20 October 2008

Cheka Kidogo

"I think we have become anaesthetised to traditional photographs of conflict victims. By applying my celebrity portraiture style of photography to the survivors ... I have tried to get beyond the statistics and show the human side of the conflict." ~ Rankin
This is another of the posts I write periodically that likely will draw the ire of good-hearted readers. The Guardian today ran this announcement of a London exhibition of a project underwritten by Oxfam and undertaken by fashion /celebrity photographer Rankin. I have criticized Rankin (and others like him) on several occasions - for instance, here and here. Oxfam apparently brought Rankin to the refugee camp at Mugunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where he took celebrity-style portraits of some of the nearly 20,000 people who inhabit the camp. You can see some of the results in the panel at right; there are other examples here at the Oxfam web page (just above the advert for the Oxfam credit card issued by The Cooperative Bank)..

The project obviously seems well-intentioned. It is entitled Cheka Kidogo, which, in Swahili, means "Laugh a Little." And many of the portraits are indeed touching. Why am I criticizing it? It is not just that I've never doubted that people can experience and express joy even under extremely dire circumstances. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag criticized Sebastião Salgado for his Migrations project for including images of individuals without naming them. Here is Sontag:
"A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite type of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights. Taken in thirty-nine countries, Salado’s migration pictures group together, under this single heading, a host of different causes and kinds of distress. Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to think that they ought to “care” more. It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be changed by any local political intervention. With a subject conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder - and make abstract."
Now, I think Sontag is remarkably wrong about Salgado and about much else as well. Put aside the hypocrisy of Susan Sontag (celebrity) who had a long term relationship with Annie Leibovitz (celebrity photographer) denouncing our contemporary "cult of celebrity." Notice, though, that the Oxfam/Rankin undertaking falls prey to her basic complaint. It simply assumes that everyone can be a celebrity - or at least everyone can be treated as one. That in no way addresses the source of the ongoing war and dislocation in the DRC. The task - and it is a political task, not a philanthropic or humanitarian one - is to identify and implement effective ways of settling the conflict and provide the population with the basic security necessary to begin pursuing normal lives. What we need to do, in other words, is not treat displaced people as celebrities, as though that is a proper aspiration, but as ordinary people who are bearing the burden of carnage and mayhem. How such depictions might inform a movement for social and political change is a perennial problem. I have no quick answer to the difficult questions involved. But I am fairly certain that the Oxfam/Rankin undertaking will do nothing in that regard.

In the comment at the top of the post, Rankin tacitly criticizes "traditional photographs of conflict victims." He does not identify any particular work or photographers. One might compare, though, the contributions to this project that members of the photo agency VII took on in collaboration with Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres several years ago. I have criticisms of much of that work. But I wonder about the fairly common worry Rankin expresses that photographs of pain and suffering anesthetize viewers. That is a big topic, however.

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Blogger Michal said...

I have just returned from working in Liberia as a photo-journalist for an NGO. I am a trained visual artist and sort of fell into this role. I was so disturbed by the way the organisation went about "exploiting" the people it helped by not really allowing them the dignity to be anonymous and NOT be photographed or used in ad campaigns. Despite being there for 7 months, I quickly stopped photographing and writing stories for the NGO and managed to assume other side stories.

But the importance of what was happening in a country where 14 years of civil war had ravaged the entire culture and an entire generation knew nothing but death, somehow wouldn't let me rest.

I slowly got to know different people over my time there. I made genuine friends with them, asked them to share their stories, and sometimes just held their hand if they didn't speak English. Then I would ask them if I could paint/draw a portrait of them. Some would say no, but many would say yes. It was a slow process in which they too were involved. I scrawled personal thoughts they had and details on the surface. I would give them each a full size print out of the piece. At the end of my stay I had an exhibition in Monrovia, Liberia and invited those I could to come. I knew then that the entire process and the final culmination had given them dignity that they had so long gone without when I saw that they were the stars of the show, not me. I stood back and let them take the limelight.

I remember one young 14 year old boy I painted who was difficult to get to know, as any teenager can be. One of his friends told me that he believed all foreigners came to take pictures of how poor they were.

I experienced a reversal in Liberia when some foreign UN troops were sauntering along the beach. They saw us (Western women in bathing suits swimming) and began openly taking pictures (sometimes awkwardly close). It was a strange sensation to be on display as though I lacked depth and therefore must not notice or mind. I thought of all the Westerners I had seen doing exactly the same thing to Liberians, Malawians, etc. Everyone thinks everyone else is exotic and wants to capture it on digital imagery so that we can all go back to communities with other people like ourselves and say, "look at what I saw and experienced in person".

20 October, 2008 15:35  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Actually, I think it's great for survivors to have a record of themselves where they're as happy, optimistic, and carefree as any other human can possibly be- and be able to readily share that with others as well. It's a therapeutic and necessary snapshot of the hope that still resides within them.

Man, being man, we will continue to visit such indescribable atrocities on our fellow human beings- and god knows how much worse and frequent it would be if we did not have the photographic documentation of such acts and their after effects on human society as reminders, and warnings.

Needless to say, there isn't a book, photo essay, or film that could ever comprehensively portray what many of these survivors have already endured, and will continue to endure every single day of their lives.

20 October, 2008 21:36  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Michal, Thanks for your comment. I think the last bit about being photographed is quite insightful. And, your grandma's cookie recipe seems terrific too!

Stan, I think you are right about people having pictures of themselves smiling. Do you think Rankin provided portraits to the people he photographed? I'd be surprised. He was there to make photos for an Oxfam fund drive of some sort. And his comments in The Guardian piece about being energized seems to capture the enterprise. Maybe I'm just too critical though. JJ

20 October, 2008 21:56  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Jesus Jim! Cynical bugger that I am (and rightfully so), even I can't contemplate Rankin being that sociopathic, or the good people of OXFAM that hypocritical (if only for their own respective reps) to risk stiffing these guys after all they've been through...

And I hate portraits of people smiling!

Fortunately, this aint Halliburton feeding our troops tainted food and having them unknowingly bathe in and drink purposely untreated, contaminated, parasite infested water.

20 October, 2008 23:27  

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