Archive for January, 2010

Devouring the propaganda: plunging into the White House flickr feed

I feel an immediate personal connection and engagement with the images when I look at the White House flickr feed by photographer Pete Souza. And I don’t think it’s because of my politics.

The Whitehouse flickr feed is a new way of opening up images to the public, and making them less didactic. In a way, you get to be the editor. This is a new kind of experience. They’ve still been edited, but we get to see them out of the context of a magazine or newspaper. The context is simply the captions and the other images (and what we know about what’s going on, or what went on).

Every time I tap into the White House’s media machine, I am stunned by how imaginative they are. Not only do they use new technology effectively and creatively, they use it beautifully. The graphic design on their sites is, of course, gorgeous.

And the images they use are too. They are well lit, well managed, well color-balanced, and continue to surprise me with their nuance and humor. And they are also quiet. On the whole, they are not grandiose. They are not what I expect to see.

In these pictures, Obama strikes me as more dignified precisely because he seems more approachable. The fact that he is unafraid to let us see him being himself, feeling a wide array of emotions—from consternation to mischief to love—makes me respect him more. While some might argue that dignity is looking noble, strong, and emotionless, I feel, more and more, that dignity comes in part from looking human; appearing to be full of emotions, not void of them. His team knows this, and uses it. How is it that the Obama White House has rediscovered something so basic about pictures and people, that much of mainstream journalism seems to have forgotten?

Let me take a step back. Sure, some pictures are interesting purely because of the aura of presidential grace around them. If it were just my father in law running with the dog, I’d find this photo sweet, but less thrilling. It would be a snapshot (albeit a very well composed one, with some really beautiful light). This is a picture that has it’s power because it depicts the President of the United States.

But a lot of these images are interesting in and of themselves, no matter who is in them, because they are more open ended. They don’t tell me how to feel. They’re chronicling the life in the white house and the office of the President—their agenda is approachability and transparency. That is an agenda, and it serves a political purpose, but it also leads to more interesting pictures than other agendas. This style of picture-making plays in the space between the snapshot, the documentary image, the propagandist image, and a work of art.

That open-endedness also allows for a kind of composite portrait, like Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, composed of many images; or Emmet Gowin’s lifelong portrait of Edith Gowin. This work, and the way it’s all jumbled together on flickr, references those artists for me.

When you have an agenda of one specific emotion—like pity, or sadness, or horror, or awe, or nostalgia—the pictures you make tend to be more closed. You’re not asking someone what they feel when presented with an image, you’re telling them what to feel. Granted, sometimes that may be appropriate for a certain project or picture. But in terms of standard journalistic practice, I think it’s out of sync with the ideal of informing people about an issue so that they can make up their own mind.

It seems to me that in journalistic photography in recent decades, there has been a simultaneous clinging to the idea of an “unmanipulated” picture as “fact,” and a movement toward encouraging sensationalist, dogmatic images in the name of social advocacy. To me, both these things are outrageously false. But more and more, that is the kind of photojournalism I see in the mainstream. These two from MSNBC don’t give me much room to feel or think.

In other cases, you see simplistic (boring?) images used in order to create a pithy interchange between the headline and the shot. What you gain in cleverness apparently outweighs what you’ve lost in thoughtfulness. Like with this shot tonight on CNN.com:

I find it interesting that right now, some of the least dogmatic photographs I’m seeing come from one of the most political institutions in the world—the White House.

(Yes, I believe that is President Obama peering over in hopes that David Axelrod will cave into his desires and eat a piece of cake…instead of an apple.)

Nice work, Pete Souza! Keep up that Flickr feed. The state of the union might be so-so, but the state of the White House Flickr feed? Fantastic.

January 28, 2010 at 8:18 am 1 comment

Josh Schachter, Tucson’s superhero of community-based art

“To me, great images that are going to create change have a sense of emotion and question our most basic assumptions about the world.”

This is Josh Schachter talking; a community-based artist living in Tucson, Arizona.

Community-based photography, which gained international attention thanks to Zana Briski and the 2004 Academy-Award-winning documentary film Born into Brothels, is when artists lead a community through a process of making and exhibiting art.

