28 September 2005

Blueeyes Magazine

Among the commonplaces that pop up in many analyses of contemporary photography is that the decline of big mass-market, illustrated magazines has left a void. Photographers, especially those who work in "documentary" modes, so the story goes, simply face a severely constrained market for their work. This analysis clearly seems accurate. The appearance of specialized photography magazines like Aperture or Foto8, despite their virtues, hardly compensates.

How might this void be filled in a more accessible way? One innovative effort is Blueeyes Magazine, an on-line project edited by photographer John Loomis. According to the submission guidelines: "The magazine will likely publish mostly documentary project work - but as we have demonstrated, we are open to all kinds of photography, as long as it has a point of view and something to say. One of our main goals is to try and expand the definition of what is considered as 'documentary.'" The site has a slick design and you can access it for free. More importantly, the work it presents is of uniformly high quality. Blueeyes currently is on "summer" hiatus with the promise to be back. I can only hope John perseveres!

Having said all that, I want to offer John (and others) a push. It seems to me that received notions of "documentary" ought to be tossed overboard altogether. As Alan Tractenberg makes clear (Reading American Photographs, pages 175-99) our common conception is part of a "polarized language" bequeathed to us by those who wanted to insure that photography is an "art" that could be treated as such by curators. But as Trachtenberg points out this language hardly accounts for the aesthetic dimensions of work by "documentary" photographers like Lewis Hine and Walker Evans let alone, say, Salgado and Nachtwey. And it gives contemporary critics trapped in dichotomous ways of thinking mental cramps when they see "documentary" work that departs in one or another way from naive realism. Finally, the conventional dicihotomy of "Camera Work/Social Work" (Trachtenberg) , I suspect, is a standing hinderance to our ability to think through the problem of getting photography out of the galleries, the museums, and the specialized glossy magazines. What exactly does this mean? I am not at all sure. If we are concerned with the politics of photography, though, we ought to be concerned with its uses, not with whether it conforms to some dichotomous categorization.

By the way, my favorite contribution to Blueeyes probably is "Raising Helena" (Lissa Gotwals). You can find it in the Archives. The essay raises all sorts of quesitons for those who wonder (or ought to) about the exigencies of military service and the nature of "family values."

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27 September 2005

Images of Child Labor

I came across a website "Images of Child Labor" that raises all sorts of pressing issues. The website is part of a project "Child Labor in the Global Village: Photography for Social Change" directed by photographer Julia Dean (http://www.juliadean.com/). It has run in tandem with a series of exhibitions that began in (at least) 1999 and parts of which are still showing. The site features work from a half-dozen photographers (several others worked on the project) each of whom depicts a particular dimension of the issue of child labor from a different geographical location.
  • Ernesto Bazan (Cuba) portrays a 13 year old Peruvian girl, Miriam, who works in Huacipa making bricks;
  • Gigi Cohen (USA) portrays Josimene, a ten year old Haitian girl, who works as a domestic servant or restavec for a wealthier family in Port-au-Prince;
  • Brian Finke (USA) portrays Sankar, a young boy who lives in the train station at Bhubaneswar, India who supports himself selling bottled water to passengers;
  • Judy Walgren (USA) portrays the trafficing of young girls at the Nepal-India border and the streets they subsequently work as prostitutes;
  • Jon Warren (USA) records the work of several children (siblings and cousins - boys names Kayrith, 14, and Ratha, 12, and girls named Minea, 10 and Thavara, 11) from a family scavanging in a dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia;
  • Clarence Williams (USA) depicts teenage boys - exemplified by Ntirandekura, age 16 - who are pressed into military service at the Muramvya Training Camp in Burundi by the dire alternative of life in refugee camps.

Several things are notable about the page. First, the photography is in each instance striking. My complaint is that the page gives us only three images from each photo essay and none at all from the other photographers who contributed to the project. Second, in nearly every instance the children are named. This affords viewers a sense of identification with the subject of each photo essay. It also raises the question of whether such identification is something that projects such as this ought to strive for. As a general rule I think this is ill-advised insofar as it encourages viewers to embrace a de-politicizing compassion and risk as well its vicissitudes (e.g., pity, resentment, despair). On the other hand photogrpahers face an ethical imperative to treat individuals as subjects. (One might here recall the criticisms Susan Sontag levelled at Sebastiao Salgado's Migrations project.) This is a bind. Third, the contribution where the subject of the photo esssay is not named is Judy Walgren's work on trafficking in sex workers. This raises ethical matters of anonymity that are extremely important and well-handled here. Finally, in addition to the photographs, the site has a long page of "Frequently Asked Questions" about the nature and extent of child labor as well as various policies that might alleviate it. The informative answers to thes questions refer to various NGOs who work on child labor issues.

