Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Archive of Malian Photography

I stumbled across this thing recently. Somebody got a grant to digitize and catalog a bunch of negatives from Mali, shot by Malian photographers in the latter part of the 20th century.

To be honest, I don't know how I feel about it. I keep hoping for some great insight, some mass of incomprehensible imagery that yields ultimately some profound insight into a culture. I don't think this is that. This is largely portraits very much in the Western Style, albeit of Malian people with all that implies. Indeed, a sort of low-budget mimicry of The Western Portrait is what we see here. Flat lighting, shabby backdrops, and people self-consciously posing for the camera in basically the same way we do in the west.

The clothing is a weird mixture of what I imagine is traditional Malian dress, purely Western dress from the 1970s (we see dudes with wide pants, flamboyant shirts unbuttoned halfway down the chest, holding boom boxes!), and blends.

In a way, it does provide something of a cultural document. It shows us the violent collision of western style and taste with Malian tradition, among what I suspect is a pretty narrow socio-economic class. The people depicted, whatever else is true of them, are the people who would and could stop in to a relatively low budget portrait studio to get a picture taken, between 1958 and 1985. This covers a few different parts of Malian history, the tail end of French rule until just before the single party system was replaced with options. Most of the pictures were taken during a period of single-party, military-led, rule. Whatever that might imply, I do not know.

This does seem to be a genuinely spontaneous record, as opposed to (say) the orchestrated propaganda of the FSA in the United States. This renders the Malian archive more honest and more valuable. On the other hand, it obviously lacks breadth. It's most likely a specific socio-economic class, mostly in the specific context of Having My Picture Taken, and as such is far less valuable than the FSA archive. We see nothing, not even a propagandized version of, their way of life, the ways people worked and lived. Homes, work, social activities, food, and so on, are largely absent.

All we really see is how certain people chose to present themselves for the camera, and it is often depressingly Western.

Still, I find a certain interest here. I keep going back, flipping through the pictures, looking for something. Looking for clues in the eyes of the subjects, maybe.

I know a lot more about Mali than I did a week ago, I'll say that.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Crit: Clary Estes, Those Who Remain

Clary Estes is one of that kind of young turk who write boring pieces on Medium about how awful everything is. There's something about Medium, I swear to god, that turns people into pompous idiots. But that's enough bitching about Medium, I've got more important things on my mind.

Here's an interesting thing about Estes. She's pretty good.

Here's another work in progress, Those Who Remain about, well, at the core it's about people who were deported from Moldava by the Stalin regime, and who have returned to Moldava. In a larger sense, it's about the story of the Stalinist policies of famine and of moving people around, of enforced Russianization, and all that business. Anyone who wasn't raised under a rock has some rough notion of this, but I think it's a rare person who has much of a detailed insight into that whole awful thing. In the largest and most general sense Estes's essay is, but I feel I may be projecting here, about forced mass migrations, the human costs of them, and perhaps the moments of empathy, generosity, and joy that make them, occasionally less dreadful.

This isn't brilliant work, it's rough, it's patchy. The writing is often clunky, the web site is terrible. I don't much love the structure. But there's the heart of something in here, the potential for something really good. I think.

Estes doesn't really try to fill in the whole story, or to unravel the whole geopolitical mess. It doesn't much matter, really. There are always reasons for these things, and they vary, but the story is always roughly the same. Racism, nationalism, greed, naked power, corruption, and a large dose of venal stupidity and brutality. Whatever. We in the western world are enjoying a weirdly insulated bubble, safely away from this, but this sort of thing has been a constant backdrop of human history.

And, just to be clear, I think it is terrible. I hope that as a species, we can manage to graduate from this sort of thing, and find a new way to exist. The west, one imagines, might be a beacon, an example. Except that as often as not, Western meddling seems to be part of the root cause.

Just to get going, the pictures are perfectly nice, well made pictures. The sort of thing, though, that we've seen a lot of. The picturesque old people in the picturesque room with the signs of European poverty. Estes is not, thank god, interested in experimenting with form, she doesn't waste time trying to make banal pictures "look interesting", she's not following some twee fad. This is straightforward documentation. Well made, often appealing, but no individual picture is going to knock your socks off, or even stand out much.

