28 September 2013

National Geographic Photos Clean Up the Gold Trade?

"Conscience is the other trait that binds these photographers. To experience the beauty of harp seals swimming in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is also to see the frailty of their habitat: scores of seal pups drowning due to the collapse of ice floes, a direct consequence of climate change. To witness the calamity of war in the gold-mining region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is also to envision a glimmer of hope: Show the gold merchants in Switzerland what their profiteering has wrought, and maybe they’ll cease their purchases.

[. . .] The images in National Geographic have revealed a world not of sameness but of wondrous diversity. But they have also, increasingly, documented societies and species and landscapes threatened by our urge for homogenization. The magazine’s latter-day explorers are often tasked with photographing places and creatures that a generation later may live only in these pages. How do you walk away from that? If my colleagues suffer a shared addiction, it’s to using the formidable reach and influence of this iconic magazine to help save the planet. Does that sound vainglorious? Ask the Swiss gold merchants. They saw Marcus Bleasdale’s images at a Geneva exhibit, and their Congolese gold purchases halted almost overnight."
Photograph © Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo.

The passage I've lifted above comes from a self-congratulatory essay for the 125th Anniversary issue at National Geographic entitled "The Power of Photography." I'd actually be interested to know how Robert Draper knows this about the gold merchants. I have written here in passing about Bleasdale, whose work I find forceful and unusually well-motivated; he is a truly astonishing photographer. You can hear Bleasdale talk about his work here. Like him I am interested in getting from individuals to the statistics. And like him, I'm concerned with the pragmatics of photography - with how we use images. Hence my question for Draper.

I will note too that Draper proceeds to celebrate Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl."
"What her intense, sea-green eyes told the world from the cover of National Geographic’s June 1985 issue a thousand diplomats and relief workers could not. The Afghan girl’s stare drilled into our collective subconscious and stopped a heedless Western world dead in its tracks."
Mr. Draper would do well to look at the history of this image - including it's replication in other  "iconic" images. As I wrote here some time ago: "What is interesting about that photo, however, is less how it was made than the uses to which it subsequently has been put. In that regard I highly recommend the essay "Cover to Cover: The Life Cycle of an Image in Contemporary Visual Culture" by Holly Edwards. You can find it in the terrific book she co-edited - Beautiful Suffering ~ Photography & the Traffic in Pain." (And in the interest of full disclosure, I am good friends with Mark Reinhardt who is co-editor of that volume.) The travails of this image suggest that while photography may well be powerful, that power is ambiguous.

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