Avatar: a picture of the noble (sparkly) savage

January 6, 2010 at 7:22 am 36 comments

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.

Entry filed under: artists to look at, ethical questions in photography, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

An interview with Ian MacLellan, winner of the PhotoPhilanthropy Student Activist Award Photographer as white messiah: looking back at a picture I wish I hadn’t taken

36 Comments Add your own

  • 1. photophilanthropy  |  January 6, 2010 at 7:24 am

    I love this. It’s an excerpt from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie

    Because my father always said he was the only Indian who saw Jimi Hendrix play “the Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock

    During the sixties, my father was the perfect hippie, since all the hippies were trying to be Indians. Because of that, how could anyone recognize that my father was trying to make a social statement?

    But there is evidence, a photograph of my father demonstrating in Spokane, Washington, during the Vietnam war. The photograph made it onto the wire service and was reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. In fact, it was on the cover of Time.

    In the photograph, my father is dressed in bell-bottoms and flowered shirt, his hair in braids, with red peace symbols splashed across his face like war paint. In his hands my father holds a rifle above his head, captured in that moment just before he proceeded to beat the shit out of the National guard private lying prone on the ground. A fellow demonstrator holds a sign that is just barely visible over my father’s left shoulder. It read MAKE LOVE NOT WAR.

    The photographer won a Pulitzer Prize, and editors across the country had a lot of fun creating captions and headlines. I’ve read many of them collected in my father’s scrapbook, and my favorite was in the Seattle Times. The caption under the photograph read DEMONSTRATOR GOES TO WAR FOR PEACE. The editors capitalized on my father’s Native American identity with other headlines like ONE WARRIOR AGAINST WAR and PEACFUL GATHERING TURNS INTO NATIVE UPRISING.

    You can read the whole story here: http://www.chss.montclair.edu/~lorenzj/unisinos/alexie-jimi.pdf

  • 2. pallet racking  |  January 6, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    very prefect film! I will go to see the movie this weekend.

  • 3. jenclinton  |  January 6, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Maybe I loved Avatar because I loved Fern Gully as well. 🙂 It’s also been pointed out that the story line of Avatar was nearly identical to that of Pocahontas, another false-noble-savage story.

    Great point about respect vs. idealizing, also


  • 4. jfkwalks  |  January 6, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    That was an awesome review. I’ve seen the movie twice now in 2D and was totally awed by it, but everyone was saying something was missing. I had a huge discussion about it’s historical importance and the irony hat even though this same story line – without the happy ending – played out from time immemorial, collonisation, imperialism etc – mankind still followed the beaten track, and didn’t go with the idealized possible ending. But i think your right about the script writing. if there had been more indepth thought to the lives of the Na’avi that didn’t make Pandora a Utopia, or the Omiticaya (see how into i am :p) a paradigm race, perhaps it would’ve created a far more impressionable effect instead of the main praise going to the special effects. It’d be interesting instead, for an inverse take on a real living society with its flaws that goes through these problems and how they are diverted or come to pass. Cameron expects to have some sequels so perhpas there’s more in store. You’ve definetly made me want to buy The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven straight away.

    Thank you so much 🙂

    • 5. photophilanthropy  |  January 6, 2010 at 10:51 pm

      Thanks so much for your comments!

      Yeah, I think not too much would have had to change for it to be a better film–just a few more moments where you get a picture of a more balanced society. Because…I mean, global change is happening! Things are always in flux. We can’t just wipe the slate clean and start over…so I think it’s more interesting (and challenging) to present a story of societies evolving and changing, rather than just clashing and either vanquishing or being evicted.

      Thanks again!

  • 6. sittingpugs  |  January 6, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    I did enjoy the film, but the ideological implications give me slight pause. The audience is “supposed” to identify with Jake Sully’s character no questions asked. Jake and a handful of human characters are meant to be read as sympathetic as well. The Na’vi surely receive our support too. The (anti)imperialist motif invites a war on terror allegory reading.

    The more obvious environmentalist theme may compel us to identify with the Na’vi even more than with Jake Sully. We, the viewers, ought to be more like humanoid creatures that live in harmony with Nature, aka the FernGully message.

    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).