Be that as it may. Estes is interested in the personal stories. Estes gives us fragments, details, bits and pieces. The stories, we should assume, are unreliable, but that too is irrelevant. Estes isn't a historian here trying to unravel some literal truth. Estes is an artist, trying to unravel instead some of Herzog's "ecstatic truth" for us, and I think she's well on her way.

Estes manages to accomplish, pretty well, I think, my two current little pet things. She's involved, she's personal. These are her friends, people she knows and who know her. There is personal connection here, she is emotionally plugged in. There's none of this coy half-assery of simply presenting facts without taking a position. We know where Estes stands. She is not some chickenshit hiding behind some bogus veil of "objectivity" and she's being in no way cute, chic, or trendy.

Secondly, she paints the whole picture tolerably well, or any rate gives up the bits and pieces we need. She uses photographs of photographs and other physical evidence sparingly, but well, enough to push our attention toward the past, to imagine that full story. She writes and quotes enough to suggest the breadth of the story. We understand that the people she loves and shows us stand in for a larger community of deportees.

Finally, she begins to lean toward what I think of as answers or the message or something. We see that strange indomitable stoicism distinct to the eastern Europeans. I think of it as a Russian thing, but it's not. It seems to start somewhere around Berlin as you head east. I dare say that the Russians express it differently from the Czechs who are in turn different from the Moldavians. From here in Bellingham, WA, it all looks the same capacity to endure absurd trials, stoically, with a cynical humor and occasional wild outbursts of emotion.

So we have also this story of endurance.

At least once, Estes makes the mistake of saying that we must never allow this to happen again which is the common refrain of the young and strident, confronted with a terrible story. Sadly, we're not going to accomplish that. It's happening right now, all over again, in several places in the world. At any given moment, masses are being forced to flee, or are being deported, or imported, or trafficked. To stand up and cry out that we must put an end to it is to simply make ones complete impotence clear, to look young and foolish.

I don't mean to suggest that nothing should be done.

What is lacking, to my mind, is that final step, pulling it together to suggest the way forward. I think the seeds are in there, they just need to be tended a little.

If it were mine, I would (obviously) crush the captions down to nothing, or almost nothing, and instead wrap the piece in an essay that encompasses all these stories. The personal trials, the Stalinist brutalities, the stoicism of the people, leading onward to hints of the repetitive nature of the story, the reality that we see these forced migrations over and over, and that we're still seeing them today. No need to handwring about Syrian refugees specifically, and indeed that would date the work too precisely, Enough to say that mass forced migrations continue, and seem to be built in to human history. Enough to suggest that this is perhaps, someday, it might no longer be true.

Just a line or two on the general cases of forced migrations would be enough. We know. We all know.

And then, and then, dig up those little bright spots. They appear in the captions, and in my notional essay they'd appear a little more clearly. Now revisit them, point out those moments of compassion, of giving, of sharing. Those moments that saved a life, that brightened a child's day. The moment that lightened the burden of exile, that eased the day of return. They may not have been common in the stories Estes tells us, but we see them, here and there. If these bright moments had been more frequent, more generous, these stories would not have been so tragic.

As always, the answer in these stories is human connection, is empathy, is kindness.

What is necessary is not a handful of westerners standing up and yelling never again! What is necessary is more global, more general. Each forced migration seems reasonable and necessary to whoever is forcing it, because they don't have compassion, because they have no empathy for the forced, and because they do not see that this forced migration (so obviously necessary) is just the same thing as all of the (cruel, brutal, pointlessly stupid) other ones.

Not to suggest that one book, one essay, will change the minds of whichever egomaniacal ideologue will lead the charge on the next mass forced migration, or the one after that. But 100 books, essays, plays, novels, television shows, movies, a 1000, 10,000, might change the masses just enough to take away the egomaniac's support. The global culture changes drip by drip, in tiny increments.

Someday, maybe, the idea that we're just not like that, this isn't a thing we do gets baked into the human psyche. Maybe tomorrow some snotty white Parisian makes the connection between the ancient Moldavian woman's trials in Khazakstan and those difficult brown fellows living the projects on the edge of Paris. Maybe the day after that, this snotty white Parisian is just a little bit kinder to some Algerian guy who bumps into him on the street. Drip by drip we normalize the idea that turfing out all the people who aren't like you isn't a thing we do. Drip by drip the idea that being an asshole to the immigrant who doesn't look like isn't a thing we do.

