I first cross paths with Jordan Baumgarten‘s Good Sick at bjp online and one of the photographs stroke me, not for the best of reasons. I kept thinking about it. As I went back to have a proper look at the project, I came across Pete Brook’s writing on that same work and that finally led me to try and make sense of the weird sensation that photograph had left in me.

So going back to the beginning: the image above is the one that bothered me and beside whatever I may write here, I recognize that me not forgetting the picture might be the ultimate sign of it being successful. On the other hand, I really don’t believe this, for probably it lingering in my mind has mainly to do with me being the kind of person that constantly duels with the ethical problems in documentary and photo-journalistic photography.  

Good Sick is a series about opioid addiction in Philadelphia, where the author is from. Living in a country that has a completely different approach to heroin addiction (regarding needle exchanges, addiction houses, etc.), my instinct is to consider this as a more generic representation of what is happening with the opioid epidemic in the US. 

Reading through both Eva Clifford’s and Peter Brook’s articles, I realize that Baumgarten did not approach this lightly and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. However, this project is also its author predicament and what stands out for me is the weight of some contemporary artistic discourses. On Bjp, Eva Clifford contextualizes the author’s apporach: 

When Jordan Baumgarten and his wife moved into the neighbourhood of Kensington in Philadelphia in 2013, they were shocked by what they saw – sex workers, dealers and drug use, all in plain view on the street, with almost no oversight from the police. Faced with these scenes daily on his doorstep, Baumgarten turned to his camera in an attempt to make sense of the area.

Good Sick is a documentary project and, in that sense, these images bare some sort of informative content, even though they obviously live far beyond that, in their poetic and subjective nature. So what can we infer? In this place, under the clear blue sky, human nature is akin to animal nature. People live precariously, their addictions dictating their acts. Survival skills are the measure for ethics. Everything happens in plain view, for everyone to see. We all do. No one cares enough to address the cracks and the holes found everywhere in the streets. Animals do. They encounter those holes and deviate from them. Instead, we halt at fires and natural disasters, afraid of the lives they might take, failing to see that we are not valuing our own. This is what I understand, regarding the discursive elements within the pictures. But then, there’s something else. 

If the portrait mentioned above bothers me it is precisely because I think it seems fake. As I see it, the overall composition contradicts the intention of the project. If these images want to bridge the gap between subject and object, maybe portraying people in such a neat, harmonious and colorful scenery is not the best of choices. The stillness of this portrait is another thing that disturbs me. It refers me to the sort of portrait one finds in album covers or promo shoots. The blue costumes, the rainbow belt, the red shoes stepping on the red side of the road… In sum, although it is a street portrait (I’m not contesting that), it is also under heavy influence of its references. Advertising and design have become too important to visual expression and I recognize that here. Opioid addiction doesn’t discriminate. One doesn’t need to look terribly dressed and ill to be an heroin addict, that’s really not the point here.

Baumgarten seems highly aware of the risks of doing such a project. As Eva Clifford writes:

Baumgarten took the same walk over and over again with his camera while making Good Sick, And it was during one of the walks that he shot one of the most difficult images in the book – a photograph of a naked, pregnant prostitute standing in a field, crouched over slightly as she bends down to get dressed.
He paid the woman for the image, but says he still finds the shot difficult. “I’m constantly torn between regretting taking it, but also deeply grateful that I did make it,” he says. “The main challenge is finding that balance between the story I want to tell and being respectful to the people I’m photographing.
“There is a fine line between telling the story I want to tell and acknowledging that I’m borrowing other’s truths to tell that story. It’s very hard to find that balance. When I’m photographing, I think, when is it time to be a human; when is it time to be a photographer?”

The photograph of a man fucking a woman from behind poses yet another problem for me. My approach to documentary photography is that its informative nature relates to the place of the photographer, meaning that it’s in that subjective approach that lies the critical content of the representations. That place is then occupied by the observer and it’s through that perspective that we relate to the elements objectified and manage to see them as human beings and not just as figures inside a frame. I must have said this here a thousand times before, but I’ll say it again: I believe photography does have an ability to promote change and have a social impact, so I often struggle to relate to documentary projects that make too many references to artistic discourses and stylistic strategies. So I keep asking myself: what is the need for this photograph? What is it supposed to trigger? The figures are at a safety distance, the situation is humiliating for them, even if their survival mode robs them of that consciousness. So why did the photographer shot this? And why did he chose to include it in the series? Isn’t the photograph of the naked pregnant woman “enough”?

In Pete Brook’s article about Baumgarten’s photos of struggling Philadelphia, he addresses the inherent difficulty of this sort of photography. I often empathize with Brook’s point of view and it’s no different here. In his words: 

Baumgarten’s work is difficult because it inhabits that ethically ambiguous space between fine art and social concern; between edgy, contemporary photography and the potential damage to its subjects such a raw view threatens. Perhaps, I’m overly sensitive but my initial reaction is to turn away from Baumgarten’s photos and, yet, here I am publishing them and discussing them.
[…]
Here are the hard lives of humans upon which I gaze, but on my life they do not gaze. Immediately therefore, I assume the role of viewer, voyeur, exploiter.

But Brook is better at making sense of this “difficulty” than I am. When he looks at these photographs, he manages to relate to the sociological content they aim to address (maybe to further a discussion on how humans are failing one another). When I look at these photographs my desire to not see them is not because of their content, but because of their form. It’s not that I don’t care about the issues at hand. On the contrary, but little of what is showed here is unseen. The thing is I don’t think this should be photographed and exposed in such a way. Truth be said, I’m starting to wonder if the lives of others, in such fragile conditions, should be photographed at all, if no immediate action arises from the publication of these pictures.

Somehow contemporary photography became too dependent on discourse and style, so images easily appear to have a propagandistic nature – they could easily be adapted for advertising, they could easily illustrate a lifestyle. Making centered portraits of such humiliating situations under the light of day, it does manage to draw attention to the contrasts and tensions of the reality depicted, but it also makes everything seem equally important or unimportant. Lightning here is extremely important, it makes the colors pop and highlights forms and shapes, as if abstracting from this reality were the way to go.

Where should we draw the line? Do we need such photographs in order to discuss economic schemes that support opioid addiction and think about giving addicts back their dignity? Do we need to see this naked pregnant woman prostituting herself in order to face the fact that this happens in broad daylight? I feel this perspective accentuates the idea that there is a them and a we. We’re all just a shot away from entering this war. What Nan Goldin did (and does), when photographing her suffering and that of her friends, is still very remarkable for a number of reasons, one of them being that in those photographs there is hardly a separation between the viewer and the subjects photographed, so judgement is more easily put aside. Maybe what Baumgarten is stating here is that his perspective is no different from ours. Maybe we all take these pictures: we focus and then look away, shifting reality out of the visual field.

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