour drive from Venice, where I ended up living for six years as an architecture student. It is thanks to architecture that I discovered photography, because it taught me to look at the world through different eyes.

After graduating in 2008, I was in the Italian team of architects and urbanists in the international table of consultation wanted by the French government to produce ideas for the future of Paris. I lived for seven months in the suburbs of the French capital, producing my first important body of work, Banlieue 08/09, that allowed me to be accepted last year onto the Photojournalism & Documentary Photography MA program at London College of Communication, where I graduated with Distinction.

I live and work in London and I am also part of the photography collective Five Eleven Ninety Nine.


Related links

Teresa Cos

Collective Five Eleven Ninety Nine


74 Responses to “teresa cos – i was there – observations on “the Society of the spectacle””

  • Btw, I forgot to say: congratulations teresa.
    (…And Gordon Lafleur’s first comment too is on the spot I should add.)


    you asked why certain pieces on her website are not here on Burn…this is a common question, and a constant problem….for us it is more than a full time job to handle what is submitted to us…we literally cannot be private detectives and figure out what the photographer did not send us…in other words we are not looking at a photographer website and then doing the submitting for them…each decides what he or she will submit to Burn, and then we go from there…sometimes, if i know the photographer and their work and have seen it for some reason in its entirety, then of course this is another story…and of course the best way…

    we could work as Visura…more time spent in the beginning with each photographer…a thorough investigation of what they do…the only problem with this is that like Visura we would not be an often freshly updated magazine…essays would be up for weeks just because of the time it takes to do so…

    our approach has been to do the best we can with submissions online and then put all of our super “finalizing” efforts into Burn 01, 02 etc…in other words , lets look at a lot of work, and then lock it down for real in print…even now, working with submissions, is a lot more work than you imagine….

    getting photographers to work in their own best self interest is one of my main goals as a mentor…few have any sense of this…this is always a surprise to me…however, a reality….if it were easy to just get photographers to put their own best foot forward, then i guess i would not have a job to do here….

    conclusion: if photographers don’t show us their best work, it is unlikely we will publish it..

    cheers, david

  • I am certainly grateful you feel you have this job :)

  • David,

    One of the best pieces of advice you’ve given out, buried somewhere here in BURN or Road Trips, was that when shooting/editing work, pick what you consider your best image and then make sure all of the others measure up to (or best) that one. A tall order (and I’m pretty sure you were being somewhat rhetorical) but I’ve kept that in the back of my mind and will for the rest of my career. It helps in easily whittling down images to the core, and letting go of sentimental reasons for hanging onto some. Perhaps why I’m having such a devil of a time editing the piece I’m working on for BURN (not to mention the fact that I keep adding photos daily)!! :) :)

    Best as always,


  • I’ve been coming back to this essay over the past few days because I simply don’t see in Teresa’s work the cynicism that is otherwise indicated by so many of the above comments. I’m also a little surprised that on a site where broad- and open-minded insights are the norm, there has been a collective jump to the skewering and judgement of Teresa’s subjects. I also challenge the notion that Teresa isn’t pointing the camera at herself, and illuminating her own concerns and self-doubts head-on.

    Where has it ever been considered self-grasping the idea that attending an art exhibit or festival premiere party is selfish and self-promoting? Why are people assuming the subjects photographed here are necessarily artists, patrons or hangers-on? And, so what? Making connections for an emerging photographer is essential and as important to one’s career as learning photographic techniques and the art of editing. For those not following Frostfrog’s (Bill Hess) DAH workshop experience, I’ll remind you that David stated making connections is as indispensable as passion and hard work to one’s career. Makes sense to me.

    Attendance at any of these events show a level of participation and expenditure of energy. It may be for the ugly notion of self-centred promotion, but it could also be for the sheer enjoyment of seeing new artists and approaches. I love witnessing the involvement of those here on Burn who contribute their energy to essay criticisms and general Dialogue. Equally, I’m a little impatient of Burn essayists who don’t give us the benefit of their time in order to respond (language and writing limitations excepted), especially knowing that the probability of being published here is something like five hundred to one. It is an indication of the necessary involvement and connection-making for any emerging photographer.