There are, in any of these changes of culture, many works of art that lead, or that follow, or that reinforce. Some are seminal, some merely tap the keystone a little more firmly into place. Richard Mosse's works don't seem to be the seminal works of a new tolerance for the refugee, for the migrant, for the displaced. Mosse is just spectacle. Estes, I don't know. Maybe I am being wildly generous. I think, I imagine, I see the seed of something. I think maybe, just maybe, Estes has a shot of something weighty, something important, a seminal work in a cultural shift. She's not there now, by any means, but her trajectory looks pretty good so far.

I find the website to be obnoxious. The captions (quite long) scroll upwards, obscuring the photo they caption, but allowing you to read the caption, and this is an absurd piece of design.

But Estes? Estes is pretty good.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Nnnngh

Just a short note to remark that the Art Schools of Great Britain are producing some amazingly low-wattage people. I have mentioned some names, but the list just goes on and on. I keep hoping to stumble over someone who's not an idiot, but it's all just dunderheads dribbling on in gibberish. And, yes, I have spent some hours unpacking the gibberish, looking up the terms of art, reading the background material, and it always boils down to something like "well, the photographer and the viewer might not agree on what a picture is about, wot?" but you have to wade through 1000 words about the "politics of representation" or whatever.

I dare say the Art Schools of everywhere else are producing the same lot of dullards, but I am currently hacking my way through the British jungle.

1000 Words Magazine appears to be 100% this shit, and I wish they would confine themselves to 1000 words per item, but alas, they don't come anything like close. It takes them 1000 words to say "the photos are large and red" at which point they're just getting started.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Answers

I've been noodling on a bunch of things this last week. I tried to write up a review of the latest Luminous Endowment Winners, but it wasn't going anywhere (it's a stronger field than the last time, still with a couple of weak spots, and I really really just like several of the winners). Colberg made a remark on his recent reviews about the trend toward photographing traces of people rather than people. I noted in the Luminous Endowment Winners a fellow doing aerial/drone photography to illustrate poverty, which is pretty much the same thing. See also recently reviewed bits and pieces.

It strikes me that I am noting an almost nihilistic thread in contemporary Art, at least in the products of people with MFAs.

The business about not photographing people, about appropriating satellite imagery, and so on, has the effect of creating distance from the subjects. I suppose if you're shooting macro pictures of bugs, or landscapes, or whatever, you can go get coffee now, skip this essay entirely. Human stories are increasingly being told without any humans in them. I have at least one regular reader, who makes pictures that I love, who shoots extensively in this genre.

We also have Nina Berman writing about how to document sexual violence with photos, leaving out the people. On the one hand, obviously, photographing people in these cases is difficult, on the other hand the photo essay she provides to support her point is a piece of shit, and on the third hand Nina Berman shot "Marine Wedding" about which I have written a little before. Nina can and does shoot people, and her work is much better when she does.

So the Artists are leaving people out. The photojournalists, some of them, are working around to leaving the people out.

Cowardice, perhaps. It might be more kind to say "Shy"? Because people are difficult to handle, because photographing them is difficult, the temptation to leave them out of their own stories is strong. There are other reasons, rationalizations. I don't claim it's as simple as mere cowardice, there's a lot going on. But gosh, it sure clears out the underbrush when you don't point your camera at people. I include myself in here, it's goddamned hard for me to take pictures of people, and I constantly find myself rationalizing not doing it. Constantly. Every. Single. Day.

Art used to, I think, at least for a time, try to point the way to Answers. At least suggest an agenda, give some hints, some ideas. In Christian religious art, piety and mercy are often shown as the path to, well, some sort of betterment. In the Victorian era we see little morality plays in collaged photos; Oscar Rejlander's "Two Ways of Life" is a photographic manual for not meeting a bad end, as subtle as a Chick Tract. The FSA photographers, under the firm hand of Roy Stryker, held out the FSA itself as the answer to all the ills a farmer might experience.

I don't mean, here, answers in a necessarily specific and detailed way. In contemporary photography I think I could argue that Sally Mann's What Remains gives us in some sense answers to questions of mortality, or more specifically our fear of death. It's not a handy 3 step book on Overcoming Your Fear, but it is in its own poetic way a kind of guide, a collection of hints, items for consideration. Maybe I'm just projecting my own reaction onto the work, I don't know.

The Smiths' Minamata obviously looms large in my mind here, again they don't give a handy 3 step guide to solving the pollution problem, but they have some ideas, some signposts.

