"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." ~ RankinThis 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.