“When I was doing my graduate work in Forestry and Environmental Management, I wasn’t that focused on photography,” says Schachter. “And I guess as I started doing urban forestry in New Haven, I realized I didn’t really know what was going on in my own city…

“And so I started really wanting to find out how community members perceived their own community and their own environment, vs. how I would tell the story of their neighborhoods and their communities if I was hired as a documentary photographer.”

So four years ago Schachter began to build the Finding Voice Project, which merges a photography curriculum with a more traditional after-school ESL program for refugee and immigrant teenagers.

Instead of advocating for his students by documenting them directly, Schacter teaches his students how to advocate for themselves, first by creating a story and then by distributing that story to the relevant audiences.

“Great images, that aren’t effectively distributed, don’t create a lot of social change,” he says.

But there are some meaty ethical conundrums inherent in this kind of work. One is how to achieve the appropriate balance between your voice as the artist, and the voices of the community you’re working with. “My own aesthetic preferences do come through in their work. Whether I want them to or not,” says Schachter of his students. “So I think it really has to be seen as a collaboration.”

Another issue is the sustainability of each project. Are the skills you are teaching relevant to that community? Will the opportunities you create in a place continue after you leave? “Another big challenge is thinking about how to match the technology with the community’s needs and capacity. So I also often question whether digital photography is the right tool, in a community with no power?!”

Josh laughs as he says that, because it seems so obviously silly. But of course, workshops in rural areas—off the grid—use digital media all the time, and the reasons for it are complex. Sometimes there are generators. Used digital cameras are cheap, abundant, and what donors and workshop facilitators are familiar with. And it’s not that it’s wrong to use them…it’s just that it isn’t automatically right.

“Sometimes people say that most of photography is just being there,” says Schachter. “And I think if you’ve lived you’re whole life in a place, you know where to be. And I think that in itself influences the nature of the images that the communities produce.”

All of the previous images have been made by Josh’s students. Below is one of his own.

And a quick shout out: Andy Levin of 100Eyes is leading a community based workshop in Haiti and needs cameras. It was scheduled prior to the earthquake, and they are proceeding as planned. If you have any cameras you could donate, please email him: levin.pix AT gmail.com

January 21, 2010 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

Photographer as white messiah: looking back at a picture I wish I hadn’t taken

Last week, I wrote about Avatar and its representation of an indigenous society. In response, a friend forwarded me this Op-Ed by David Brooks, where he takes my criticisms quite a few steps further.

The White Messiah fable, says Brooks, is offensive because, “It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

“It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.”

I love this. He says it so clearly. And that clarity is helpful, because in practice this is a complex issue that can be difficult to understand and to spot. As a photographer who is interested in social change, I have been a “benevolent imperialist.” And that’s not what I want to be. I worry about seeing myself as an agent of positive social change when I am actually exacerbating a social divide.

And here’s why. It’s very easy to come from relative affluence (which you do, in this world, if you own a camera) and try to work for the betterment of others as an outsider, and end up further marginalizing or denigrating the very people you seek to assist.

For example, I worked for the International Rescue Committee in Tanzania in 2005, and part of my job was to document the work they were doing in the refugee camps along the border with Burundi. In that area, malnutrition can sometimes be an issue.

Juan Arredondo on behalf of the International Rescue Committee

I was making pictures in the hospitals, which the IRC ran, and I met a woman seeking treatment for her malnourished child. I asked the woman if I could photograph her.

She was extremely embarrassed. It took her a few moments to muster the courage to say anything. She said I could photograph the child, but not her face. She covered herself with a scarf. A hospital worker turned to me and said, “She is ashamed because her child is malnourished.”

When I think about that incident, I feel gross. Of course she was embarrassed! I would be embarrassed! Is there any mother who wouldn’t be? Can you imagine how awful she felt? Why was I so thickheaded? How did I think she would feel? Did I think she didn’t have feelings? Did I think she would feel differently than I would in the same situation?

I humiliated a woman. I basically coerced her into being photographed because I represented an agency that was giving her assistance. And I made what was already a very painful, stressful situation for her significantly worse.

It is I who am now ashamed when I talk about this.

And I wonder, how can I do better next time? How can I see these moments coming more effectively? What are the attitudes I need to change? What are the approaches I can take that will allow me to be more respectful and considerate of others?