It seems to me that the reluctance to photograph people is, if not a symptom of, at least packaged neatly together with the larger trend to shy away from taking a stand, to shy away from proposing answers. If you won't photograph the people, then you're not telling their stories in a meaningful, visual, way. If you can't even tell their story, you're unlikely to provide answers to problems, or paths to enlargement, or insightful commentary, or any of that. See Nina Berman's photo essay.

The same coyness that pushes us not to engage people, to avoid their terrifying gaze, to avoid engaging them, to avoid their messiness, also pushes us to avoid Answers. It's so much easier to simply document the problem, or the place, or... whatever it is. Actually engaging, actually shoving our ugly fat noses into it to, actually getting muddy, involved, messy, is simply too much.

For me too. It's hard and it scares me.

But you can't make anything of any depth unless you get in there, get in there hip-deep in the muck, get engaged, get your face all shoved up in whatever it is. Even if you're shooting landscapes, when you simply drive up at the golden hour and take 50 minutes to shoot, your work is going to be shit. Get your goddamned boots on and hike out there, roll in the flowers, drink out of the streams, wrestle a bear. Metaphorically, of course. Unless you're Russian, then just go right ahead with an actual bear. Because, Russians. Google "russian dash cam" for proof that Russians are more or less immortal.

If your story is about people, you're gonna have to get messy, you're gonna have to get into their faces, get involved. I don't mean be Bruce Gilden, and I don't mean you have to become friends with your subjects before you shoot them. I mean you do have to be in the mix, you have to connected, plugged in, part of it all.

Stamp all over this piece, in big red letters, "NOTE TO SELF" because I am the first person that comes to mind as I write. Still, you can use it too, if you think it might apply.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Doing Better

I've looked at some things over the last few weeks, and now I'm kind of looking back over it all, trying to discern some pattern, some progression. Trying to find what I can learn.

I have been very pleased with my San Francisco essay of a couple months back, but of course having spent time with Gene and Aileen Smith's book I am crushed, convinced that my work is the purest, most carefully distilled, quintessence of shit. Possibly the eight or twelfth essence.

Let's back up. Lewis Bush (I cannot leave Lewis alone, partly because he seems to be held in at least modest esteem by Jörg Colberg) and his lot work in a region of Art in which, as near as I can tell, the process is all. It occurs to me that academic Art is going to tend in this direction. It's a bunch of people who spend too much time thinking about Art and not enough time doing it. Wait, wait, that sounds familiar..

Anyways, it is natural that they might tend to thinking more about process and method. So Lewis and his chums spend a lot of time rejecting this, inverting that, and playing with the other thing. Which is valuable in its own right, it's useful to keep the boundaries of Art fluid. But they seem to ostentatiously avoid saying anything, in that wildly general notion of saying that I favor. You have divine their message, if any, almost from the artist bio. The message seems to usually be look at this, isn't it awful?

Then I looked at Laura Saunders, and I liked her quite a lot better. She actually makes a clear statement. As has been noted, it's not a particularly profound statement, nor is it new of particularly illuminating. It too falls into the general area of look at this, isn't it awful? but at any rate she's not just grinding a process without much concern for what comes out the end. She has something to say, and bends process and method to her message, rather than the other way around.

And then we take a walk. A very very very long walk to somewhere very far away, and we find Minamata.

I don't really know how the photography itself was received, but anyways by them Smith was revered and so on. There's a lot of process, of method, in this book. We have impressionistic photos that stand in for a way of life. We have triptychs of photos taken perhaps seconds apart, a sort of proto-animated-GIF of a moment. We have pictures styled in purely journalistic ways, and others styled in profoundly artistic ones. Minimalism here, densely filled frames there.

The typography is similarly exciting. Snippets of text appear floating here and there, unattributed, unconnected. The main body text comes in ebbs and flows, jagged here and flowing there.

My point here is that method and process are present here as well. The book is dense with method and process, although it doesn't leap out at you. Like Saunders, the Smiths bend process to the message, to the story. With, and I don't think I am insulting Saunders to say this, a great deal more subtlety and skill.

The Smiths also have something to say, obviously. Pollution is bad is a message, and it doesn't jump out at us as a terribly profound or new one. It wasn't new or radical in 1975 either, the EPA had already been formed, Silent Spring had been out for a decade.

