13 September 2006

The Predicament of Trying to Depict the Powerful as well as the Powerless

Here is a remark from Larry Towell that I noted a few posts back:

"I guess what I'm trying to do is explore power. Look at power, what it has done to the world, and particularly its victims. I don't think we should be photographing the politicians. I don't think we should be listening to them.

I think we should be looking at the victims of those policies, and having a camera around your neck gives you that freedom. That excuse. The only thing really worth documenting is the civilian victims."

I found the comment at the page promoting this film "Beyond Words: Photographers of War" even though Towell is clearly not inarticulate about his work. But I think that things are not as simple as he makes out. His comment reminded me of a remark that Gordon Parks made about photographing racists and bigots. According to the FSA web page. Parks once explained to an interviewer that he could not simply depict racists "and say, 'This is a bigot,' because bigots have a way of looking just like everybody else. What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it." So, unlike Towell who is claiming that we should not depict the powerful, Parks is claiming that is is difficult, if not impossible to do so. Hence, for Parks, the need to focus on those who endure racism and its indiginties rather than on those who engage in racist actions and practices.

Yet there nevertheless is pressure to proceed otherwise. For instance, I recall reading the transcript of an event that addressed Sebastiao Salgado's Migrations project held at UC Berkeley in 2003. The proceedings include an interiew with Salgado, a lecture he delivered, and a set of three "responses" to his words and pictures from members of the Berkeley faculty (an art historian, an anthropologist, and a geographer). Interestingly, each of the respondants - T.J. Clark (pages 25-6) , Nancy Schlepper-Hughes (page 30) and Michael Watts (pages 41-2). - raises the issue of whether, and if so how, photographers might shift their focus from the powerless to the powerful, from the oppressed to the oppressors, from the victims to thosse who occupy the social and political structures that victimize. In short, each of the respondants asks photographers to do what Towell thinks they should not do anad Parks intimates they cannot do.

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