Project 1 Exercise 3.3
Write a reflection in your learning log about some of the ways in which marginalised or under-represented people or groups could be badly or unhelpfully portrayed. How might being an insider help combat this?
Citing the critique by Susan Sontag of the ‘touristic and anomic’ sensibility informing the work of Diane Arbus, the critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26) notes Sontag’s conclusion that ‘her [Arbus] view is always from the outside’ (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26):
This binarism … characterises — in a manner that appears virtually self-evident – two possible positions for the photographer. The insider position – in this particular context, the “good” or “virtuous” position – is understood to imply a position of engagement, participation, and privileged knowledge. Whereas the second, the outsider’s position, is taken to produce an alienated and voyeuristic relationship that heightens the distance between subject and object. Along the lines of this binerism hinges much of the debate concerned with either the ethics or the politics of various forms of photographic practice (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26).
Solomon-Godeau suggests that the work of Ed Ruscha such as ‘Every Building on the Sunset Strip’ (Ruscha, 1966) or Dan Graham’s ‘Homes of America (1965 -70)’ could be considered the ‘degree zero’ of the photographic outsider, and places in contrast ‘at the other pole of photographic representation’ the “confessional” mode represented by Larry Clarke and Nan Goldin (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26). However, the inside/outside division of photography is not a simple one as Solomon-Godeau illustrates by articulating five questions that relate to it:
… how does one gauge the difference between the photographic image made with an insider’s knowledge or investment from one made from a position of total exteriority? If the inside or outside position is taken to constitute a difference, we need to determine where the defining difference lies. In other words, is the implication … of the photographer in the world he or she represents visually manifest in the pictures that are taken, and if so, how? Are the terms of reception, or for that matter, presentation, in any way determined by position – inside or out – of the photographer making the exposure? Does the personal involvement of the photographer in a milieu, a place, a culture, and a situation dislodge the subject/object distinction that is thought to foster a flaneur-like sensibility? And what exactly is meant by the notion of “inside” in relation to an activity that is by definition about capture – with greater or lesser fidelity – of a momentary appearance? (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26).
A photographer who was accused of having an inappropriate ‘outsider’ or ‘flaneur-like sensibility ‘ (above) was Sebastião Salgado (b. 1944) when photographing the poor, starving and destitute in various parts of the world. As has often been remarked (for example Strauss, 2003: 5), one of the ways in which marginalised or under-represented people or groups could be badly or unhelpfully portrayed relates to the ‘aestheticisation of the documentary image’ (see also Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ (2003)). Salgado’s photographs were displayed in galleries of wealthy Western nations such that the critic Ingrid Sischy, after visiting such an exhibition ‘An Uncertain Grace’ in New York (which showed photographs taken of people in the refugee camps in famine-stricken Ethiopia, Chad and Mali) wrote:
Salgado is too busy with the compositional aspects of his pictures – and with finding the “grace” and “beauty” in the twisted forms of his anguished subjects. And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity towards the experience they reveal. To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action (Sischy cited in Strauss, 2003: 5).
Sischy article in the ‘New Yorker’ magazine was titled ‘Good Intensions’ (Sischy, 1991) and suggests that if the intension behind taking the photographs of desperate, starving people and children was to encourage humanitarian aid, then the result in Salgado’s case, due to the aesthetic merit of his work, was the opposite – ‘beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ (above). In other words Sischy judged the excuse of humanitarianism for maintaining the ‘alienated and voyeuristic relationship that heightens the distance between subject and object’ (Solomon-Godeau above) in the face of desperate human suffering and death as inadequate
However, the subject of aestheticisation is complex as demonstrated by a commentary on a photograph from war in Syria (see fig. 1.), which gives a view contrary to that of Sischy (above):
The picture is scathingly beautiful. Does the light that gives these desperate faces such a ruddy glow come from a fire, or truck headlights, or was it provided by the photographer? The way the mysterious illumination picks out frightened eyes and pleading expressions from surrounding darkness is positively painterly. It is like a candlelit scene by Joseph Wright of Derby or Georges de la Tour. The way the children reach out their arms and wave their shiny pots has the dramatic gestural power of Caravaggio’s paintings. But this artfulness only adds to the picture’s stark reality. Here is a photograph whose aesthetic authority deepens its shocking news. This brutally poignant picture documents a rapidly unfolding and sinister new chapter in the war … (Jones, 2012).