So why is Minamata better than, say, Laura Saunders's work on migrants? It's certainly larger, a lengthier project, has more detail, but surely that cannot be it.

If I want to, in my own crude way, ape the Smiths rather than Saunders, what shall I do?

I can point to a couple of things the Smiths do that actually do separate them.

The first is that they dig very deep indeed, and show us a lot of things. My understanding of the Minamata episode expanded enormously. It's not a complete and detailed historical treatise, but it's deep enough, and dense enough, that you probably won't recall all of it. Every time through, you're likely to have "oh, right, I had forgotten that" moments.

The second is the broad viewpoint. On the one hand, it's all from the view of the Smiths, but on the other hand they strive to show us the various factions, and to help us understand those viewpoints at second hand. This creates a more balanced view. It is a rare story in which learning how the other side(s) feel doesn't make the story more powerful, more comprehensible, and in the end more true.

The last thing they do is to suggest a way forward. They distill the essential problems as they see them, and propose a way forward. One of those floating, jagged, bits of text, ostensibly a caption:

The morality that pollution is criminal only after a conviction is the morality that causes pollution.

The depiction of the direct negotiation between the passionate victim, Teruo Kawamoto, and the president with empathy, Kenichi Shimada, is clearly intended as a model. The Smiths side with Kawamoto, unabashedly, and think he was on to something. And they prove it. The former leads the group that insists on direct negotiation, that insists that Chisso management see and touch and hear the victims. It is this intimate, personal, human connection that ultimately leads to the breakthrough.

To be honest, I don't even know if the story they tell is even true. It seems too incredible to be true. The denouement was so intense, so powerful, that a handful of black and white photos and a few hundred words of text left me, literally, shaking. Literal truth hardly matters here, though.

It's not a stretch to suggest that the Smiths want us to know that a rule-based morality is the root of the problem, and that a morality based on humanity, on empathy, on intimate contact is the solution. If corporate managers, the Smiths suggest, lived in more intimate contact with the people "downstream" literally or metaphorically, then the corporate entity would behave better.

Of course, in the intervening 40 years the exact opposite has happened. Corporate leadership is isolated more and more, because the corporate entity, while not itself a sentient being, "knows" that human contact is exactly what would solve this problem, leading to decreased profits, decreased power, and slower expansion.

Be that as it may, it's not my purpose here to rant against capitalism!

The point is that the Smiths gave us depth, they gave us breadth, and they suggested answers, or at any rate a signpost or two that might lead the right way.

It is this, essentially, which makes Minamata great, and "Tracing Gila River" weak. Yes, this is awful, but give us depth, give us breadth, and point the way.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Minamata

I have had this book, from W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith, for a while, and have been soaking in it pretty thoroughly.

The usual questions seem silly. Is it good? Does it work? Of course it does. This isn't new work, this isn't even recent, and there are really no questions here. It is monumental, the work of the acknowledged master of the form, at the peak of his power. This is a good book, it is powerful, it is successful. It is a book of its time, and one of the most potent expressions of that time that I have seen. It stands with Silent Spring (published 10 years before the work began) and perhaps bookends that era of change.

Looking back on the era coming to a close as this book is published seems incredible to me. Corporations still do plenty of harm, capitalism seems still be be largely about shoveling off expenses, risks, damage, onto those least able to complain about them. Still, in the world we live in today all but the most rabid corporatists seem to take a basic suspicion of corporations as perfectly normal. It's not even radical to suspect that Monsanto is lying about, well, everything, to the extent that even the things they say which are obviously true are suspect. US President Nixon signs the EPA in to law a year before the Smiths move to Minamata.

The book is at least as much words as it is pictures. There are words, lots of them. There are pictures, lots of them. Sometimes the pictures simply illustrate the words, more often they complement the words. There is much to be learned here about how to marry these two forms together. The Smiths tell us of the town's connection to the sea, and then they show us, but the pictures are not direct illustrations. Rather, they are a parallax view of the same ideas, shown to us at roughly the same time. Neither provides a detailed chronology of events (although a chronology is included in an appendix). Neither pictures nor words claim to even give anything but a single view, a fragmentary glimpse, of any one thing. It is more poetry than prose.

The story of Minamata is vastly more complex than I ever knew, more fraught, more interesting, and more terrible. I'm going to extract a pair of threads of the book, and talk about them.

