Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s essay reviews the photo-book New Ways of Photographing the New Masai by Jan Hoek. He is not impressed. Or rather he is impressed but in a really bad way. The childlike handwritten text suggests to him naïvety and a lack of sophistication. Hoek’s device of getting his sitters to express their preference for depiction is manipulative, even coercive. SWW considers that giving the subjects complicated cameras which, he assumes, require skills they do not possess is demeaning. He sees this book as yet another condescending attempt to place ‘black bodies’ in a narrow viewpoint which singles out aspects such as the qualities of their skin and their muscle definition to the detriment of all the other complex circumstances of their lives.
It seems that his main objection is not that black bodies are depicted, but they are shown in a singular fashion and that fashion is reminiscent of photographs of black people made by colonial oppressors. Hoek’s feeble and deeply flawed attempt at collaborative working is viewed by SWW with deep disdain.
In the same essay SWW goes on to decry the work of Viviane Sassen and Cristina de Middel, both of whose output is, apparently, fundamentally flawed.
I can see the point he’s making. As a balance I thought I’d like to see some work which he views as exemplary in its portrayal of black bodies, so I emailed him to ask if he could point me at something. He came back with the suggestion that I look at another Aperture essay he’d written from 2016, this one:
Stanley examines Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg’s book Imperial Courts (2015) and finds it very much to his liking. The photographs are all of a housing project in Watts, LA, and span the years between 1993 and 2015. This is a longitudinal study which documents the aging of a neighbourhood – not just the elderly but the young too as they grow to maturity. Not only did Lixenberg spend a long time on the project, she spent a long time on each individual picture, using a 5×4 camera to make technically laudable monochrome photographs which Stanley considered:
“…work possessed of a degree of lucidity, specificity, variety, and beauty that is the equal of the many people depicted”
The work is beautiful and honours those it shows. I wonder about the extent to which the method influenced the attitudes of the residents. A view camera is a cumbersome and arcane device and because of the method of ‘taking’ it effectively becomes a ‘third party’ to the subject and photographer. I am curious about this because I think I have noticed a difference between photographing from behind the camera and from alongside the camera.
Lixenberg completely ignores the infamy of the area and its residents; the riots which followed the police beating of Rodney King in 1992 erupted here but there’s not a sign of it in the pictures. Stanley sees this as rejecting the “reflexive linkage of blackness with crisis”
What about a manifesto for me? A statement outlining my ethical stance would be a useful bit of reflection so here goes… In no particular order and fairly fluid, as befits a manifesto-in-progress:
Incognito photography, otherwise known as spying. I know that this is a really popular genre and a staple of street photography but I have never been comfortable with it. I have certainly done it both for this course and previously in self-directed work. I have felt like a sneak though, and the only reason I’ve done it is because I have been too scared to ask, up till now. Now I’m still somewhat trepidatious but I will ask first. Not for general views where the appearance of individuals is incidental, but when I am interested in particular people or groups. I also offer to send a copy – digital – of the result and in that way I obtain an email address or phone number. I give them a card with the time on it, that way I know which photographs are theirs. I ask them to email me for a copy; some do, others don’t.
Model releases make me uncomfortable so I don’t get them. If I want to use a picture for a purpose other than this blog (which they have already understood as my purpose) I get in touch.
Unfortunates are not subjects of photographic interest for me. Street homeless, intoxicated, mentally ill people will not feature in my work except by accident or commission.
A manifesto should help to form a framework of ethics – a personal one. I have identified three of my core principles above, but I recognise that ethical practice is subjective, contextual and fluid. I am conscious of the need to respect individuals autonomy and how that need might be at variance with other factors – such as the greater good. Andrew Molitor makes an interesting observation:
Every picture you take constitutes, in at least a tiny way, an exploitation. Photograph a stranger on the street, without asking. Then ask them if they feel you’ve given them something, taken something, or if the transaction was neutral. I submit that in the majority of cases the answer will be I feel as if you took something from me. You can argue with the stranger if you like, but there’s no changing the fact of how they feel about it.
Consider, then, that every picture comes with a built-in debt. You owe the subject (be it a homeless man, a flower, or a rock) some degree of respect, of care in handling of the picture. You owe the subject your effort to do something worthwhile with the picture.
So I will attempt to discharge that debt with as much integrity as I can muster. It’s a lofty ambition, some may say slightly pompous and idealistic, but I might as well aim high (contrary to my usual modus operandi)