Three critical viewpoints
Charity – Martha Rosler
” … which political battles have been fought and won by someone for someone else?”
(Rosler (1981) in Bolton, 1992, p. 307)
Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine?
Two of the photographers criticised in Rosler’s essay are Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. Lewis Hine (1874 – 1940) was a sociologist and photographer and used his camera to work towards social reform. He is well known for photographing new immigrants on Ellis Island and documenting their lives and struggles as they settled in their new country. He also documented child labour in the factories and was instrumental in having the child labour laws changed in the United States.
Jacob Riis, a Danish photographer who emigrated to the US, was also a social reformer and photographer. Having become poor himself, Riis became a police reporter writing about life in the slums and tried to improve the tenement dwellers’ quality of life by exposing it to the upper classes.
Rosler argues that the approach that the socially driven photographers took in trying to right the wrongs in society was flawed. She states that the wrongs “were tolerated rather than bred” and this then “marks a basic fallacy of social work” (Rosler, p.304). She derides the photographers’ appeals for charity from the elite classes stating that this far outweighed any call for self-help.
Charity is an argument for the preservation of wealth, and reformist documentary … represented an argument within a class about the need to give a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes below, an argument embedded in a matrix of Christian ethics.
(Rosler, p. 304)
Personally, I think Rosler is being rather unfair and quite unrealistic on the socially driven photographers as she is attaching a political analysis on a socio-economic problem: “Imperialism breeds an imperialist sensibility in all phases of cultural life” (Rosler, p 321). The gap between rich and poor has and always will be present. It has been there since time immemorial and always will be. Even in the early days of communism in Russia where classes were “abolished”, government officials and black marketeers quickly found ways to earn extra privileges/money through bribes and favours. This is still a prevalent problem even today. It’s a question of “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton, 1887).
Is there a sense in which work like this is exploitative or patronising?
This would depend on the subject. If the subject is not in a privileged situation, but consents to being photographed, very much like Florence Thompson in Migrant Mother, then I think the work is not exploitative, even though some viewers might perceive it to be so. In Lange and Social-Documentary Photography article on The J. Paul Getty Museum’s website it is stated:
Lange herself did not hesitate to aim her camera at people in misery, but said, “I had to get my camera to register the things that were more important than how poor they were—their pride, their strength, their spirit.”
The J. Paul Getty Museum [online]
Just recently at my camera club someone had taken a couple of photographs of people who were from a third world country and obviously did not have ready access to dental facilities. One of them only had about three teeth in his mouth, the other had horrible, discoloured, rotten teeth. Both the subjects were smiling broadly. It was so obvious that they had consented wholeheartedly to the photos and were very proud to be considered like this. However, some of the reaction in the audience was of horror and shock and statements to the effect of “they should not have taken those photos. That should not be documented. Those poor people!” rippled through the room. I was quite perturbed that none of the commentators could see past their own comfortable surroundings with access to free health care and the shiny, bright, white Hollywood toothy smiles we seen on TV on a daily basis. They had all missed the message of the portraits and so did not see the inner beauty that emanated from these joyous subjects.
Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run?
The photos taken by Dorothea Lange and other photographers during the Farm Security Administration (FSA) belonged to the United States government, so the benefits that the photographers would have gained were probably not monetary in nature, apart from their salaries. Although Florence Thompson did not benefit directly by the time the FSA sent relief in to the migrants’ camp (her family had moved on), I believe the benefits that the photographers reaped would be more from the awards or fame they achieved with their photos. In a lecture I attended last year by Steve McCurry, he related the story of his rediscovery of the Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula. He mentioned that she had had a very hard life and National Geographic had set up a fund to provide aid to her and her family. Her children now have a chance of education.
Can photography change situations?
Most definitely. One example is the one I have given above about Sharbat Gula. Photography informs people of situations they would otherwise not have been aware of and thereby spurring on reform or protest, improvements and education. It is a universal language in that it eliminates language barriers and creates a more lasting impression than words do. I cannot remember the newscaster’s words when the planes flew into the World Trade Center in 2001, but the images will be forever imprinted in my brain.
Compassion fatigue – Susan Sontag
In these last decades ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.
(Sontag, 1979, p. 21)
Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses?
I’m not really sure whether images of war provoke change in today’s age. It almost seems as if the more photos that are taken of torture and war atrocities, the more the perpetrators seem to get off on flooding the internet with similar images. I’m thinking of the recent ISIS beheadings or the xenophobia attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa (warning – viewer discretion is advised as both videos are disturbing). In a way by sharing these images on the internet we are also to blame for the perpetuation of these atrocities. Would it make a difference if there was a total blackout on war/atrocities images – I don’t think so. At the end of the day there are no winners in a war. Too many young men (and women) filled with patriotism and idealism have lost their lives, often for causes that they do not fully understand. The only ones who benefit are the arms manufacturers and the politicians.
I am in total agreement with Sontag’s statement that frequent exposure to horrific images, be they of war or violence, numb one’s senses, as I have personally experienced this. Before emigrating from South Africa local media bombarded the viewer daily with images of horrific violence. Photographs and video footage of a single murder were passé around 1993. Only photographs of multiple murders were thenceforth newsworthy. With so much exposure to blood, gore and violence on a daily basis, one has to develop a blocking mechanism in order to survive as it is an extremely stressful situation. One glances at the images, but does not absorb them (at least one tries not to). This does not mean that one does not feel empathy for the victims, one certainly does, but over the course of more than twenty years the self-protection mechanism kicks in automatically. The images just become another batch on the pile of daily atrocities, or as Sontag puts it ‘a pseudo-familiarity with the horrible reinforces alienation, making one less able to react in real life’ (Sontag, p 41).