    • 7. photophilanthropy  |  January 6, 2010 at 10:47 pm


      I really agree with what you’re saying. Re: the art from within vs. art made by an outsider issue, I just had a fantastic conversation with another artist, Josh Schacter about that yesterday. He makes a lot of community based art, where he teaches photography and writing skills to kids and then gets them to document their own communities. I, on the other hand, am always an outsider when I make portraits (except when I photograph my own family, which I also do). Both ways you can make great work and terrible work…it’s always difficult! And I really think a lot about how art made about communities can be done in a way that benefits both the community and the artist, both in the moment and in the long term. Which I find really hard to figure out sometimes.

      Anyway, I’ll be writing about that issue a bit next week, and posting some of Josh’s comments, so I’d love to hear your thoughts then as well! Thanks so much for writing!


      • 8. sittingpugs  |  January 6, 2010 at 11:49 pm

        Hey Eliza!

        I’m so glad I came across your entry from wordpress’s homepage. I’m looking forward to your post about inside/outside community and art.

        sitting pugs

  • 9. trompeloyale  |  January 6, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Avatar totally reminded me of Fern Gully. I think you make a good point, the film is very idealistic and feel-good, but you don’t have to read too deep into the social message. It can be enjoyed for its aesthetic and entertainment value. From an animator’s perspective I appreciate it for its contribution to the field. I can only imagine the work put into this film. The behind the scenes feature shows all of the motion capture technology they used and it is state of the art. The actors had to perform pretty much everything they did in the movie from fighting and flying down to their facial gestures. I think The director’s goal was to take character animation to a new level and at the least they did more than accomplish that. I’ll have to watch Smoke Signals, it looks good.

  • 10. Mike  |  January 6, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    watched the land that time forgot last night, cheap old special effect, simple story – back to basics, fun stuff.

  • 11. funkeefeesh  |  January 6, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    avatar is too good! 🙂
    have u seen avatar 3d? how’s that one?

  • 12. blairpet  |  January 6, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    HAHAHA! My friend said the exact same thing about FernGully. Love the entry.

  • 13. jukeboxheroine  |  January 6, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    I’m very interested in seeing it, but I am putting on my critical lens of feminism as well. I hear the gender roles are pretty old as well.

  • 14. Melvin Pratt  |  January 6, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    “Smoke Signals” was great, I’ve seen it several times. I saw Avatar the first week it came out. The 3D technology still needs lots of work, but the CG graphics was awesome. As for the story, it is just a re-telling of the Pocahontas meets John Smith myth, as told and re-told by Hollywood. The similarities with “Dances with wolves” was depressing. Cameron should have stolen something from “Little Big Man.” It would have put a little humor in it. I’m a descendant of Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas by John Rolfe–as are probably a million other people.

  • 15. christian  |  January 6, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Hi Eliza!

    Thanks for putting this up…I have to say I quite enjoyed Avatar, and although James Cameron has obviously been quite forthright in using this film as a vehicle for some of his own political views, I still think it has some good messages. I think it’s important to draw a distinction between “idealising” a people like the Na’vi, and shrouding them in a particular mystique. By this, I mean recognising that perhaps we don’t have all the answers and, as such, we don’t necessarily have any right to make decisions about another people and their fate. Avatar demonstrates this clearly by portraying a relationship between the Na’vi and their planet which we (epitomised by the army general and “big business” executive) are not necessarily in a position to appreciate, or even recognise. I think too often we, as humans (or as consumers and purveyors of Western ideals), are so vain that we assume that we know what is best for everyone, even if we do not understand their worldview…who has the right to say that our ideals are better than someone else’s? I think that this message is born out well time and time again in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I hate to use such a clichéd reference, but I think many world leaders could benefit by taking a leaf out of Captain Picard’s book!

    Here’s another review of Avatar that you might find interesting. Like some of your comments, it goes a bit too far for me, but does bring up some valid points: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/hit-by-the-leftie-sledgehammer-20100101-llpp.html

    Again, thanks for the post, and congrats on having it featured on WordPress’s home page!


    • 16. photophilanthropy  |  January 6, 2010 at 10:40 pm


      I love this line in your response: “I think too often we, as humans (or as consumers and purveyors of Western ideals), are so vain that we assume that we know what is best for everyone, even if we do not understand their worldview…who has the right to say that our ideals are better than someone else’s?” –I couldn’t agree more.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments!