The page reminded me of a paper by philosopher Debra Satz ("Child Labor: A Normative Persepctive," World Bank Economic Review 17(2):297-309, 2003) that I recently read. I highly recommend this paper (and all of Debra's other writings on markets of various sorts.) Satz helped me formulate additional questions and insights that implicitly are raised by the contributors to this photography project. We may find child labor objectionable, but not all child labor is alike. Satz urges us to make creful discriminations. There clearly is a difference between the circumstances of children who are compelled, directly or indirectly, into prostitution or military service and those of children, like the Peruvian girl Miriam, who work making bricks. If all child labor is potentially dangerous, some is more obviously and directly so than others. Likewise, there is a difference between children, again like Miriam or the Cambodian boys and girls, who reside with their families and those like the Haitian girl Josimene who must leave her family to take up positions as domestic workers. If all child labor is potentially exploitative, some is more so than others. Whereas Miriam may (may!) actually be participating in something resembling a functioning a labor market, it seems much more likely that Josimene is or will fall into one or another category of forced labor. This is an example where markets (however imperfect) are preferable to the alternatives, if only because they are somewhat more transparent and so leave those who enter them somewhat less susceptible to exploitation. Finally, the page makes clear that Miriam is in school at least part time. So too are some of the boys who live in the train station at Bhubanesewar. And the young Cambodian girl Thavara also expressed the desire to go to school. All this highlights especially dire trade-offs between the immediate economic hardship of children and families versus the documented longer term benefits (individual, social and political) of education. It highlights too the fact that child labor (espcially in its most objectionable forms) often is symptomatic of underlying social, economic and political inequities. The remedies we suggest to child labor therefore must be, as Satz, reminds us, sensitive to these deeper exigencies and trajectories.

Gigi Cohen's contribution to the Images of Child Labor project are on exhibit through late October 2005 as part of Moving Walls 10 at the Open Society Institute in NYC. http://www.soros.org/initiatives/photography/focus_areas/mw/10

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26 September 2005

Beauty & Photographs of Suffering: An Initial Salvo

Among the themes I plan to address here is the place of beauty in photography and especially in the practice of photographers who depict hardship and suffering. This topic comes up regularly in criticism of, say Sebastiao Salgado or James Nachtwey, two photographers whose work I admire, both of whom, despite what I consider the significant differences in their work, are accused of "beautifying" or "aestheticizing" the suffering caused by war, famine, forced dislocation, and other large-scale political undertakings.

Today, I want to simply offer a brief passage from T. W. Adorno (not among my favorite theorists) that speaks to the predicament that lies at the juncture of politics and photography. Writing of Schoenberg's work Survivor of Warsaw, Adorno puts his finger on the problem.

"There is something embarrassing in Schoenberg's composition - not what arouses anger in Germany, the fact that it prevents people from repressing from memory what they at all costs want to repress - but the way in which, by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them. The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization, and even the solemn prayer of the chorus, make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice."

The relationships between beauty, art, and politics are complicated in ways I cannot address at the moment. By naming the problem in this way, though, Adorno resolutely challenges those who complain about, for instance, the beauty in Salgado's or Nachtwey's photographs. Doing justice is not a simple thing. We should not allow our own shame, discomfort, or resentment lead us to think otherwise.

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25 September 2005

Exhibition - Democratic Republic of the Congo: The Forgotten War

VII Photo Agency & Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders have collaborated on this exhibition that runs 22 September - 8 October, 2005 in NYC. The full press release appears at: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/events/VII/pressrelease.htm

Issa Touma


This is Syrian photographer Issa Touma (I lifted the image from www.fotofest.org). Earlier today I posted an entry inspired by a picture by of his. It turns out that Syrian authorities are once again suppressing his gallery in Aleppo.

You can find details here: http://www.merip.org/touma.html.

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The Arithmetic of Compassion

In an on-line obituary for Susan Sontag, the critic Rebecca Solnit remarks of Sontag's writings on photography - "What is now most striking about Sontag's argument is that it is not so much about photography but about compassion, an emotion and an ethic that photographs can awaken or undermine."

You can find Solnit's text at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=2095. As always Solnit has proved perceptive. For Sontag is preoccupied with compassion. She is not alone. The same preoccupation emerges, if somewhat less obsessively, as central to the comments that critics like John Berger and Martha Rosler make regarding the aims of documentary photography. Indeed, Solnit herself concludes by endorsing comassion as a reponse to distant suffering. But compassion, as Hannah Arendt rightly notes, is de-politicizing and I think it is a major mistake to identify the aim of documentary photography as eliciting compassion in viewers. How is compassion de-politicizing? Two ways. First, insofar as it demands that we identify with the suffering of some other, compassion collapses the space for argument which is a basic medium of politics. Second, compassion focuses resolutely on individual suffering and so cannot generalize to the large numbers of people who are subject to war, famine, dislocation and so forth. What photographs might more properly aim for is establishing solidarity. But that would require rethinking many of the conventions of documentary practice.

