Martha Rosler – Is She Unfair on Hine?
Martha Rosler believed that the social conscience of well-meaning photographers such as Lewis Hine was not helping the social situation because it reinforced the gap between rich and poor. She argued that the need for the poor to rely on the rich for sustenance and social change is not beneficial in the long term and that it’s simply a way of reinforcing hierarchical structures imposed by capitalism.
Rosler addresses the issues referred to above in one of her essays “In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)” which was published in Decoys and Disruptions Selected Writings 1975-2001 MIT Press LTD 2006 in which she writes:
In contrast to the pure sensationalism of much of the journalistic attention to working-class, immigrant, and slum life, the meliorism [the belief that the world can be made better by human effort.] of Riis, Lewis Hine, and others involved in social-work propagandizing argued, through the presentation of images combined with other forms of discourse, for the rectification of wrongs. It did not perceive those wrongs as fundamental to the social system that tolerated them—the assumption that they were tolerated rather than bred marks a basic fallacy of social work
She observes that Hine’s work was an argument for social change and that Riis, Hine et al had this in mind when they made the photographs. Having read the essay I didn’t see anything which suggested she believed that Hine himself wasn’t ‘helping the social situation’. She is critical of the use to which the photographs were put, and concerned that attention could be diverted from the raw incontrovertible evidence they contain by engaging in a lot of talk.
I tried to find the work referred to as (Rosler (1981) in Bolton, 1992, p.307) without success; there is no bibliography in the online UCA Context and Narrative course book (https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/course-pdfs/cg_ph1can_071016_red.pdf)
Exploitative or Patronising?
Photographs depicting people in straitened circumstances run the risk of being considered exploitative. The motivation of the photographer is sometimes considered paramount in such cases – one approach is that it’s ok if there was genuine concern or altruistic purpose, but if the image was made to elevate the photographer it may have been made at the expense of the subjects already diminished dignity.
‘The Picturesque Poor’ is a phrase which is sometimes used to describe this strand of work and it is allied to the modern trend for producing ‘entertainment’, usually on television, which relies on people being belittled, sneered at and faintly despised so that the audience are able to reassure themselves “at least my house isn’t that filthy” or “at least my relationship isn’t that bad”. I call this “Dancing Bear TV” – sure, the bear will dance but at what cost? And should we indulge in the kind of schadenfreude this programming encourages? (slight rant there…)
The question of consent raises further difficulties. Should it be sought or would that compromise the integrity of the image – or would an image made with permission, even encouragement, carry even more weight as the desire of the subject to be depicted? I don’t have an adequate, concise answer to this and I think I have to take the wishy-washy liberal line: it all depends on the circumstances.
Can Photography Change Things?
In a social context I believe it can precipitate change by raising awareness, expressing concern and provoking active discussion among those who are in a position to initiate remedial action. I think of the photography of Larry Burrows, Don McCullin and the footage from the Biafran War of 1967-9. Photography can be a catalyst for change but it’s not so effective at keeping the change moving once started.
Repeated exposure to any stimulus leads to acquiescence and photographs are no exception, but the degree to which they lose their ability to affect people needs to balanced with the need to maintain awareness. The shock produced from the first images of a tragic event may not be matched by subsequent material but that’s no reason to stop recording the facts. Within the development of a catastrophe there is an imperative amongst news organisations to maintain the ‘edge’ by finding further highly affective imagery, but this is more to do with viewing figures than countering apathy. As has been noted, Sontag’s initial view was that horrific images numb the viewers responses, but one has to wonder what the average viewer’s responses actually are – for the vast majority they are limited to “oh dear” followed by a cup of tea, so further numbing is unlikely to make much practical difference. The people who are affected to the point of action – the campaigners, the marchers and the protestors – are the ones who will promote social change and their susceptibility to ‘compassion fatigue’ is much less marked anyway.
Inside/Out – Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Solomon-Godeau’s essay appears in the book “Public Information: Desire, Disaster, Document” a catalogue for the eponymous exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1995. She concerns herself largely with the question of whether the photographer’s relationship with the subject affects the image produced. She assigns a binary status to the photographer – insider or outsider:
This binarism…..characterizes two possible positions for the photographer. The insider position….. understood to imply a position of engagement, participation and privilidged knowledge, whereas the … outsider position is taken to produce an alienated and voyeuristic relatiionship that heightens the distance between subject and object.”
