Popova by Morrison: ‘objective social’ what?

When I come across artists that lack ethics or artworks that scream opportunism I get very irritated, sometimes even a bit angry. Often the art world is just so perverse that I wish I didn’t know about that artist or artwork. I usually debate whether or not to write about these extreme situations, not because I don’t want to be too critical, but because in order to get to the bottom of these stories one has to go through a lot of toxic information that fuels the irritation and I’m not sadistic.  

Today, when I came across Irina Popova’s Another Family, I had one of those moments when I wished I hadn’t cross paths with such information. As I then learned, the project was made public in 2014 and, since then, it has had its attention and success, partially because it triggered a wave of outrage. ‘Another Family’ is a documentary project about a baby, Anfisa, and her drug-user parents (but a better description of the project here). As Popova recounts, the project started in 2008, when she saw the punks Lilya and Pasha in the streets, with the baby in a carriage. She photographed Lilya and was invited to their room. There she began to construct a photographic project about what was going on in that family, meaning: how mother, father and baby lived in ‘that’ messy environment, where there was still love. Popova’s story about the events that followed the moment she made the story public are hilarious, so here’s an excerpt:

I made an exhibition of this story in Saint Petersburg, and the characters came to the opening. They had a good laugh about themselves on the pictures and couldn’t even believe that someone would accuse them of anything wrong. The viewers also didn’t react at all.  The scandal started when I published the pictures on the internet. Hundreds of bloggers started to blame the couple for a bad attitude to their daughter, and blame the photographer (me) for indifference. My caption that there can be also love and affection in such families caused even more hysteria.

© Irina Popova, ‘Lilya with Anfisa on her second birthday’, from the project ‘Another Family’.

So internet ‘hysteria’ led to complaints to the police in attempt to take Anfisa from her parents. The photographer declares that two years after the couple’s lifestyle became known to others, they kept on living their “artistic lives” and she actually says that “the girl can talk and seems to have normal development. She only has more serious eyes than all other children of her age.” In fact, six months after the project gain a public visibility, Lilya left the family and Pasha is now clean, employed and caring for his daughter. Pasha doesn’t want anything more to do with Popova and her lens. Is it fair to say that had he been this conscious at the time, he might not have given his permission to have his family photos exhibited? And although Popova was very young when she started the project, with only 21, should she not have questioned her right to objectify the situation she encountered?

The problem behind the so-called internet ‘hysteria’ seems pretty obvious to me: the kid shouldn’t be living in such an environment and no adult should behave passively when facing such a situation; the photographer herself declares that it was dangerous, but apparently not enough to implicate her in the reality of that situation. And Popova either is absolutely clueless about children’s rights or she’s just alienated from the subjects she objectifies. Were the parent’s aware of the possible consequences of showing those photographs? Did she explained it to them? 

© Irina Popova, ‘Anfisa is seemingly in danger as she comes close to the window edge in her parents’ apartment. However, there’s a safety net that is not clearly shown in the picture’, from the project ‘Another Family’.

Popova uses different arguments to justify her attitude, namely: 1) she doesn’t feel she has the right to judge Lilya and Pasha’s choices; 2) she doesn’t think there is a problem, so there is no reason for public concern about Anfisa’s or her parents’ health and safety (she says she stopped seeing their life as destructive). But what can possibly justify the photograph above? The kid is near the window and the photographer chooses to make the picture. It doesn’t matter if the net is or isn’t there, because when she chooses to publish the photograph she knows exactly what it reads like. So why the hypocrisy? It looks dangerous, it looks like the kid might fall and that’s exactly what the photographer wants to communicate. Morrison, on the Guardian, tells the story behind the picture, saying both Popova and Lilya were ready to grab here (and there was the net!) and reading stuff like this, justifying this photograph, is precisely what irritates me, because it doesn’t matter if there was only one person or a dozen ready to catch Anfisa, the problem is, first and foremost, the making of a photograph that romanticizes such a situation. 

In her website, Popova writes the following statement:

When the story got published on the Internet, there was a huge uproar of negative comments. People were judging the idea of love that I had put in the text, and expressed a wish to deprive parents of their rights. They also blamed me as a photographer for being there and not “taking immediate action”. After 5 years, I published a book, “Another Family”, in which I united the photos with as much information as possible on the story that happened then, and on the public reaction. It still raised the question as to whether there was real love in the family and if this kind of love should be accepted by society.

And this is precisely what annoyed me: not that the photographer is alienated and clueless and decides to make a project about people who are in a situation where they aren’t fully conscious about the consequences of what they are doing, when accepting to let Popova into their lives; but the opportunism that follows, to keep promoting the project when it became clear that what makes it popular is precisely the questions she failed to see. On top of that opportunism there’s the surreal notion, explained in her statement, that the problem lies in different understandings on the idea of love. Is she just laughing at us or is she really that clueless? If that kid were to have fallen of a window or get injured into a fired, how would she feel then? Would that implicate her subjectivity or would she still feel like an automaton? And what would it say about love if the kid had injured herself?

On Feature Shoot, Amanda Gorence called ‘Another Family’ a raw portrait, but can we really say about these colorful photographs, that they are examples of what a raw approach looks like? Aren’t Popova’s technical strategies appealing to something else? Isn’t she telling a romantic story where Anfisa is a pale pure angel existing beyond the care of the adult world?

Blake Morrison writes a good resume of the story and finally raises some questions, but not before he mentions that Popova’s project had been nominated for an award and, once again, the all issue of lack of ethics spreads quickly from the photographer to the curator of the exhibition and then to the institutions that go on to reward a certain kind of documentary approach. Here’s an excerpt of Morrison’s conclusion:

The story of the photos raises a number of fascinating issues: about exploitation, voyeurism and embedded reportage; about the moral responsibility of a photographer or any artist who deals in non-fiction; about the differences between images seen in a gallery and images posted online; and about the meaning of informed consent. In moving in with her subjects, Popova was doing what the great Walker Evans did in the 1930s when he and James Agee moved in with a sharecropper family while working on a magazine piece that turned into the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And, like Evans, she was accused of exploiting people too naive and destitute to understand the implications of what they’d agreed to.

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