    Being “out there” requires engagement which may be too uncool for some; exposure should not be selective. Linking to Teresa’s site takes us straight to her news page, with a c.v. list of accomplishments first, and her essays second. This suggests to me “I Was There” is very much a case of pointing the camera at oneself; her direct, on-camera flash reflects back on us, and makes the viewer question his/her own involvement in the participation and connectivity to the world of creativity and the world-at-large.

  • This reminds me of Lars Tunbjork work, but without the cynicism and acid edge. Other than that, I wholeheartedly concur with Jeff above.

  • Jeff, speaking only for myself, I looked at the photos before reading the text and noted that the subjects mostly looked awkward and uncomfortable in front of the camera, or blinding flash as was probably the case, and I figured that was a conscious decision on the part of the photographer to portray these nicely dressed subjects inelegantly, quite differently from the way we normally see them, quite differently from the way they see themselves.

    Then I read the text which focuses on success, or more pointedly, the illusion of success, in which people, presumably the subjects, inhabit an ultimately empty world of Baudrillardian proporportions where a “desperate need for recognition and approval are ubiquitous; where people live with the constant fear of being considered losers,” the implication being that these photographs would blast through all the pretension and show that the people who are so desperate or approval are, indeed, losers marching obediently to nowhere in a sad world devoid of all value or meaning; that the photographs, or the photographer would, so to speak, burst their bubble.

    Perhaps I read it wrong, at least to some extent (everybody always does), but since you asked, that was the basis of my read on it. And although I don’t much like how this was pulled off, I have nothing against the basic idea (as I interpret it). I kind of like it, actually. So I offer what I hope to be constructive criticism. Please feel free to hit me with counterexamples, but it seems to me that the greatest artists typically have the greatest compassion for their subjects and that if these people are indeed living in constant fear in an empty world, then they are deserving of compassion; and I don’t see any of that in these photos. If I’ve read it all wrong,Teresa, I’m sorry, but sometimes learning how people read us wrong can be valuable.

    As someone said, others mileage may vary. Jeff, I didn’t see what you saw regarding self-centered promotion (and I don’t see it in the text either). And I didn’t see the awful, hideous people Bill saw. Or the attack on sacred cows that Bob saw. I saw what I saw and now I try to see what others saw. Who knows how much we bring our personal baggage to these things? A lot, no doubt.

    As for David and his encouragement to network, on other occasions he’s said that none of that matters in the least, that the quality of the work is all. I can see how both of those things can be true.

  • Jeff/MW:

    my reading was exactly as MW’s…both the pics and the text…the text here is the anchor….and i didn’t at all see this as an attact against ‘sacred cows’…how did you interpret that MIchael?…the art world is far from sacred to me…my reading/reaction was very simple one. I liked 2 of the pictures, found the others predictable and fashionable. Linked with the text, I found the project superficial, trite and part-and-parcel of a current vein of thinking that attempts to critique the art world/haute culture/wealth and yet does so with very little insight or challenge. As I said, I found more affection for the people in the pictures (given style of photography and the text) than the project or the author’s musing. Again, it just strikes me as youthful affectation. I’m not disturbed by it, angered by it, put off by it, it’s just a simple essay that i have seen a ton of times without the rigor or insight of, for example, Parr’s love of his subjects or Arbus’ sense of the bizarre or Barney’s care and experience with the society. I actually find the dismissal of any ‘group’ not only superficial and empty (particulars matter, not generalizations) but just way too easy. All that said, there is much of Teresa’s work that I like and find interesting. there are no sacred cows for me, other than my family and close friends and i’d be the first to stand up for work that skewers anyone and any group if done with a sense of insight and with a sense of self-reflection. Maybe I sounded too harsh, but for me, it just isn’t terribly interesting and the critique of that world should at least measure itself by the critiques done by others. I would say, if I hadn’t read the text, I wouldn’t have had the reaction i have. sticking strictly with the pics, my sense is a simple one: #3, 13….the rest, ok, pictures of people at openings/festivals/museums/galleries…i’ve been bored to tears and depressed at openings (including my own) and excited and happy at others…and that, invariably, has nothing to do with the ‘society’ of these kinds of events….Jeff, you of all people should know that.


  • This essay seems pretty random to me. In this day and age with all the tumblrs and hipstamatics all over the place, does it still count as some kind of a story? I don’t know.

    “Observations on the Society of The Spectacle” is a pretty bold declaration of intents to start with. All the full blown flashed images doesn’t live up to it, imho.