If the author of the above extract was to look at Salgado’s images of famine and despair would he consider that the photographs’ ‘aesthetic authority deepens its shocking news’? Perhaps the difference is that the photograph from Syria was a news photograph while Salgado’s images were viewed in the context of a gallery space, echoing Solomon-Gadeau’s question (above): ‘Are the terms of reception, or for that matter, presentation, in any way determined by position – inside or out – of the photographer making the exposure?’ (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26).
The photography of Edward S. Curtis (b. 1868) has often been cited as an example of misrepresentation of a culture and its people (Franklin, 2016: 31; Cole, 2017). Franklin (2016: 31) gives as example the photograph ‘Tearing Lodge – Piegan’ (Curtis, 1910; see fig. 2.) describing it as ‘one of the saddest examples of ‘salvage ethnography’ – ethnographic work that seeds to salvage vestiges of vanishing cultural traditions – I have seen’ (Franklin, 2016: 31). To appreciate the poverty of Curtis’ photographs the photographer and critic Teju Cole (Cole, 2017) offers a photograph taken by Horace Poolaw in 1928 (see fig. 3.):
The woman in this photograph was named Trecil Poolaw Unap, and the photographer was her brother, Horace Poolaw. They were Kiowa, born and raised in Oklahoma. Horace Poolaw made the photograph in 1928, near the beginning of a career in which he went on to become an avid photographer of Native American life. His photographs, some of which he sold at fairs, often came with a stamp: “A Poolaw Photo, Pictures by an Indian, Horace M. Poolaw, Anadarko, Okla.” It was clear that he wanted to assert that these were pictures with a particular point of view (Cole, 2017).
Cole compares this photograph of Trecil Poolaw Unap with those made by Curtis in the same decade:
Curtis’s portraits look different because they were intended for publication in “The North American Indian,” a hugely expensive and intricate photographic undertaking that occupied him for decades. The project was championed by Theodore Roosevelt and financially supported by J.P. Morgan (Cole, 2017).
as laid out in his [Curtis] introduction, was precisely the opposite of Horace Poolaw’s, and it shows: When we look at Trecil Poolaw Unap with her dog [see fig. 3.], with her ironic smile, we don’t think of her as an “illustration of an Indian character,” nor do we surmise that she is caught in some “vital phase” of her existence. A certain ease and immediacy sets her apart from the beautiful but frozen characters that populate Curtis’s work (Cole, 2017).
In the example of Curtis’ photographs above it is the intension behind the work and the audience to which it is aimed that results in the poor representation. Cole explains:
The case of Edward S. Curtis is complex. He was no dilettante: He made serious ethnographic studies of indigenous communities, from the Piegan of the Great Plains to the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. And in the 1920s in New Mexico, he became involved in political initiatives that sought to defend Native Americans against government control. But the general tenor of his work idealized Native Americans in the name of preserving vanishing ways of life. He was not above removing, through later photographic manipulation, an offending clock from a carefully arranged scene. Curtis, a knowledgeable and determined man, knew exactly how he liked his Indians (Cole 2017).
Clearly Edward S. Curtis would be classed as an ‘outsider’, and was content to be such; in contrast Horace Poolaw is an ‘insider’. Thus, the photograph of Trecil Poolaw Unap (see fig. 3.), is in the first and primary instance, of a person, and photographed by someone who knew and understood her as such. Thus this contrast between Curtis and Horace Poolaw answers in the affirmative the question put by Solomon-Godeau (above): ‘Does the personal involvement of the photographer in a milieu, a place, a culture, and a situation dislodge the subject/object distinction that is thought to foster a flaneur-like sensibility?’ (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26).