I make this argument at length in a paper entitled "'The Arithmetic of Compassion': Rethinking the Politics of Photography." You can find a link to this paper in the sidebar thanks to my friend Henry Farrell.

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The Political Landscape I

© Issa Touma

Here is a link to a recent npr story on Syrian photographer Issa Touma:

The photograph above is a picture of his, lifted from the npr gallery, that prompts questions about the link between politics and photography. This is a detail of a cityscape of Touma's home town of Aleppo. The photo was taken from above so as to reveal the satellite dishes that have proliferated on rooftops across the city.

As the npr commentary makes clear this is a political image. It does not, however, portray an "event" and so lacks some of the drama we find in, say, Josef Koudelka's famous photographic record of Warsaw Pact troops invading Prague in 1968. But nor is it as bleak and inert as the various environments Koudelka portrays in the images he later collected in Chaos (Phaidon, 1999). So how is it political?

One might think of this as an instance of "the political landscape" - a phrase on whose ambiguities I was prompted to reflect by the following passage:
"I think we often forget that battlefields are one kind of landscape and that most landscapes also are territories. That is to say, they have political as well as aesthetic dimensions; on the small scale they involve real estate and sense of place, on the large scale they involve nationalisms, war and the grounds for ethnic identity. Part of what is exciting about the artwork I have been attending too is that it portrays nature and landscape as not just where we picnic but also where we live and die. It is where our food, water, fuel and minerals come from, where our nuclear waste and shit and garbage go to. It is the territory of dreams, somebody’s homeland and somebody’s goldmine." (Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent, University of Georgia Press, 2001, pages 10-11.)
Touma's landscape is political not in the sense that it captures some monumental battle or its aftermath; instead it is political because it reveals ongoing conflict between an authoritarian regime and citizenry. One might invoke here something like Jim Scott's "weapons of the weak." In so doing though we need not romanticize the situation and presume that what each household "tunes in" to is anything other than the mundane, commercial media about which we here in the west rightly complain. But we surely can see that resistance occurs largely out of sight, and thank photographers like Touma for revealing it to us and, more importantly, to Syrians who are sure to gain sustenance from the knowledge that many oif their neighbors too are looking beyond the range of official culture.

The exhibit that npr reported on is now at the Aperture Foundation in NYC.

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24 September 2005

My Review of David Levi Strauss, Between the Eyes

This is a review I published in afterimage (March/April 2004). In my view Levi Strauss has a much surer sense of the relations of photography & politics than does Susan Sontag whose Regarding the Pain of Others appeared at roughly the same time. Aperture has just brought the book out in paperback.

*****

BETWEEN THE EYES: ESSAYS ON PHOTOGRAPHY AND POLITICS
By David Levi Strauss.
Introduction by John Berger.
New York: Aperture 2003/ $29.95 (hb).

In this volume David Levi Strauss assembles 18 provocative essays he published between 1986 and 2002. He wrote some of the essays in response to but others more in collaboration with members of a seemingly disparate group of contemporary photographers including Sebastiao Salgado, Richard Cross, John Hoagland, Joel-Peter Witkin, Bobby Neel Adams, Jim Goldberg, Alfredo Jaar, Miguel Rio Branco, Ania Bien, Francesca Woodman, and Hannah Villager. The essays are unified by his concerted effort to elaborate a view of photography as a tool, a "means of communication," and Levi Strauss repeatedly invokes John Berger to that effect. This view, in turn, allows Levi Strauss to articulate conceptions of "aesthetics" and "politics" that establish them as thoroughly and reciprocally interpenetrating.

Levi Strauss is not naive. He clearly sees that under the best of circumstances photography can only very inadequately communicate the violence, deprivation, devastation and dislocation that pervade our political-economic arrangements. He also clearly sees that our current circumstances are hardly auspicious. For Levi Strauss, a central challenge for contemporary photographers consists in the fact that any potential audience is continuously assaulted by a glut of images. He characterizes the environment we inhabit as a media "pandemonium," which he means in its root sense as "the place of all howling demons." In these circumstances photography is subject to ongoing threat because its usefulness as a means of communication is dissipated by the ubiquitous campaigns to which commercial advertisers, political propagandists, military strategists, among others enlist it. As a result photographers face a complex political task. They not only must try to communicate such complex realities as political repression, war, famine, homelessness, and genocide, they also, and at the same time, must constantly struggle to devise strategies to resuscitate the very instruments--photographic images--with which they seek to communicate.

It is in this more basic struggle that aesthetic resources emerge as truly indispensable. Here, of course, Levi Strauss enters a very treacherous terrain. It is now commonplace among critics that photographers risk subverting their own intended social or political messages if the images they produce are overly aestheticized. The perceived risk is that the photographers' "subjective" and sometimes artistic pretensions will divert any viewer's attention from the "objective" realities they mean to capture in their images.

