Is the condition of being ignorant essential to being privileged? Not exactly. However, most of us, when in a privileged situation, ignore its condition and thus speak about such situation with disregard for the complex web of circumstances that has led us there. We make it sound like it’s simple and say things like anyone can do it or it’s within anyone’s reach. We say such things ignoring everything else, immediately insulting and despising the condition of all those who cannot: they cannot make it; they can’t even consider it; they can’t promote change, etc. They are part of the problem and we (the privileged?) are part of the solution. It’s the same old story of the evolution of the species: ignoring the circumstances of those who are poor and promoting the reproduction of those who provide economical growth. See the problem?
I don’t like to consider myself, an autonomous and mature adult, as a poor person. I remember an event, one holiday with friends some 6 years ago, when they tried to convince me I was poor because my paycheck was bellow the average wage and not considered enough to attend to a person’s essential needs. I struggled with money of course, but… somehow I took it extremely hard and the event still often comes to mind. We had a big argument. Although I understood what they were trying to say, I was hurt by the comparison between me and those who I consider to be struggling with poverty. I thought it was about respecting conditions that I know nothing about and they kept insisting that those conditions were not as different as I’d imagine. But I have a backup system. Although my living conditions are precarious, my parents’ aren’t and thus I had access to culture and education (and thus also had the essential tools to navigate the system and manipulate the social contract). Furthermore, when money run out and I had no more to spend on food or fuel, I asked them. For me that meant I was not in such an extreme situation and poverty, as I conceive it, is always an extreme situation. That education and safety net is a privilege. That allows me to fight for me rights and promote equality and the rights of others. When I refuse to keep working in conditions that I find precarious I honestly think I do it because of having an historical consciousness. Where would I sit in history if I chose to ignore what humans have fought for before we came along? Although I consider this the right thing to do, I also acknowledge that this is a privileged option.
In recent weeks I’ve been thinking about class, privilege and photography. It all started with an interesting conversation between friends about the necessary conditions to have a better life – in the sense of knowing oneself and living an authentic life. Are the resources available to everyone? Can we all make it? I said no, they said yes. The theory that we can all make it – change our lives and those of others – is a dangerous one. But that rhetoric is successful; it’s been the bible of all religions since they became institutionalized and it’s the same rhetoric behind self-help books. Where lies the secret of such great success? My guess is in our faith. As I heard (once again) the words it’s within everyone’s reach , I found myself astonished by the faith of the person who uttered those words. But was it really a matter of faith? Can one have such faith in the human condition and, at the same time, lack the empathy and compassion to understand how so many others spend their lives struggling? Is it that hard to understand that some just cannot? They cannot! It’s puzzling…
Photography is and always was a medium associated with social status. That was specially obvious during the nineteen century, when it was mostly practiced by wealthy and/or educated men. Projects were funded by people and or institutions usually linked to aristocracy. The cultural conditions also dictated that very few women had access to it. It was a man’s world. Those women who managed to create photographs were either “marginal”, married to men who had access to it – scientists, etc, – or they belonged to royalty. One may need reminding that photography was a product of metal. Daguerreotype portraiture made that very clear. Photography was a jewel, as precious as a relic and to have a photographic portrait made had an immaterial value (to make time stop and attain some sort of immortality).
In the twentieth century, when enterprises like Kodak made the technical apparatus of photography available to everyone, photography became spoke of as a democratic medium. That is obviously a lie. So why evoke the leveling aspect of the medium? Well, for once because a slogan like you press the button, we do the rest predicates that in order to make photographs one needs no special talent. Contrary to what was known to be involved in other creative arts, manual labor and/or technical expertise were apparently not necessary to produce photographs. Unlike drawing and painting, for example, “talent” was apparently not a requisite in photography. This fallacy is easily deconstructed, but it’s important to notice its vitality and how it has been able to survive.
Some approaches to photography produce images that are reproducible. That reproducibility is another factor contributing to the idea that photography is a democratic medium, when in fact we should be talking about the accessibility of certain printing techniques and not the technical aspects of producing photographs. Most people, when considering photography, think about equipment – cameras, lenses, etc. That equipment is highly expensive. It always was. Photography is a nasty business. As a mass medium, capital is at its core. It is expensive to practice, aggressive to the planet, invasive towards the other, etc. When we try to synthetise its nature and address its essence, we go back to the idea of drawing with light and creating photograms and that, lets face it, is definitely not what the public expects of the photographic medium. I see it every other day at school. Students like to experiment with alternative practices, but what 99,9% want is to learn about high-tech, post-production techniques and digital marketing.
The education system around the arts, in general, and photography, in particular, is another factor contributing to the elitism surrounding photography. Most schools are private and the public system – being so deficient in investment in facilities and equipment – cannot compete. Because photography is particularly expensive, the privatization of its education is also particularly institutionalized. At school, I frequently meet students who pay ridiculous amounts of money not to attend classes, not to learn, not to practice, not even to have a diploma, but to find a passport, meaning: a shortcut to the professional market. They just want the connections.
In the creative industries, it is quite ordinary to see people, enterprises and brands pay for recognition. Award ceremonies are often payed by people who want to receive awards and have that added to their cv’s. In photography competitions the ordeal is the same; people pay absurd amounts of money in order to attend events – portfolio reviews, competitions, etc. These rituals perpetuate the bourgeois system that rules the art world, where only people with money have opportunities.
How can we change this? I was recently involved in the creation of an Association of Experimental Photography – Tira-Olhos. We opened our own space, where we will teach and have fun doing it. One of the bigger questions while trying to work out our program is obviously the money. We want the people who want to join our workshops and long-term courses to be able to do it. I would particularly love to break the circle and have a different sort of public – not necessary people who already come from the art world and/or have the financial disposition to participate, but a group of people curious to experiment and grab the opportunity ahead.