Inside/Out; Abigail Solomon-Godeau in “Public Information: Desire, Disaster, Document” Ed Kara Kirk; SFMMA 1995
Later in the essay she identifies a conundrum:
“On the one hand, we frequently assume autheticity and truth to be located on the inside (the truth of the subject) and at the same time we routinely -culturally- locate and define objectivity (as in reportorial, journalistic or judicial objectivity) in conditions of exteriority, of nonimplication”
She goes on to challenge herself to identify a factor which could be used to identify photographs made by insiders or made by outsiders, a way of differentiating the two. Digging even deeper, she wonders “what exactly is meant by the notion of ‘inside’ in relation to an activity that is by definition about the capture – with greater or lesser fidelity – of appearance?’
To illustrate the binary concept she points to the work of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark (for the insiders) and Dianne Arbus with Robert Frank (outsiders) . She notes that Susan Sontag indicts Dianne Arbus as a “voyeuristc and deeply morbid connoisseur of the horrible”, a photographer whose “view is always from the outside” Frank, as an outsider by birth and language has a head start:
“…whether the stakes are the representation … the critical reflection on reality or the imagining of Utopian alternatives, the outsider status of the artist is taken as the warranty for both the integrity and the acuity of artistic vision”
Arbus’ photographs of ‘freaks and deviants’ are presented as plain facts by a photographer whose relationship with her subjects began and ended with the taking of the photograph; for Clark and Goldin, however, their images were made as a prt of their everyday lives, which although by most standards were freakish and deviant were nevertheless routine for them.
Solomon-Godeau did not, in this essay, answer her own question of whether insider/outsider photographs can be differentiated simply by their content. My own view is that the inside/outside question is not a binary matter but more of a spectrum distribution, with work often falling towards one end or the other but sometimes indistinguishably ‘in the middle’
David Campany on ‘Reflections of Ground Zero’
I watched the video on Youtube and read Campany’s piece as suggested. I found the video quite straightforward on its treatment of Joel Meyerowitz’s (JM) project. It acknowledged that the work was a commission by the Mayor of New York rather than a personal project of JM and as such would have been executed with at least a nod to the sensitivities of City Hall. Campany’s views settled on both the film and JM’s work;
Yet the most telling aspect of the Reflections of Ground Zero was the contrast drawn between the complexity of the geopolitical situation and the simplicity of Meyerowitz’ camera and working method. There was a suggestion that photography rather than television might be the better medium for ‘official history’ and ‘images of record’. The photographs were being positioned as superior to the television programme in which they were presented.
As far as I could detect the film drew no contrasts regarding geopolitics and JM’s working method; the programme was utterly silent on the matter. Campany may be inferring a contrast but it was not explicitly mentioned, nor was any suggestion of the superiority of either medium for any particular purpose. JM saw the work as a continuation of the skyscapes he had made of New York between 1998 and Sept 7th 2001 (four days before the attack), some of which included the twin towers and were showing at an exhibition on Broadway. Campany notes that after the attack:
The ensuing news reports were transmitted globally, electronically and instantaneously. Lower Manhattan became the most imaged and visible of places, the centre of a vast amount of state of the art news production. Nevertheless here was a report featuring a solitary man, his tripod and his heavy, sixty-year old Deardorff plate camera. It was a slow and deliberating half-hour documentary, imbued throughout with a sense of melancholy by the constant tinkling of a piano in a minor key.
I think I detect a slightly denigrating tone here; JM is a regular 10×8 user and there seemed to be little pretension involved in his choice. Although there was a bit of piano music I wouldn’t call it ‘tinkling’ and it was anything but ‘constant’…. perhaps Campany turned over during the commercials.
But enough of the video itself, I will consider Campany’s observations on ‘late photography’ and its relation to hard news.
Late Photography – Too Late?
After the notable event, when the frantic life-saving and emergency responses have subsided, there is an opportunity to study the after effects. This may be for the purpose of record (as it was for JM), for social acknowledgement or even to produce evidence that ‘the worst is over’. Whatever the motivation, still photographs are a way of producing thoughtful, contemplative work which can act as a counterbalance to the energetic, febrile output of other outlets. But Campany warns us:
The danger is that it can also foster an indifference and political withdrawal that masquerades as concern. Mourning by association becomes merely an aestheticized response. There is a sense in which the late photograph in all its silence, can easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance. In its apparent finitude and muteness it can leave us in permanent limbo, obliterating even the need for analysis and bolstering a kind of liberal melancholy that shuns political explanation like a vampire shuns garlic.
This seems unlikely to me. The odds that a few big colour pictures, exhibited for a couple of months could adversely influence the global social and political response to a cataclysmic event such as the World Trade Centre must be vanishingly small. Certainly some people will be indifferent and politically withdrawn, but they probably would be anyway and I don’t think there’s the slightest chance of anybody inhabiting a permanent limbo of any kind.
My view, then, is that photography, late or otherwise, will generally do very little harm and often a great deal of good.