Last week José, an enthusiastic student, brought several photobooks to class. As he put the first one in front of me, I was immediately stroke by its grotesqueness. I was unfamiliar with the author’s work and asked to borrow it. Back at home with the book and struggling to find words to make sense of it, I stumbled upon a discussion inaugurated by Brad Feuerhelm and then followed by Jörg Colberg (can’t we always count on them to make things anew?) on photography’s “hunting” behaviour and here I am sharing my two cents.
The aforementioned book is called Márgenes: un ensayo artístico sobre el ser humano y la estética (Penguin Random House, 2019). Its author: Eduardo Casanova. The subject brought forth by the nature of the book is, as foreseen, ethics, particularly with the way photographers capture those who live their lives outside the framing of the system. It’s been a recurrent topic here, one I’ve struggled with not so long ago while accepting to write an essay for the project Cracks.
At first, I hated the feeling of the entire book, but was curious to understand if its ugliness could, somehow, be truthful to the nature of what the author was trying to put forth. In the opening text, Casanova is quite blunt stating that he has always felt a morbid attraction towards “anyone or any situation that lives outside the frames of the establishment”, going on to describe his fascination and framing the projected displayed in the book. Casanova approached people that interested him because of their strangeness, ugliness, suffering, malformations… basically we’re in the “otherness category”. He approached marginalized people, invited them into his home, his bed, and photographed them, in his kitsch home, with a harsh light, recurrently upon his shinny pink sheets. He mentions that “these people” – who he then (re)grouped and (re)stigmatized, putting them all together under this book – “needed to be decontextualized”, meaning “taken out of their contexts and placed in a different space”. (Though I’m resistant to share the images, as I went online to search for some of them, it was with no surprise that I found an article on Vice about this project.)
While flipping through the pages, what grew clear to me was the author’s identity. Meaning: nothing in these pages is about the people portrayed in them. It’s clear as water. His excitement, his pleasure, his joy, that’s what’s animated by the photographs. The figures displayed in bed as just there to fulfill his lust and I guess he’s very much aware of that, since he recognizes his morbidity. But let’s just end this nonsense for once: does it matter that the author is honest about his intentions? Does it make a difference? Is consent enough to prevent a debate on ethics? Yes, to me this is all ugly, inhuman and unethical, but maybe it’s less pretentious than the thousands of images of atrocity we see in the media everyday, labeled as photojournalism, shielded under the epitome of information. I know any comparison here can be used to legitimize the work, but let me just say a few words on that: I strongly oppose the lunacy of mistaking critique for cancelling, so whenever I can find a bit of time to wield a few arguments, I’ll continue to do so. Though the impact of what I write is very contained, these exercises are as necessarity as water and my public life can’t get any harder because of that. As once discussed with Alfredo Jaar, in a conversation where we tried to navigate and discern between images of pornography and atrocity, maybe pornography is less violent than images of atrocity (that often rob victims of their dignity) just because its claim is more honest. They (pornographic images) play out with questions and roles everyone is more aware of and they circulate in a space that mostly asks viewers for their consent as viewers. Things are sort of in their allocated spaces, that’s what I mean. Images of atrocity, on the other hand, do none of these things. They invade our shared space, promoted under false signs, that can be summed up in the idea that such and such images are giving visibility to some subject that “urgently” needs to be brought out of the dark and publicly recognized and talked about.
Some days ago Brad Feuerhelm shared a post about Robert Bergmans’ photobook A Kind of Rapture. Brad was somehow struggling with a love/hate relationship with the images and that post animated a discussion about ethics and giving back. Brad was then generous enough to write and openly share a longer post on what resulted from that debate.
At the core of the debate propelled by Bergman’s photographs is the relationship (or lack thereof) between the photographer and what and who he captures. Brad mentions being torn between their beauty and what he describes as Bergman’s “ethical irresponsibility”. It’s a difficult one, I must say, and the discussion translated into his post shines a good light on that. Maybe when we use the word “ethic” in the context of photography, most of us immediately situate ourselves in the context of practical ethics. Photography, being both a praxis and a performance, suggests there’s something at its core that’s about relational dynamics akin to social relations (intentions, consequences, freedom, consent, etc.), but maybe the fulcral question has a simpler enunciation (though very complex answers). What I mean is that maybe what is at play here is the ethos of the photographer and how that translates into aesthetics. Again, what I’m trying to suggest is that these photographs bring forth a question about human condition and we feel conflicted about that. We question if the repetition, and the sequential narrative, by leveling it out, empty out the individual nature of the people portrayed. It’s clear to me they do. A compendium of portrays will always do that. But, of course, there’s something else here. Bergman looks at the physiognomies of these people and brings forth some particularities that Brad calls “irregularities” and sums up as sings of otherness. In a sense, Bergman’s photographs are typifying, categorizing and often creating cartoons. Is this dignifying? Is it a problem with our expectations regarding photography’s ability to dignify something the system broke a long time ago?