Teju Cole (Cole, 2016) gives another stark example of this ‘insider’/ ‘outsider’ dynamic. Commenting on the work of 20th century West African photographers working in commercial studios he makes the following comparison:
These photographs [by 20th century West African photographers] are ripostes to the anthropological images of “natives” made by Europeans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those photographs, in which the subject had no say in how they were seen, did much to shape the Western world’s idea of Africans. Something changed when Africans began to take photographs of one another: you can see it in the way they look at the camera, in the poses, the attitude. The difference between the images taken by the colonialists or white adventurers and those made for the sitter’s personal use is especially striking in photographs of woman. In the former, women are being looked at against their will, captive to a controlling gaze. In the latter, they look at themselves as in a mirror, an activity that always involves seriousness, levity, and an element of wonder (Cole, 2016: 129).
Again, clearly the photographers who were ‘colonialists or white adventurers’ (above) are ‘outsiders’ while the African photographers are the ‘insiders’, and the differences between the two groups of photographs as described by Cole (Cole, 2016; above) demonstrate the distorting effects of ‘outsider’ photography.
How might being an insider help combat misrepresentation?
As discussed above the personal involvement of the photographer in ‘a milieu, a place, a culture’ helps to lessen the objective sensibility that results in the framing and capturing of what is before the lens, which is often a reality which ignores a wider and deeper social or cultural context. For example the 19th century colonialist photographers produced photographs that confirmed, maintained and built what was perceived as reality – non-European non-white people as ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’. In her essay ‘Who is Speaking Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography’ the critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 169 – 183) remarks that: ‘The status of photography at its birth hinged on what was thought to be its capacity for objective transcription’ (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 169 – 183), and further states:
But what, we must ask, is the real representation? And, even more important, to what uses were these representations put? Discussing the social uses of photography, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu commented: “In stamping photography with the patent of realism, society does nothing but confirm itself in the tautological certainty that an image of reality that conforms to its own representation of objectivity is truly objective.” Accordingly, photography functions to ratify and affirm the complex ideological web that at any moment in historical time is perceived as reality tout court (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 169 – 183).
What would help combat the poor representation of people or groups is if both photographers and viewers (including allied institutions such as newspapers, galleries) were more aware of the limitations of the photographer’s lens and the distortions it can bring to the capture or rendering of ‘reality’, indeed that photography can, as well as challenging, also collude in creating and maintaining a consensual political or social reality, a reality that is usually to the detriment of marginalised people or groups.
Cole, Teju (2016) Known and Strange Things. London: Faber & Faber
Cole, Teju (2017) ‘Getting Others Right’ In: The New York Times [online] At: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/magazine/getting-others-right.html?emc=edit_tnt_20170626&nlid=65025190&tntemail0=y&mtrref=undefined (Accessed on 11.09.17)
Franklin, Stuart (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon
Jones, Jonathan (2012) ‘Syria: a scathingly beautiful photograph of the edge of starvation’ In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/14/syria-scathingly-beautiful-photograph-edge-starvation (Accessed on 11.09.17)
Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intensions’ In: The New Yorker, September, pp. 93 – 95
Solomon-Godeau, Abigail (2017) ‘Inside/Out’ In: Parsons (ed.) Photography after Photography: Gender, Genre, History. London: Duke University Press. pp. 10 – 26
Solomon-Godeau, Abigail (1991) ‘Who is Speaking Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography’. In: Photography at the Dock. Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 169 – 183
Sontag, Susan 92003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin Books
Strauss, David Levi (2003) Between the Eyes. Essays on Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture
Figure 1. Maysun/EPA (2012) Displaced Syrians wait for the daily distribution of food outside the northern city of Azaz, on the border between Syria and Turkey. At: https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/About/General/2012/12/14/1355487834810/Syrian-food-crisis-008.jpg?w=620&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=ef25a0f80539599d2f77a207a80f5675 (Accessed on 11.09.17)
Figure 2. Curtis, Edward S. (1910) Tearing Lodge – Piegan. At: http://www.lifeforcemagazine.com/may2016/index_htm_files/91930.jpg (Accessed on 11.09.17)
Figure 3. Poolaw, Horace (1928) Trecil Poolaw Unap. At: https://static01.nyt.com/images/2017/06/18/magazine/18onphoto1/18onphoto1-master1050-v2.jpg (Accessed on 11.09.17)