Yesterday, after watching the documentary about the work of Sebastião Salgado I found myself trying to give an answer to the question then asked: does it matter if we cry?
I think it does, the same way I think that actions need to be taken even when consequences are unknown, the same way I think chaos is bound to potentate new meanings. The question then is not if our empathy or agape can generate any good, but if photographs contribute to the sort of empathic feeling that triggers action. When thinking about Salgado’s photographs, I honestly don’t think they do any justice to the idea of the socially engaged photographer. Are his photographs humanistic? Yes, I guess they are, for there is no doubt about the author’s commitment to the work and about his empathy towards his subjects. But does the work account for the lives depicted? For the particular stories? For the social environments? Or does it instead paint such realities in an impressionistic way, blurred and beautified?
Caption: With dead eyes worn out by sand storms and chronic infections, this woman from the region of Gondan has arrived at the end of her voyage.
Sontag’s words in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003, Picador) are still, to this day, echoing in my mind when ethics in photography is the question. In chapter V, she criticizes the way the ugly is made beautiful and how pithiness is not what documentary photography should be aiming for: “Pity can entail a moral judgment if, as Aristotle maintains, pity is considered to be the emotion that we owe only to those enduring undeserved misfortune.” (p. 59) There is a sort of perversity in making beautiful pictures out of the disgrace of others, not only because they transform reality into art and thus alienate us from the real human dramas, but also because they can make the viewer feel guilty and ashamed just for thinking the photograph is beautiful. There is guilt, pity and shame involved and guess where this trilogy leads us…
“Photographer-witnesses may think it more correct morally to make the spectacular not spectacular. But the spectacular is very much part of the religious narratives by which suffering, throughout most of Western history, has been understood.” (Sontag, 2003, p. 63)
Sontag is also very clear about the role of photography as a document:
“Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document. The photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!” (p. 61)
In an article regarding James Nachtwey’s Photographs of Tuberculosis Crisis in Siberian Prison Colonies, Pete Brook compares Nachtwey to Salgado, describing both as ‘super-photographers’ who “make the ugly beautiful”. But even if Brook acknowledges their work as being able to force itself “into the conscience of millions”, he adds: “For some his [Nachtwey] work is an inspiration for social justice; but for others his work is a sub-conscious default to guilt, despondency and powerlessness to help others less fortunate.”
Sontag cynically names a new category for ‘super-photographers’ such as Nachtwey and Salgado: “a photographer who specializes in world misery” (p. 61) and then goes on to discuss the ‘inauthenticity of the beautiful’. But let’s go back to the genocide in Rwanda for a while. Both Nachtwey and Salgado have documented the tragedy. In a review of Nachtwey’s book Inferno, he speaks about his willing to be absent as an author, to be a messenger and although that’s just coming from a photojournalist, it’s really naïf. Nachtwey has a style and of course he knows it. Further ahead interviewer
DC: You see yourself primarily as a photojournalist, rather than as an artist. You don’t necessarily want people to think, Oh that’s a beautiful composition, when they see your work.
N: That’s right.
DC: Yet in going through the book, every now and then I’d be startled to find an image beautiful. And then I’d quickly realize I was looking at a nightmare. For example, there’s a photo you took in Rwanda. The first thing I noticed were the big heart-shaped, veined leaves. It’s a nature photo; it could be by Wynn Bullock or Edward Weston or Eliot Porter — that was my first impression. But then I saw a corpse lying face down in the grass under those beautiful big leaves.
N: I don’t think tragic situations are necessarily devoid of beauty. That’s one of the paradoxes of life, and one of the themes of art and literature. And it’s perhaps a way in which images become accessible to people. I try to record moments of beauty between people. I think that you’ll see, running throughout this book, images where people are reaching out to each other, where they’re caressing each other, or making contact in a tender way — expressing human beauty in the midst of suffering. This is what I think gives “Inferno” its underlying hope. I find it uplifting to see people transcending their own agony to reach out to others, and I see it continuously in these situations.
Nachtwey’s answer is very unsatisfying for me. In fact, I don’t think he answers the question at all and instead of talking about photographing death he speaks of photographs of love and hope. For those who haven’t seen such tragedies it is important to understand the moment witnessed by the photographer, how he felt death and not how an amount of nameless bodies fits into one picture. There’s a risk of turning people into points and lines inside a frame, instead of naming them. Sontag addresses the issue in the context of Salgado«s work. She says:
“the problem is in the pictures themselves, not how and where they are exhibited: in their focus on the powerless, reduced to their powerlessness. It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertendy in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights.” (p. 62)
[ to be continued … ]