photo caption (above): Chine, Shenzhen, 2017, Scene #1350 © Alex Majoli / Magnum Photos Les employés d’un institut de beauté participent à une réunion de motivation avant de commencer leur travail.

When is enough, enough?

Vice is obviously no reference when it comes to dignifying the use of photographs in the media, but still I thought we’d pretty much seen it all when it comes to exploring the other and the idea of exoticism. I was wrong and the mash-up I’m about to do is also disgusting and unnecessary. Sometimes my thought process merges the unmergable and then there’s this.

Today a friend told me about a photo essay about 6 de Maio (a neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon), done by José Ferreira and published @ Vice. I’d seen work done by this author, but I’d forgotten about it. Looking at this, I immediately remembered I’d seen his photographs of travesties in Lisbon and also why I’d chosen to forget him. This sort of work does make me angry. But it gets worst. I took the bait provided by vice about another photo story on drugs and prostitution @ Intendente, in the center of Lisbon (by author Tiago Figueiredo) and my thought is: looking at any of these two works, does anyone fail to realize these authors are exploiting people in order to promote their work and gain recognition?

This question is often discussed and the issue came up again following Alex Majoli‘s exhibition Scene: The Theatricality of Life, but are these approaches to photography comparable?

Before going into more detail, an excerpt from Elena Tarsi‘s essay Informal Cape Verdean Settlement in Lisbon: Bairro 6 de Maio and the Challenge for Urban Planning

Amadora is one of the municipalities of the metropolitan Lisbon area that has seen a massive, spontaneous occupation of its land due to its proximity to Lisbon itself. Bairro 6 de Maio is one ofthe many informal settlements built by immigrants from Portugal’s former colonies, in this case Cape Verde, during the 1970s and 1980s. The neighbourhood is quite developed structurally, despite the high density of its population and the low quality of its buildings. In other municipalities, the 1993 PER [Slum Relocation] Programme demolished most spontaneous settlements and relocated their populations to public housing. However, in Amadora, this process did not begin until 1995 and was never completed, leaving many informal neighbourhoods still “alive”. Amadora is currently undergoing a major transformation due to the extension of the Blue Line of Lisbon’s underground system. Consequently, this has put a lot of pressure on real estate in recent years and, since 2015, the Municipality of Amadora has begun knocking down houses under the auspices of the now 23-year-old PER.
[…]
There were more than 400 families living in Bairro 6 de Maio before the evictions began. As […] the actual number of inhabitants and their socio-economic situations had never been updated after the start of the 23-year programme, all the people who were not living in the neighbourhood when the programme was launched were automatically excluded from rehousing. The only options offered to these families were either a fifteen-day stay in a charity shelter or two-month’ worth of rent in a new house.Unfortunately,those programmes did not take into consideration the socio-economic conditions of the inhabitants,whose average income was the equivalent of 200 to 400 euros per family. Many of these people now have no housing options and are living temporarily in relative’s house or on the streets. 

Aesthetically speaking these three works obviously aren’t comparable. Both Ferreira and Figueiredo’s work is unoriginal (a sum of clichés and preconceived ideas about “coolness”). They both resort to technique as an exuberant-machine. They’re skilled enough to do that, but not much else. It’s absurd even. If, by chance, the observer feels something is being revealed, it is because they’re good at dissimulating, but there’s no truth to their ways of doing; they are both instrumentalizing the subjects in their photographs, erasing them, turning them into cartoons, instead of real people

In Ferreira’s pictures we see the stigmatization of crime: arms, scars, jewelry, drugs, money, women and sex. It’s the thug life portrayed as if part of a music video with no social implications. Semiotics goes into place whenever an hyper-dramatic image is needed (for infotainment purposes). Of course he’ll say he spent a lot of time there, he knew the people, etc., but have they seen the result? Do these people like to see themselves portrayed in such context? Is this an honest image of Bairro 6 de Maio? And what does this say about “the thug life”? If you photograph criminals in a way to make them look “cool”, aren’t you responsible for that message?

Figueiredo’s images almost leave me speechless. What the fuck goes through a person’s mind in order to think it’s ok to take advantage of this sort of situation and publish images of these naked women? They are vulnerable, you see? No one happily fucks up one own’s life with crack, you see? No one is a happy crack-head choosing prostitution as a profession, you see? These images do one thing only: they attest to the author’s fascination with “the other” and they make clear that he’s happy to confirm these people’s narratives, showing how anyone can fuck them over, again and again. What a mess…

Can any of this be applied to Majoli’s work? I don’t think it can. Brad Feuerhelm mentioned the idea of him using “people like props” and I agree. So these images have no soul, for they take their life from others, but they are obviously aware of who their parents were and what they are. The observer can also identify the references and the critical implications of the choices made in doing this theatrical approach. We may recognize in Majoli’s relationship with his subjects an even greater distance than the one seen in Ferreira’s and Figueiredo’s approach, but the contexts in which the works are presented accompany that distance. Majoli wanted to plunge into the art market and so he did, using the same subjects as before, but constructing a fictional narrative with the help of a major technical apparatus. Majoli’s work in not infotainment; it is supposed a critical analysis about the way we relate to dramatic events in the world (at a distance, as if it was fiction). I think it is an egotic and redundant work, but that’s not to say it is comparable. Ferreira and Figueiredo keep playing cowboys, pretending to do photojournalism and, thus, pretending to produce work with informative value. It’s bullshit!

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