    Maybe it’s just too early to tell. Hopefully once the project gets the ball going, everything will work out.

  • Hello everybody,

    I am really glad that the images provoked so many reactions, good and bad.

    The 14 images published on Burn belong to a series of 69, collected in a book and thought to work as a sequence. It is always complicated to edit these kind of projects without losing the feeling that one carefully tries to evoke. I think this is one of the most difficult things a photographer needs to learn.

    I invite you, if you’d like to, to look at the digital version of the book http://issuu.com/teresacos/docs/iwasthere/92. At the end there is also a longer essay that explains in depth what I was trying to achieve and my awareness towards the always delicate position of a photographer towards his/her subjects.

    This doesn’t mean that those who had a negative critique of the essay will change their minds, of course.

    The only thing that I really want to be clear is that there is a reason why the series is called ” I Was There”: I WAS THERE TOO! And I’ll have to be there in the future. The main reason why I started this project is because, as a young photographer that deals with her dreams and aspirations and realises how important “networking” is in our society, no matter which profession one chooses, I wanted to understand what surrounded me in this sense. Would it have made any difference having a self portrait at the end of the book?

  • Hee hee!

    This is so great. So much going on visually, and the subject matter made me alternately smile and wince.

    To be honest, in my experience this crowd appreciate a good joke, and would probably find this hilarious.

    More please.


  • I trust the hors d’oeuvres were nice.

  • Teresa
    Thanks for joining in, and for the link. It is great to see this in an expanded form. I must wait until I have more time to explore, and read the text. You have clearly put a lot of thought and energy into this project.
    One line in your text jumped out at me “five minutes of conversation with the right person can change your whole career/life. Ain’t that the truth!

  • The text seems to be a bit of an add on to a procession of images that parade like an indoor version of street photography. You realy need to engage the audience very early on give them direction spell it out. Good photojournalists and editors grab their audience this just goes on and on. Good luck with it

  • MW –

    “Perhaps I read it wrong, at least to some extent (everybody always does).” I go along with this, and perhaps I wrote it wrong, too, because I did not state nor mean that I saw “awful, hideous people.” What I said was that the photographer makes the places and people SEEM dreadful. The images gave me a feeling of “dread” – hence “dreadful” of entering such rooms, among such people, but being given a feeling of dread by a set of photographs is not the same as judging the people to be awful and hideous. I also lumped myself in with the people in the pictures, because, certainly, I have done a few shows and would hope to do more in the future and in major venues. I do not consider myself “awful or hideous” and I do not consider those who have come to my shows in the past or will to any that I might have in the future, to be “awful” or “hideous.”

    Without a doubt, Teresa’s pictures did give me a feeling of dread and, upon review of these and those in her link, that feeling of dread remains.

    Teresa – thanks for jumping in and making the link. Like Gordon, I will give it some exploration. And Gordon, it took me awhile, but I did answer the question you left me. If you did not see it, yes, that was a Piper Cub.

  • Ehhhhh… but that’s what i was talking about. There’s a whole book already!

    I think you just provided a sub-par/incomplete selection of your work. Why didn’t you submit the fabulous image on page 47, for example? It adds more color to the palette.

    I like it!


  • Teresa:

    thank you for the book link. much much more interesting. 3 and 13 (from above) still are among the stand outs, but the relationship between the attendees and the environment is probed and examined and juxtaposed much more fully and interesting. in the book (link) above, the story and the project itself becomes entirely different than what we’ve seen here at Burn (pics/text). This project (link) becomes really about the event itself and the negotiations (including the emptiness/sadness/whiteness (as in Beckett, not color)) of mass events (be them art/museums/film fests/parties etc). The book no longer looks like an examination of the people and society of said events (as describe above here) but really about the events themselves as subjects….the book project is strong and speaks to me for the opposite reasons that the BURN essay version/text does not….

    for me, an important lesson on why projects (as intended by the artists) cannot be truncated/cloven as they lose their meaning and take on an entirely different one….

    why in my own work, i never publish ‘edited’ versions of what I feel the projects are about, as they just don’t make sense….

    thanks so much for sharing the full and realized project.