Since I've been thinking about ethics, and because I got the book specifically to try to understand Smith's take on the ethical concerns, these threads do concern ethics. Don't expect any conclusions, I don't think I have any. This is, if anything, a meditation on the subject.

Some background. Minamata has long been tied to the sea. Fishermen, for generations, wrested their livelihood, as well as food for the town, from the waters of Minamata Bay. In the 20th century, Minamata became as well a company town, as Chisso built a large plant there to manufacture acetaldehyde. For decades, they used a mercury catalyzed process, and dumped methyl mercury into those same waters, the waters of Minamata Bay. It turns out this stuff is pretty toxic.

There ensued a series of investigations, of outbreaks of Minamata Disease. There were coverups, denials, and settlement after settlement, over a period decades.

The upshot of the circumstances, though, was that the town was fractured into multiple factions. The disease came from the sea, the sea which had always sustained them. The fishermen didn't want to believe that. The disease came from the company, and the employees didn't want to believe that. The disease became stigmatized for all these reasons and more. Many active sufferers denied being ill, or denied that Minamata Disease was their illness. Others shunned the sick. Familes and friendships shattered. Chisso management, of course, obeyed their natural loyalty to the company and sided as far as possible with any faction that wanted to downplay, to deny, the company's role, the severity of the sickness, and so on. There were many such factions to side with.

Into this chaos arrive the Smiths, a white man and a half-Japanese wife. Outsiders both, and only one speaks the language. She doesn't even speak the local dialect (although she picks up up pretty quickly). Smith is here to document a story that everyone has a strong opinion on, and that many opine should not be told at all. Even the most open of the maimed, the ill, suffered from the social stigma of the disease. Many sufferers were children, many sufferers were dying.

The tension of ethical concerns rings through the book. A wife gives permission to photograph her dying husband, who is well beyond giving consent. The doctor, however, asserts that she is just being nice, that Smith should not photograph. Smith photographs the man's hands.

Without much effort, we can detect a mesh of duty, of obligation, of consent given and withheld, that connects everyone. The company men, the patients, the Smiths, extending to us, the viewers. The Smiths felt, I think correctly, that much could reasonably be sacrificed to tell this story, the story is that important. And yet, they photographed the children, maimed, damaged. The parents, no doubt, gave permission. Consent, once given, cannot be revoked. The exposure is made, the print is published. Fin.

And yet, the social situation is fluid. Children, the lucky ones at any rate, grow up and develop their own ideas. The pictures float around in the world, become popular, become valuable, and yet the consent, given once and for all time in 1972, is inflexible, permanent. This is, obviously, absurd, and yet how can it be otherwise? We cannot function as a society if contracts, promises, can be revoked willy-nilly.

It happens that now, paradoxically, I own a physical copy of "Tomoko in her Bath", the copyright to which was given back to the girl's family by Aileen Smith, a photograph that is so difficult, so intimate, that the family has not, to my knowledge, given permission to reproduce it since. I too am complicit. Tomoko became an adult, albeit never capable of communication, and then died. She was never able to give or deny consent. This possession may be the one I feel least comfortable with of all the things I own, and yet, I will keep it. The conflict I feel is resolved by the strength of the book which contains the picture I don't want to possess.

Tellingly, Eugene Smith opens the book by remarking that "objective" is a word that should be struck from journalism. He and his wife inserted themselves into the story, and were able thereby to tell it far better. The account is biased, but not, that I can detect, unfair. You'd think that living in Minamata the Smiths would be anti-Chisso, but this does not seem to be the case, which leads us to the second thread of the two I promised you at the outset.

We see throughout hints and remarks that suggest the conflicts felt by the Chisso employees, the people who made up the corporate entity. Where the Smiths provide detail on any individual, it is clear that the people of Chisso empathized with the patients, with the victims, but were constrained by their loyalty to Chisso-the-entity to work against those same people. The doctor who demonstrated that Chisso's waste was likely the cause, the engineer who testified reluctantly for a year, and most importantly the president of Chisso. The president who, incredibly, kept a shrine in which was written the names of every patient, and in which he prayed while simultaneously negotiating for the future of his company against the better interests of those patients.

The Chisso men knew that, like consent given once to the photographer, ground given to the victims would never be recovered. Give up too much, and the corporate entity could fail (and it nearly did in the end, under the burdens it was forced to finally accept). Smith, as far as I can tell, never suggests that Chisso's people were evil, or even that their actions were particularly evil. Wrong, inhumane, certainly. And evil was certainly done, but by some gestalt of all that existed. Likewise, perhaps, town folk who shunned the sick were not evil, and yet, likewise, evil was done.