Inside/Out – Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?
Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay Inside/Out contrasts the views taken by Susan Sontag and Martha Rosler on their approaches to photography. Solomon-Godeau (1995, p. 49) states:
Sontag’s critique is best characterized as an investigation of the ethics of photographic seeing, whereas Martha Rosler’s no less uncompromising critique of traditional documentary practice … was structured around an explicitly politicized analysis of how such photography actually functions.
The inside/outside point of view for Sontag revolves around the question of empathy and identification (or the lack thereof), while for Rosler it pivots around issues of power and powerlessness. According to Solomon-Godeau the insider position is one where engagement, participation and a degree of privileged knowledge is clearly evident in the photograph. The outsider position, in turn, conveys a position of isolation, a “looking from afar” relationship between the subject and viewer and has a sense of detachment about it. Numerous debates on the ethics or politics of photography pivot on these two positions. Examples she gives of the outside position is the work of Diane Arbus and of the inside position, the work of Nan Golding (Ballad of Sexual Dependency and The Other Side) and Larry Clark (Tulsa and Teenage Lust).
However after discussing some of the photographs on exhibition at the Public Information Desire, Disaster, Document exhibition by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1995 (for which this essay was written), Solomon-Godeau states that the works of Robert Frank (The Americans), Dan Graham (Homes for America) and Ed Ruscha (Every Building on the Sunset Strip)
… is a way to think about a truth of appearance that without prodding reveals itself to the camera and totally escapes the binary of inside/outside. This runs counter to a cultural bias that maintains a truth behind appearance, a truth always veiled that reflects the philosophical divide between seeming and being… It may well be that the nature that speaks to our eyes can be plotted neither on the side of inside nor outside but in some liminal and as yet unplotted space between perception and cognition, projection and identification.
Solomon-Godeau (1995, p61)
I am inclined to agree with Solomon-Godeau that it is not necessary to be an insider to produce a successful documentary project. I think it depends on the subject that is being photographed to a large extent. Clearly being an ‘insider’ would provide the photographer with those very intimate details that one would not normally get as a bystander. One only has to look at Nancy Borowick’s narrative essay entitled Cancer Family, where Borowick documented her parents simultaneous battle against cancer. The photos are heartrending and elicit empathy from the viewer. On the other hand, one can look at Edward Burtynsky’s Oil project, where all the photographs fit into Solomon-Godeau’s definition of the outside position to see that it is a successful documentary series. The distance from the subjects and the voyeuristic relationship that arises from this, is what makes the series stand out. The viewer is given room to look and see for him or herself and draw their own conclusions. It is a journey of discovery as opposed to the inside position of Borowick’s work where the viewer is immediately drawn into narrative. From my mind, an example of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s ‘truth of appearance’ which escapes the binarism of inside/outside is Bela Doka’s series on Fan Club Putin. Here we have a mix of neutral photos, combined with some intimate moments of young girls dozing or sitting in a kitchen surrounded by their Putin fan club paraphernalia. The viewer is drawn in slightly in some of the photographs, but is still left a distance from the subject. Another example is Glenna Gordon’s series on Abducted Nigerian School Girls. Here Gordon has employed a practice similar to that of Rosler in The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. The series is about the abducted Nigerian school girls, but because of their physical absence, Gordon has had to substitute items in lieu of the girls. She has photographed photographs of the girls and items belonging to them, like school uniforms, school books, a toothbrush, shoes and other clothing items. The series relies quite heavily on the accompanying captions to put the photographs into the correct context. The absence of the girls from the photographs serves to drive home the message of the abduction.
Lange and Social-Documentary Photography [online] The J. Paul Getty Museum. Available from: http://www.getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/dorothea_lange/background3.html [Accessed 20 May, 2015]
Rosler, M, (1981). ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’. in The Context of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. ed. by Bolton. R. Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 303 – 325.
Solomon-Godeau, Abigail, (1995). ‘Inside/Out’ in Public Information Desire, Disaster, Document. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Sontag, Susan. (1977) On Photography. New York: Picador
Borowick, Nancy (2013). Cancer Family [online]. LensCulture – Contemporary Photography. Available from: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/nancy-borowick-cancer-family [Accessed 24 May, 2015]
Corruption in Russia [online] Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corruption_in_Russia [Accessed 20 May, 2015]
Gayle, Damien (2015). Pinned down by bloodthirsty ISIS executioners and screaming for his life, campaigners in Syria release footage of latest man beheaded for disobeying their Islamist rules [online]. Daily Mail.com. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2928730/Pinned-bloodthirsty-ISIS-executioners-screaming-life-campaigners-Syria-release-footage-latest-man-beheaded-disobeying-Islamist-rules.html [Accessed 21 May, 2015]
Gordon, Glenna (2014). Abducted Nigerian School Girls [online]. LensCulture – Contemporary Photography. Available from: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/glenna-gordon-abducted-nigerian-school-girls [Accessed 24 May, 2015]
Swails, Brent, (2015). Xenophobic killing in South African township caught by photographer [online] CNN. Available from: http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/20/africa/south-africa-xenophobia-killing-photos/ [Accessed 21 May, 2015]
The Phrase Finder [online] Available from: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely.html [Accessed 18 May, 2015]