  • oh, and just a quick qualification:

    1) by ‘whiteness’ i don’t mean the color of the people (or even the color of the walls/light, but that too of course) but by Beckett’s use of the world ‘white’ in his prose pieces…and the way he puts people in space (particuarly post Unnamable), so that the the white walls/ceilings/sky become the real character and consciousness of the work, of our thoughts…same too in the book version of I Was There

    2) i like many of images in the book version as well and all the empty and enviornmental pics serve the people well, so that the people themselves become more like the ‘art’ and the space viewing/rejecting them (something not apparent in the short version)

    3) i did not mean to suggest that BURN/editors made the 1st version we saw short/edited: that is the decision of the artist and something which is an important consideration, i know Burn/David/Diego publish and and all essays in the way the artist wishes them to be viewed…

    anyway, very pleased to have seen the longer version…a significant and game changing difference…


  • Sometimes other form of media just are more appropriate ……the photographers’ mentality of one size fits all is pretty flawed http://dl.nfsa.gov.au/module/1057/
    Bob it is not a matter of having an edited version it is about creating a different version for the wwwdot world. Ideally that should be instigated from the outset,factors such as image sequencing, size, density/saturation come into play. As you know a book and a essay on the net are two very different beasts and a simplistic translation that is occurring here just doesn’t work

  • hi imants:

    yes, of course, a book, a print, something hand-made,something tactile, is incredibly different than an electronic presentation, but that is not what I am referring to and was certainly not the stumbling block for me. I do agree that the use of text and images (or incorporation of other media) for the web vs. exhibition or real-life prints or hand-held book is very different and should be conceived of differently, just as a ‘projection’ is different from a print, online slideshow, book. I know this full well, since everything i do with pictures involves text and also some form of tactile gesture (scratches, tape, cut outs, text, rips, etc), and this is much more difficult to translate on the web unless an entirely new approach is made (for example a film/movie/collage, web-based concept etc.) It was also interesting to see/hear the different reactions to ‘loomings upon an horizon’ when i showed it at a projection/artist talk i did last week, in which some Burnians were there to see the work off the web and blown up on a wall through a projector. but these two are different from the handmade book i made, part of which i gave to marina prior and even a book (in the hand) is still different, a translation of something made by hand. None of which i’m talking about.

    In Teresa’s case, at least for me, my ‘problem’ (and i use this word lightly and lovingly, as a critique/feedback, not as disparagement) with the presentation here WAS a question of editing/sequencing, presentation about the pics + text, cloven from its entirety (same with the text, which is considerably longer and argued differently in Teresa’s book). So, here, it is a question of fullness that made a big difference and not whether or not it was presented in a web-friendly manner. Hell, the first time i saw ‘solitude of ravens’ was on a gallery website, before i saw the actual book, and it made just as big of an impact….

    for me, and i know this is where you and i differ, is not about the media, but about the message that is conveyed, ultimately….the medium can surely be the message (the basis of art to begin with, let alone conceptual work), but in a case where the ‘message’ here is about traditional sense of the image (which it is here) conveying that message, how an author choses to sequence, include/exclude defines that message….the same series of pictures (here) translated through, say, a web friendly approach (film/video/voice/quick cuts, long cuts, dissolve, games, whatever) would not necessarily worked any better….

    how one tells a story is part of the story itself (of course), and here the how is not book/long essay vs. web pubication of small essay is not the stumbling point, atleast not for me…

    it lay in the pictures/sequence chosen and their relationship with the short text above…

    either way, it is an instrumental lesson (whichever side viewers come down on Teresa’s project) to see if one works ‘better’ (long or short), or if one version changes the ‘meaning’ and the ‘strength’ of the project…those questions can only be answered by individual viewers….

    but for me, the difference between the 2 (long and short) is like the difference between night and day and has nothing to do about how ‘many’ pictures are shown (length) or whether it is a 14 pic web presentation of 100 page hand-held book…..

    it is about the message convey BY the choices made….


  • No Bob for me it is about the message and here the message does not fit the media, that is what I have stated all along the two need one another,sometimes there are just better ways to get a message across. Just as with the Arab spring sure we got a message of change on the net but the real message was out on the streets and participating. Verbal contact in real time as opposed to audio that could be dismissed at a touch of a button.

  • p.s. having looked at the extended version, Iam doubly impressed.
    Nice and thorough, and some really good, subtle visual puns.

    Refreshingly brutal!

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