10 April 2008

Disappearing the Poor

Alfredo Jaar Lights in the City, (Public Project)
Mois De La Photo. Montreal, Canada 2000.

In the sidebar I've included this well-known comment by Wim Wenders:
"The most political decision you make is where you direct people's eyes. In other words, what you show people, day in and day out, is political. . . . And the most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show her, every day, that there can be no change." ~ Wim Wenders
The passage came to mind this morning when I read this column in The Guardian by Jeremy Seabrook entitled "Disappearing the Poor." Although he speaks mostly of the media in India (and by extension, other developing countries), I suspect Seabrook's remarks hold true too of the mainstream media in, say, the U.S.. (Finding out in a systematic way whether his charges hold a nice and very useful empirical project.) In any case, here are some of the good bits from the column:
The poor have become peripheral figures, with scarcely walk-on parts in the great drama of liberalisation. All that is known is that those living below the fanciful economic latitudes designated by "the poverty line" are being reduced. Poverty is clearly a mop-up operation, and will eventually be abolished by the rising tide which, as everyone knows, lifts all boats. This is an automatic consequence of economic growth. If the poor scarcely appear in the media, is this because their destiny is to become, if not rich, at least no-longer-poor? [. . .]

It may also be that the media vanishing trick prefigures something far more sinister, preparatory, perhaps, to more material disappearances. For their persistent presence remains a spectre at the global feast. What an agreeable place the world is - or would be - without them: nothing to mar the smiling imagery of plenty, the abundance of the display window and the publicity machine, the shopping mall and the showroom, the wall-to-wall entertainment and TV channels of endless music and laughter. [. . .]

Their embarrassing presence evokes an archaic world, in which humanity creates its own shelter out of industrial debris, scrapes a living off the garbage heaps of abundance, recycles the discarded goods of others, lives a pinched and frugal existence. In other words, the poor offer a ghastly example of meagre resource-use and compulsory austerity in a context where excess and extravagance are now the norm. No wonder they are increasingly intrusive: they embody our worst nightmare - this could also be our fate when the oil is exhausted, the taps run dry, the world overheats, the seas rise and the deserts encroach ...

Some poor people have also internalised a sense of their own redundancy; and, only too eager to comply with this assessment of their worth, have obligingly rid the world of their presence. At least 140,000 farmers in India committed suicide between 1997 and 2007, almost certainly an underestimate, because the social shame of this cause of death impels many families to conceal it. These suicides are generally attributed to indebtedness: that people can be made to take responsibility for what are clearly socially-induced traumas suggests that the poor have become less capable of resisting personal culpability for the effects of economic forces over which they have no control.
[. . .]

In the perpetual artificial sunshine of the technosphere, within the global gated community in which all the inhabitants are rich, the poor have already ceased to exist. But it is one thing to banish them from the enchanted islands of plenty, that virtual reality of the fantasists of wealth, but quite another to erase them from a material world in which they remain an obdurate majority. Their refusal to go quietly into the oblivion for which they are apparently destined is likely to take unpredictable and malignant forms; since they are the footsoldiers of the militias, Maoists, mafiosi and militants who have flooded the spaces evacuated by governments for whom the poor no longer count.
What, of course, is interesting about Seabrook's remarks is that they assess the effects of media strategies - not showing the poor - on multiple audiences. For the wealthy, well, we simply don't need to avert our eyes anymore. How convenient! But for the poor themselves, invisibility leaves, or signals, as Seabrook indicates, a set of extremely dire choices. Wenders rightly leads us to expect as much. Having been spared the burden of averting our eyes, we wealthy will no doubt express great shock if, as Seabrook suggests, the poor reappear in various guises as "footsoldiers."

Having said all that, we confront a real problem: How, by what strategies of depiction and representation, might we render the poor visible in a way that is not voyeuristic or otherwise exploitative? I will return to that difficulty in the near future.



Blogger Tom White said...

There are many problems regarding the representation of the poor by photographers. As someone who has photographed people living in absolute poverty I find it troubling that I 'have' while they 'have not'. Even though I regard myself by no means monetarily wealthy this assessment of my finances means nothing when compared to those who have literally nothing except what they carry on their back. There is only one way I can morally justify my photographing these people and that is by treating them as people. I will talk to people, explain the reasons I wish to photograph them and ask permission. Occasionally I don't do this, especially if the person is sleeping (would you want your sleep disturbed by a photographer?) but on the whole I do and the response is often positive. Just because you're poor doesn't mean you are also unintelligent or in some other way humanly inferior. This I think is an attitude many people have, and therein lies many of the problems. Of course I over-simplify the issue but in my experience many of the accusations of voyeurism and exploitation can be countered through interaction and collaboration.

10 April, 2008 23:21  

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