07 February 2009

Missed Opportunity ~ Julio Bittencourt

God forbid that photographers heave overboard the vacuous clichés about capturing 'human dignity' and actually engage with people and the politics they engage in on their own terms! And god forbid that reputable publications stop letting photographers get away with the diversionary tactics.

Today The Guardian ran this short piece on a new book by Brazilian photographer Julio Bittencourt entitled In A Window Of Prestes Maia 911 Building (Dewi Lewis). I've not seen the book. You can find some of Bittencourt's photographs here. I suppose the notice in The Guardian is what now passes for a review of this project. It certainly displays not a wit of critical judgment.

The building in question was an abandoned 22 story skyscraper in São Paulo. It was occupied by hundreds of families organized by the Homeless Movement of Central São Paulo. The residents coordinated their own community life in many ways and resisted the government's efforts to evict them. That sounds pretty political to me: a group of people get together and collectively pursue a solution that will meet their need for a basic necessity and then defend themselves against those who don't like what they've done. Why couldn't Bittencourt acknowledge any of that? Instead he diminishes the people and their achievement, seemingly transforming a vital political movement into a human interest story.

This becomes clear as Bittencourt recites the trite justifications of non-committal documentary work. Here is how The Guardian notice ends:
The squat was always intended as a protest as well as a place to live, and it succeeded. Most of the squatters have been rehoused or compensated by the government. For Bittencourt, however, it was never a political project: it was about the people he met. "I wanted to show them in a different way. Even though the walls are dingy, you see a lot of dignity from the people."
Instead of agents seeking to fend for themselves and their compatriots by making claims on resources and on the state, we instead get bearers of abstract human dignity. You might think this is simply another of my tired left-wing efforts to find some political dimension everywhere. But go ahead and google "homeless movement Brazil." You'll get a sense of just how far out of his way Bittencourt has to go in order to divert attention from the politics involved. You don't need to read about the ongoing movements among landless and homeless in Brazil in any of the links to wacky leftist publications (although you can - should - do that too). You can simply have a look here at the BBC News. Among the photographs accompanying that story you'll find this unattributed image:

The residents hang banners stating their human rights
on the outside of the building.

In order to make his photographs Bittencourt must've had to walk right under these banners or ones pretty much like them. As he tells The Guardian "I spent three months studying the interior and exterior, the light, the windows, and getting to know the residents." I wonder how he could've gotten to know the residents without really listening to what they were saying.

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Blogger Dawei_in_Beijing said...

It seems that in Brazil homeless people are considered terrorists!


08 February, 2009 02:58  
Blogger klaus said...

Hi Dawei,

My name is Julio Bittencourt and I'm the photographer who shot this work at Prestes Maia 911 building.

A friend of mine just sent me your post on the book, or mainly on a few lines from a magazine and I would just like to give you my answer, not from a few edited lines.

Obviously you don't know me and first I would like to say that I respect your point of view on this.

I've been following these social movements in Brazil for a few years now and this work only was made in two years, there are a few others going on.

Having said this, I think it's kind of obvious that right or wrong I do identify with their cause, fight and struggle or I wouldn't spend years of my life as a photographer following such story. Just think it's a 'safe place' to give an interview to anyone 'holding this flag', it's usually what many people do. Not only regarding this particular subject but global warming and so on..

I do have my political views but sincerely don't think I need to make them public. The project itself is a statement. Should talk by itself. I'm a photographer, not a writer nor a 'speecher' .

The work yes is public and should make people think, and in my opinion not have me, just a photographer act like I'm the biggest defender of this or any other cause. Again, obviously, I shoot and follow stories that interest me and that I think are important, but I don't have the pretension to save the world with my photos but really show them. Hopefully they can change some things as it has happened here on a few occasions with the residents from this particular building. The movement and the people's stories do interest me for many different reasons but my political views regarding this or any other subject I rather discuss with them, my family and friends.
The photographs and book are public and should be commented as you did in your blog. My political views you'll probably never hear of, but see.

Just think you should be more careful when judging people you don't know, even more from a few lines in a magazine. Who knows, maybe one day we could sit down and I could tell you some stories about this and other similar works, these people and important social movements as this and the relations I have with them.


08 February, 2009 21:22  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for replying. I appreciate both your taking the time to do so and your candor. I'll offer a couple of comments in reply.

First, I acknowledge in the post that I've not seen your book. But I have seen a significant selection of the work it contains both on your own web page and on another - to both of which I link directly. Readers can go and see for themselves. So, yes, while I am using a passage from a short piece in The Guardian to make a point, it is simply not the case that I've not seen your work.

Second, I am not questioning your political views and commitments. You obviously are entitled to hold and express (or not) whatever views you choose. What I noted is how the politics of the people whom you photograph has disappeared in the way you portray them. Clearly that is your choice. But it is a choice with consequences and those are what I hoped to underscore.

The problem, from my perspective, politics is central to the story of that building, of how the residents came to be there, of how they maintained themselves and constructed a community and of how they confronted efforts to evict them. It is central too to the predicaments the homeless and landless confront across Brazil (and elsewhere, including the U.S.). In other words, homelessness and responses to it are a political problem not an individual one. You may or may not agree.

More generally, my view is that the conventional claims documentary photographers make ~ that their enterprise is about capturing human dignity; that any overt political expression or subject should be eschewed; and that the photographer should not speak but allow her or his pictures speak for themselves ~ are each problematic. In combination I think they conspire to undermine the usefulness of images generally.

Judging from what you say in your comment and in the remarks quoted in The Guardian story, you probably disagree. I am not surprised. You are free to do so. And, as I said, those claims are part of the conventional scaffolding of your trade. But my aim here on this blog is, in part, to try to unsettle conventional ways of thinking about photography.

Thanks again for your comments.

Best, Jim

PS: Just to avoid confusion, Dawei is a regular reader and commenter whom you should not hold responsible for the things I have written. He can, I suspect, get in enough trouble all on his own.

08 February, 2009 22:31  
Blogger Dawei_in_Beijing said...

Get into trouble? Oh, yes. That I can do! :)

11 February, 2009 03:00  
Blogger Tom White said...

I know many people who care deeply about political and social issues and produce work that they hope represents their political views, yet tend to distance their own opinions of the subject from the work. I believe this is often because they are afraid that they may not get hired if they are seen to be in any way subjective or politically aligned. Bizarrely the more left wing the opinions, the quieter the voices are. I understand this, but I think people should stand up and be counted. Media corporations hate being accused of bias, but they have enough legal disclaimers in place to mean that their business is protected. Make your opinions known and learn how to express them eloquently. It is a hard road full of pitfalls but ultimately it is for the good. Photography has a tradition of claiming objectivity but I don't think this is true. You can certainly disprove it easy enough. A phrase I once heard keeps pushing itself to the fore of my mind: "[I'm] not scared of being wrong, [I'm] only scared of being right."

12 February, 2009 12:05  

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