Levi Strauss counters this commonplace with two of his own. He first reminds us that photographs are useful, perhaps uniquely so, just to the extent that they accrue what he calls an "aura of believability." This aura embodies the presumption among viewers that photographic images "represent the actual." People exploit this presumption as they use photographs to negotiate the social and political world. Individuals, for instance, often use photographs to "construct identities," while government officials, military spokesmen, advertisers, news purveyors, politicians and their consultants, and others pursue their own aims on a larger scale. In the process those who use photography subvert or replenish its believability and hence its capacity to communicate. Levi Strauss thus also reminds us that "The first question must always be: Who is using this photograph, and to what end?" In any instance what is at stake is not just the truth or objectivity or actuality of some particular image, even if these indeed often are at stake as well, but the very usefulness of photography itself.

Levi Strauss makes this clear in discussing several of the photographers mentioned above. He makes it clear, for example, in his discussion of how exceptional working photo-journalists like Richard Cross and John Hoagland reflectively sought to distance themselves and their work from the uses various "news" outlets made of their photographs in different contexts. He makes it clear in his analysis of how Joel-Peter Witkin's phantasmagorical images trade on the presumptive believability of photographs to disturb viewers in ethical as much as aesthetic ways. He makes it especially clear in his essay on the successive incarnations of Alfredo Jaar's Rwanda Projects. This essay, arguably the centerpiece of the book, details Jaar's tireless struggle over several years to communicate to Americans and Europeans their complicity in the hor rors of Rwandan genocide. In his presentations, according to Levi Strauss, Jaar relies on aesthetic means to viscerally convey that horror and complicity in ways that aim simultaneously to "recover the image from the obscurity into which it has been cast" by the turpitude of political elites, the moral indifference of Western publics, and the sensory onslaught of contemporary media. Finally, Levi Strauss makes this clear in two essays on Sebastiao Salgado. In these essays he stresses that Salgado, too, seeks to establish the complicity we denizens of the developed world bear for the ongoing cruelty and exploitation he depicts among workers and refugees in the "developing" world. Although critics regularly assail his images as overly aestheticized, Salgado, as Levi Strauss insists, is often working in the subjunctive, in the realm of possibilities as much as the world of the actual. In this sense Salgado's photographic projects contribute, or at least aspire to contribute, to our capacity to imagine new "collective subjectivities."

Readers, of course, may contest any, maybe all, of these interpretations. To my mind though, Levi Strauss persuasively presents Cross, Hoagland, Witkin, Jaar and Salgado (and others) as intentionally adopting aesthetic strategies that will help them "find new ways to reinvest images with believability." As with any purposeful project, there is in all this a substantial, ongoing risk of failure. Intentionality couples attempt and achievement. The former in no way insures the latter. Photography is especially susceptible to this risk insofar as it is "a complex act of communication," a negotiation that includes at least the photographers, their subjects, actual and potential viewers, and those who subsequently might use any given photograph. By adopting self-consciously aesthetic strategies the photographers Levi Strauss discusses are seeking less to actively compete on terms set by the forces of pandemonium than "to change the rules of engagement, to engage the audience differently." Their aims are political insofar as they resist the surfeit and speed of images to which we are subject by compelling us to slow down, to take time to see, to think, to imagine. By insisting that we approach photography as a means of communication, Levi Strauss also hopes to get us to appreciate that the uses to which different agents put it and conundrums that result from their projects afford an especially perspicuous vantage point from which to approach the intimate intersection of aesthetics and politics.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Visual Studies Workshop

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Resources: Susie Linfield

Linfield is on the faculty of the Cultural Reporting & Criticism Program at the NYU School of Journalism. Over the past several years she and has written a series of perceptive review essays in Dissent and Boston Review. In particular she is concerned with the impact that photographs suffering and cruelity induced by war and political oppression have on viewers. Here is a list of some of her essays:

"A Witness to Murder: Looking at Photographs of the Condemned," Boston Review (September/October 2005).

"The Dance of Civilizations: The West, the East, and Abu Ghraib," Dissent (Winter 2005).

"Robert Capa’s Hope : Capturing the Good Fight," Boston Review (April/May 2005).

"Photographing Cruelty" Boston Review (Summer 2004).

"Memuna, Almost Smiling: Looking at a Photograph of Suffering" Dissent (Spring 2004).

"Beyond the Sorrow & the Pity" Dissent (Winter 2001).

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Resources: Imaging Famine

This is the link to an extremely provocative web page that was mounted in tandem with an exhibit in Londan last month. The reflexive quality of the site is exemplary - asking how the ways we frame famines (and, by extension, other politically engineered catastrophes) photographically constrains the range of possible response to them. I hope to write more on this in a subsequent post.