Inherent within this discussion is the question of whether it is possible to make great art about a community as an outsider to that community. In her comment on last week’s post, reader Sittingpugs said, “Smoke Signals is indeed an amazing film not only because of its quality acting, directing, and writing, but also because the ethnic minority experience is told from within (not to say that an ethnic “majority” artist couldn’t create an equally authentic story or that every piece of ethnic cinema features Truths).”

I’ve had writing teachers that said, “Write only what you know!” and others that said, “Write what you don’t know!”

I think great art surprises us—it can come from anywhere, and be about anything. So I don’t think you have to be from a community to chronicle it with beauty and subtlety. But, it’s also very easy to become a hapless messiah, a benevolent imperialist, or simply someone who is not actually helping anyone. Especially with photography, there are issues of exploitation, power dynamics, and simply knowing where to be that make working with a community difficult to negotiate for an outsider. It’s still worth doing, but it’s also worth thinking and talking about.

Juan Arredondo on behalf of the IRC

And these photographs, by Juan Arredondo on behalf of the IRC in Colombia, are really nice. As always, you can click on the images to see his full photo essay, or click here.

January 14, 2010 at 5:03 am 7 comments

Avatar: a picture of the noble (sparkly) savage

Last night I went to see Avatar. The Imax screen at the Melbourne Museum is 7 stories tall, 32 meters wide, and featured a prim voice asking us to move to the middle to fill every available seat.

And no wonder. At yesterday’s count from boxofficemojo.com, Avatar had $1,063,151,759 in box office sales. As you’ve no doubt heard, it’s broken the $1 billion mark faster than any other film. Michael Carmichael of the Huffington Post called it “political dynamite” and “powerful art.” Clearly, James Cameron knows his audience.

And doesn’t.

I feel pretty weird about watching a movie that so blatantly returns to an unambiguous portrayal of a perfect, “untouched” indigenous society, dramatically saved from ruin by an outsider (who is, as usual, a white boy). My friend Thom Loubet said it well: “I mean, I feel like a cranky old man complaining about this, because it really is a fun movie, but in 2010, do we still need the perfectly innocent/noble/pure (clueless) native in our fictional narratives?! Give me ‘Smoke Signals’ any day.”

In that clip from Smoke Signals, the story Thomas Builds-the-Fire recounts is from Sherman Alexie’s first book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which is just an awesome book and I hope you buy one right this second and read it.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be interested in other cultures. It’s not that we shouldn’t fantasize about living in harmony with the earth (or Pandora) or building a better society. It’s just that I don’t like being told to idealize a lot of creatures that look like blue, sparkly Masai people who move through life to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes.

Because idealizing something is actually not the same as respecting it.

If I respect another culture, I acknowledge both how similar and how different I am to the people living within that other culture. I acknowledge that they have the same emotional range, mental capabilities, desires and potential for being annoying that I have. Idealizing someone sets them apart from you in a way that is false, just as dismissing someone also creates a false division.

And that’s why Sherman Alexie’s work is so fantastic. It is never false. It rings true, and you know it from the first line of the introduction to The Lone Ranger and Tonto. And if anyone is going to save the characters in Alexie’s fiction, it is not going to be some white person who has been to a fancy college, or has been a marine, or who photographs Victor’s father at a protest and wins a Pulitzer Prize.* (See excerpt in comment below)

It’s not the documentation of an issue that solves the issue, it’s the discussion that documentation creates. It’s the feeling a picture inspires; the connections and relationships it engenders; the kinds of audiences it reaches–that’s how a picture creates social change. And, as a photographer, you have some control over the kind of conversation you begin. For example, these two images by Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky raise serious cultural and environmental questions, but they start a nuanced conversation.

Richard Misrach

Edward Burtynsky

Avatar, even though it’s in gorgeous 3D, starts a one dimensional conversation. And yeah, I guess it isn’t really documentary work–those hammerhead-elephants aren’t quite that big in real life–but it does have an overt social-change message.

So anyway. It was a fun romp. But I wish it had been more thoughtful. And perhaps contained a single humorous moment. And I agree with Thom. He also said, “The art direction looks like an 11-year-old’s Trapper-Keeper–everything highlighted in purple neon.” My dad was reminded of Fern Gully.

January 6, 2010 at 7:22 am 36 comments


"In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level." --Charles Schultz on Mikhael Subotzky

PhotoPhilanthropy’s blog is written by Eliza Gregory

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