An artist at work: here’s what no hypocrisy looks like

Sometimes we have to criticize with no solution in sight. Sometimes we have to promote change because the contrary just doesn’t fit our ethical frame. It’s not an easy thing to do when, in a social context, an artist’s work is expected to promote change, have “real” impact. In Renzo Martens‘ documentary Episode III. Enjoy Poverty (2008) the author sets out to explore the idea of poverty as a natural resource and as a possible commodity. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In an article entitled Porn Poverty: The Emancipatory Power of Enjoy Poverty, author Sofia Gallarate describes the artwork as a critic of “the western mass media’s obsession with images of poverty and the misery of so called ‘Third World’ countries, exploring how that precise system of production creates economic and social inequality.” As I see it, Martens essay is a brilliant work: sharp, committed, sometimes chaotic, sometimes difficult to watch, but never does Martens forget he is very much part of the system he questions; never does he try to make it easier on him or on us. There’s no way out of this structure, meaning: there’s no way we aren’t all compromised, guilty, hurt by this never ending violence. 

The documentary raises particularly relevant questions towards the responsibility of the photographic medium in the relations between power structures. On that note, it succeeds in giving us some of the most complex examples for an ethical debate. For instances, one of the episodes showed in the first 20 minutes of the film depicts viewers in an exhibition in Kinshasa regarding black and white photographs or plantation workers. When Martens starts to interview the public, we rapidly see how things are going to unfold, because the paradox is right in front of us: although the photographs represent the struggle of the poor men who worked in the plantations, the public connects to the images in a romantic way, almost nostalgic. They are contemplating. They say: they’re beautiful! But are they? When Martens asks a woman if she thinks the people in the photographs are rich or poor, she pauses, then she realizes what he is trying to imply and answers with an heavy conscious: “poor”.

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As Gallarate writes, “[a]ccording to Martens, documentary and photographs do not only work as a medium that exploits poverty to create profit, they can also transform it into a possible artistic and fetishized subject which comes from the saturation of those images within the western media.” As every Nihilsentimentalgia follower knows by now, this hypocrisy and exploitation of the other’s differences through photography is something that interests me a lot. I think this dilemma highlights two major things: 1) that human nature is profoundly complex (see for example how Martens is able to relate and empathize to the people he interviews, but at the same time he never ceases to distance himself from his role as a producer of content; 2) that image workers (photographers, film-makers, etc) cannot avoid beautifying everything, thus flattening that complexity. 

But here too Martens does it differently, for the way he exploits the camera’s relation to suffering is so inherently critical (I remembered Lars Von Trier‘s The five obstructions), that one sees precisely how superficial photographies can be. In an interview with Joe Penney, published on Africa is a Country, Martens explains the phenomena: 

“(…)Episode III, doesn’t critique by showing something that is bad, it critiques by duplicating what may be bad. On the one hand it gives some critique within the film, oh, media might be bad, it exploits you, take possession of the means of production; on the other hand I, the guy in the film, does exactly the same thing, or maybe not exactly but pretty much exactly the same thing and in the end then just leaves. So the critique of the film is not so much in the action that the guy Renzo undertakes in the film, the critique of the film is the film as a whole, it’s the duplication, it’s the copy in a way of existing power relationships. And I think, this is on the one hand an artistic strategy that is well rehearsed in many other art pieces over the last century. You know in the old days a painting of a swimming pool would represent a swimming pool, it would represent an outside phenomena. Now, since a long time, a painting of a swimming pool deals with the fact that it is a painting of a swimming pool. It is more a painting of a swimming pool than just a swimming pool. And I think this film works like that. Most documentary films critique, or reveal or show some outside phenomena, like oh this is bad, or this is good, or this is tragic or what have you. In this film, it is not the subject that is tragic, like poverty in Africa, it is the very way that the film deals with the subject that is as tragic. So that’s why it’s a piece of art, because it deals with its own presence, it deals with its own terms and conditions, it’s not a referential piece. Its autoreferential.

Being from a country that has a complex colonial history and, consequently, an endemic problem in addressing that very same question, I can understand Martens’ perspective too well, particularly when he says that it is impossible for him to be an agent of change. How can we forget where we came from? How can we forget our inheritance? As Martens says: “(…) I’m also defined by the education I have, by the racism and the feeling of agency that I’ve grown up with […] I am a representative of a world which allows people to die of hunger on one hand and allows other people to be terribly rich.” 

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As is expected, both Penney and Gallarate bring Sontag to the debate and evoke the idea of the aesthetization of suffering. We’ve talk about it often here: the idea of inauthentic beauty, of making something neat, harmonious, pleasurable, from something that is profoundly violent an unethical. There’s another crucial moment right in the middle of the film, when Martens asks one of the European photojournalist he is accompanying (and just after we see them photographing dead bodies): “Who is the owner of these pictures?” The following dialogue unfolds:

Photographer: I am the owner. I can use them if I want to make a vernissage, or a book. Not with any money … how do you say?
Martens: You don’t have to pay for that. Yes. And the people that are on the pictures. The people you have photographed … are they the owners of the pictures, too, or not?
P: No.
M: You are the owner. And the people on the pictures they own nothing?
P: No, because I took the pictures…
M: You took the pictures…
P: So I’m the photographer, the author of the picture.
M: But they organized everything that is on the picture. You just came and made the picture. They have organize everything.
P: What do you mean “organized?”?
M: Well the situation that you made the picture of, they made the situation.
P: But not due to me …
M: No, not because of you…
P: No, yeah, sure. But, it’s me that made of that situation a picture…
M: Right.
P: There is thousands of situations here. But it’s me. I choose the one that I think will make a good picture. And that makes that picture mine.
M: OK.

As Gallarate concludes, evoking Benjamin‘s The Author as Producer, “Renzo Martens acts more as a producer of a political discourse rather than as a defender of the Congolese people.” But is his production unethical? I think the clear answer is “NO“. Although it may be difficult for the viewer to sit and watch Martens convincing Congolese photographers (who work on photographing celebrations such as weddings) how to photograph extreme suffering, exploiting the kids’ exposed ribs, truth is the image of a poor African child “starving to death” has long been a commodity – don’t we all remember Kevin Carter’s controversial image of the vulture and the little Sudanese girl that wan him the Pulitzer Prize in 1994? Martens argues that the Congolese should take advantage of their situation and instead of letting outsiders come and photograph their really, take the matter in their own hands and put a price on that poverty. Chocking? Of course it is, but a conversation between him and an MSF doctor reveals how tricky the subject is. Gallarte resumes the situation: 

“The scene develops and the artist walks with the two photographers to a Médecins sans Frontier temporary hospital, where they plan to talk with the director and ask for the permission to let the two young men photograph their patients. It is precisely here that the provocation, as well as the controversy of Martens’ work reaches its peak; the MSF’s doctor refuses his proposal, stating that the idea of permitting photography for commercial purposes is legitimately unacceptable.”

The doctor also says that the difference between these photographers going into the hospital and taking pictures and letting a western photojournalist do the same is that the latter has the purpose to produce news, not “to exhibit suffering”. And this is the central argument of Martens’ film: does the media agents have such good intentions or are they actually exploiting their pain?

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