20 August 2008

On the Ethics of Representation III: "Women Are Heroes"

Yes, indeed, they are. And the large concept here is an interesting one. This is a follow up on the immediately prior post. With suggestions from a couple very helpful comments I discovered that the photo from The Guardian is showing part of a project by a young French photographer JR (he uses this pseudonym because his projects are sometimes "unauthorized") which he calls Women Are Heroes, at least part of which is being carried out in conjunction with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. See this story and interview at lensculture.

I am interested in ways of photographers use their images, in particular the ways they display and circulate them (e.g., [0], [1], [2], [3]). And this project resonates in an interesting way with Alfredo Jaar's The Eyes of Gutete Emerita which was one component of his Rwanda Projects through which he sought to convey the trauma of the genocide and express solidarity with its victims.

I have discussed Jaar's work elsewhere numerous times ~ [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] ~ and will not do so again here. But he relies on this image and displays or withholds it in a variety of mostly personal, indeed intimate ways none of which have the communal aspect toward which JR apparently is striving. I return to that in a moment. First consider JR's focus on the eyes of his subjects.

The first of these three images (all from JR's website and © the artist) depicts part of the project in Providencia (Rio de Janeiro) that sparked my curiosity on the first place. The next two are from earlier installations in Liberia and Sierra Leone, respectively. Each pair of eyes is a detail from the portrait of a particular woman. I think this (apparently increasing, if you watch the video trailer on the Women are Heroes web site) preoccupation is quite powerful. And the scale at which he is working amplifies the impact considerably. Whereas Jaar often worked in miniature (piles of individual slides) or brief flashes (in light boxes), JR is working in what is a characteristically expansive mode.

In the African countries JR has been working with women in "post conflict" contexts, in Brazil he is working with women who've lost loved ones in the drug wars. His stated aim is to provoke questions and to prompt viewers to interpret the images for themselves. The obvious question here is ~ to what end? (For example, Amos Oz thinks that Israelis and Palestinians "understand" one another just fine and simply need to work out an agreement in what is essentially a real estate dispute.*) Questions arise, too, about his relationship to his subjects. For instance, in "post conflict" situations where societies remain unsettled, are his subjects placing themselves at risk by participating? And questions arise too about the extent to which communities are involved in the implementation of the projects. Are these installations planned and underwritten by local organizations and artists or by NGOs? (The anonymous commenter on my last post prompted these questions. in light of JR's professed aim to take his Women are Heroes project on to several sites in South and Southeast Asia. )

I do not know enough about JR or his projects to offer answers to those questions. So, for now at least, it seems like time to suspend judgment.
*For a look at one of JR's earlier projects in Israel/Palestine see FACE 2 FACE.

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