Systems, as devices that frame the things they intend to name and discriminate, comprise only a certain limit of singularities. Differences, unless presented in sufficient quantity to produce samples, are misunderstood by the system. Sometimes ignored, sometimes despised, differences live outside the frame (à margem). Sufficiently propagated, differences will, as can be understood, give rise to their own system of differences, ending up as hostages of their own devices. I ask: is there anything more subversive than difference? And could it be that Bergman’s “crime” is to rob people of their right to be different, grouping them together, turning them into caricatures and icons of a class?
In the context of this discussion, an interesting question arose about “giving back”, which then fueled Jörg Colberg’s post. Colberg stated in Brad’s post that he felt “photography has an important social and historical function, and so photographers who are participating in that tradition are contributing just by virtue of doing so”. Moments later, in his post, Colberg frames the question that’s puzzling me, stating that he “believe[s] that photography takes more than it gives back to humanity”. Of course this statement implies the ideia, quoted before, that for Colberg photography has an historical framing that guarantees its social responsibility. It’s important to hear Colberg when he says that “For too long, photographers have been too eager to make work for other photographers without considering other audiences. Instead, the question of what is being given back to the world has been turned into how to get access to the world of art.” I can’t say how much I love hearing people share their thoughts. That commitment, that gesture is, in itself, an act of love. An act of love for photography, for the class, for the profession, for thought itself. It’s in decline these days, with more and more people opting to keep silent, unwilling to enter a debate and venture into new ideas.
Most of the times, I’m not in tune with Colberg’s thoughts and positions, but I think I understand them well enough to empathize with them. It seems to me that his overall understanding of class and social systems is very different from mine, so when his arguments venture into moral ground and the idea of the comum, I mostly fall out of tune. Also, when ethics is the question, others practices – like cameraless photography – are excluded from the reflection and there’s a lot to say about that as well. Of course I understand we write about what excites and troubles us and am working precisely on an essay about this issue (ethics in cameraless photography). Back in line: If ethics is a relational question and photography a humane activity, then there is no need for a camera to enter the equation in order to think about the ethos and the praxis. As we enter into relation with the world, we impact and are impacted and the abuses and power relations do not spring from the apparatus of the camera. As I see it, those unethical relations arise from the lack of aesthetic experiences: not feeling the world, not questioning our perspectives.
A few weeks ago we (at school) took Colberg’s Advice for young artists (can’t find the full link), translated it into portuguese and debated it with students. It gave rise to a heated conversation about the art marked in social media and the connections and disconnections between what is experienced in presence and in the virtual world. Though time did not allow for a deeper discussion on this particular subject, what was put into question was precisely ethics. Seeing people, touching them, hearing them, feeling them, it changes the nature of the interaction, completely. Portraying people like Bergman did implicates the nature of that interaction and makes evident the complexity of such. I see nothing profoundly wrong with that. Nothing profoundly unethical, where arguments for abuse and exploitation can be called forth. But that’s me today.
Of course we can expect for better ethics in photography, but its history is overflowed with abuses of power, from the source of the funding that promoted the first expeditions, to the imperial gaze promoted by them – and so many other photographic practices -, to the symbolic nature of the mechanical device that enframes and systematizes, typifies, categorizes. Of course we can also expect for better human beings, but do we really want to live with an impossible expectation like that? And let me just say that if the debate ventures into the sort of arguments about regulations and cancel culture, I’ll be out. I hate cynicism, don’t want to contribute to that shitty game. As I understand it, the solution lies in education. Not in education in photography per se, though I try to participate in that, but in education in general. Promoting critical thinking and, furthermore, promoting aesthetic experiences.
But cynicism prevails. I think in order to disrupt its reign, criticism must be allowed to exercise itself, meaning: looking at problems, questioning the mechanisms that keep them alive, without imposing the utilitarianism of thought. We often criticize those we deem responsible for unethical behaviours, but continue to look for solutions in the same places that give rise to problems. We know that the problem is the myth of culture, but we prefer to say that the problem is capitalism or neoliberalism. Capitalism has effective propaganda machines at its foundation. One of these propaganda machines manipulates our desires, creating horizons of needs. But in this hierarchy of desires, capitalism is not alone. Either way, systems love, love, love to create problems. We can even say they are structurally dependent on a single mechanism: the complicameter (an invented device that measures complications). Problems create needs, which in turn give rise to new technocratic orders, which in turn create new problems, and so on and so forth.
The problem is not money or currency. The problem is not the market or speculation. The dictatorship of mercantile value is part of the propaganda system of capitalism. The problem is the power of the complicameter. What I want to point out is the framing power of the systems. As we alienate ourselves from the notion of individuality and assimilate energy from a cultural notion of the common, we often abdicate our creative drive, directing that energy to the space of reaction. The market and speculation perpetuate the cleavages necessary for capitalism, since it is structurally dependent on relations of power/oppression/repression/coercion, etc. We feel that “our constitutional rights” (that varies greatly) are usurped and we are outraged. It’s understandable, of course. Our basic needs are not met, so we feel unable to create new experiences for ourselves and others.
Anyway, I’m falling out of topic so I’ll end it for now: as I was looking at all these images, reading the discussions, and reflecting on my experience, I kept remembering a scene from Renzo Marten’s Enjoy Poverty, where he discusses poverty as a commodity and invites people labeled as poor (and hunted for that), to take the matter into their own hands and make money out of it… just more food for thought.