  • 17. George Arndt  |  January 6, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Another complain about Avatar I have is that the villian was very two dimenstional. I like complex villians.

    Where’s Cylar from Heroes when you need him?

  • […] a lot of interesting discussion (for another example, see this very interesting discussion of the Noble (Sparkly) Savage). And of course, it was spectacular to […]

  • 19. ceberus  |  January 7, 2010 at 2:46 am

    I thoroughly agree – “Because idealizing something is actually not the same as respecting it.” As an Asian who grew up in US and now back in Asia, I am very annoyed by Asians who fantasize too much about America (“All American guys are nice and gentle and respective!” No…) and also by Americans who think Asia is full of exotic stuff and strange practices (“Asians! Ancestor worships and ghosts! Geisha! Ninja!” Um…no). Accepting something as it is and respecting its place in the world is the key of leading a good, peaceful life – unfortunately it is not easy to the majority of people.

  • 20. ceberus  |  January 7, 2010 at 2:47 am

    By the way, I watched Avatar too and enjoyed it. Well I did not expect much of story for action flick…

  • 21. Thome Mercedes  |  January 7, 2010 at 3:55 am

    The entire 3 hours, I was thinking “This is what Fern Gully and the Matrix would produce if they were to mate!” Weeks later, Roger Ebert did me one up and re-tweeted a document that takes a rough synopsis of Disney’s Pocahontas that just replaces character names with Avatar character names – and it makes complete sense still. Not-so-original story aside, this movie seems to be less and less about “revolutionary” plot and more and more about revolutionary animation. Also, the emotion Zoe Saldano is able to convey through her voice is truly moving.

  • 22. Josephine  |  January 7, 2010 at 5:11 am

    If only every blog I read was as intelligent and on-point as this one, I wouldn’t think the media was going to shit.

  • 23. iconEdition  |  January 7, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Avatar is the best that ever did it at the Box Office….

  • 24. graceshaker  |  January 7, 2010 at 9:57 am

    ur post has really given me pause to think and after reading the excerpt im anxious to buy alexies book.

    for some reason i cant shake this thot in my head about how so many of the stories we read and see are about how some white guy saves the day. whether its bruce willis or tom cruise or kevin costner. even sam worthington. but isnt it rather odd then that so very many white people should claim a middle eastern man as their savior? the very same people who would no doubt give that same man a wary eye if he was on their flight?

    maybe im way off base….didnt mean to distract. great post!

  • 25. sunshinelollipop  |  January 7, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Avatar is a kool film and was worth watching but yeah there was kinda something missing. I think this was also because of the predictably story line of the human ending up helping the people, saving them, falling in love and then living there.

  • 26. mikemetal  |  January 7, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Good point, avatar’s story is far from beeing good. And it shows that human beeings don’t change at all which isn’t true at all. It is rather unrealistinc, there are laws right now that protect people, and thus the whole Padora war couldn’t have happened. These laws didn’t exist when imperialism was at its highest.

  • 27. nelsonleith  |  January 7, 2010 at 11:29 am

    I keep hearing this “white guy saves the naive natives” complaint and it doesn’t make sense%2in King Arthur’s Court, anyone?

  • 28. Sweetdiculous  |  January 7, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    I, as many, loved Avatar, and sadly plan to spend another $9 to see it again, lol~ I didn’t feel anything was missing, but then I’m not really a movie fan. I’m more into the books and video games area, your description of the movie gave me a good bit of inspiration to hit the bookshelves, though, or at least Amazon, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven sounds like a wonderful read. I’m happy to have stumbled upon your writing (Although, I’m not sure how.. )

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  • 31. Doodiepants  |  January 7, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    100% agree, I also posted up this Pocahontas book report. Awesome!

    Did you see the Avatar Movie trailer rehash?

  • 32. Ryan  |  January 8, 2010 at 3:05 am

    Here’s another interesting post on Avatar as just another in a long line of “white fantasies about race.” the author compares it to Dances with Wolves, District 9, and Dune, concluding that it’s more than just idealizing other races:

    This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

    • 33. photophilanthropy  |  January 8, 2010 at 3:11 am

      I love this line in that post: When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

      Thanks, Ryan!

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"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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January 2010

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