In the early 1970s, a small group of victims won a suit against the company, setting compensation terms. This triggered direct negotiation by a much larger group of victims, demanding the same terms. Chisso, correctly, claimed that they could not afford to pay that much. In the end, one of the victims smashed a glass ashtray and with a fragment slashed his wrist in the crowded negotiation room. He exclaiming loudly that without the money, he could not live. The president (who, let us recall, Smith has been at some pains to point out is basically a good man) breaks. The president says that they will pay. The president's empathy with the victims at last overwhelms his appalling loyalty to the corporate entity.

And that's it. Consent, once given, cannot be revoked. The president has spoken, the company will pay. And did pay. In the end, they needed a government bailout to survive, but they paid.

There is nothing in this scenario I can imagine occurring in a modern American company. The president would have been immediately replaced with a new president by the board of directors, who themselves are human but hold themselves conveniently distant from the victims and are thus able to remain monsters. Negotiations would probably still be locked in stasis to the enrichment of lawyers all around.

Whether good men or evil populate it, the corporate entity acts to protect itself, and it has learned how better to do so. Don't let those people negotiate, and make sure the ashtrays are made of plastic if you do. Somewhere, in some corporate archive, surely there is in a book of recommendations written by some basically decent corporate drone, the notation that glass ashtrays should be removed from conference rooms used for negotiation. Evil is done, and yet nobody in particular has done it.

So we see again a web of duty, obligation, consent, loyalty, connecting the corporate entity, the corporate men, the victims, a web that extends, perhaps, to you and me.

On the one hand we have the problem of corporate pollution, and more generally the problems of corporate greed. Corporations operate under the theory that if it has not yet been lost in court, then it is not only legal, it is "meet and just", it is proper. If it increases profits, it is actually the responsibility of management to pursue that course.

On the other hand, we have the problems of photojournalism, and of photographic storytelling in general. There is a loud school of thought that asserts that if it is legal, it is good, it is proper. These people say things like "you have no expectation of privacy in public" and therefore justify their photography of people in public. A school of thought, really the same one in disguise, argues that if a rule says that you should not photograph something, then a photograph of that is necessarily wrong, improper, without further investigation.

Just as corporations could do with a bit more empathy, a bit more humanity, a more nuanced approach, so too could photographers.

Gene Smith had no patience for "objectivity" in journalism, and very little patience for any sort of literal detail-by-detail approach to truth. His pictures are manipulated, the sequence of pictures is more manipulated. They're not even in chronological order! The text skips vast swathes of detail, leaves out chunks of information, focuses in on exact transcripts of this conversation, in on that minor detail, chosen specifically to make this point or that, all overtly to serve the author's passion. The Smiths struggled with consent, with issues of what pictures they could properly take and which they could not, throughout the project. In the end, they followed their own judgement, making best choices they could to balance the needs of the story -- and of the world -- against the needs of their subjects.

The power, the great and terrible power, of the photograph is its basic truth, its indexical relationship with the world it depicts. In the end, we must take what photographs seem best to us. With humility and awareness of the awful power we're wielding, with empathy for our subjects. In the end, we must take due care with these pictures. Consent, legalities, details of this and that, fade to nothing before the vast web of obligation and duty that binds the subject, the photographer, and all of us who look at the picture, together. This is not to suggest that we can do without them, surely not. But these are only the beginning, the obvious and trivial bits and pieces of what is proper, what is just.

To stop with "it's legal and I have a signed consent" and declare ourselves morally clean is utterly wrong, the real situation is much larger, and your chances for moral correctness are probably nil anyways. Similarly, to assume that "legal" and "consent" are inviolable prerequisites is to make essentially the same error. It's bigger and more complicated than that.

Accept that you will probably fail, if you are doing anything of any weight at all. W. Eugene Smith failed, at least once. He did not predict the power and consequences of "Tomoko in her bath", he did not predict that the consent given would not, in the end, be enough to cover his debt. He did not know, he could not know, that the connections between Gene Smith, Tomoko Uemura, her family, and all of us in the world would flow and change and eventually become something that even the importance of the story could not overcome his duty.

You will fail too, at least if you take pictures of people, if you do any work with weight and meaning. It's practically built in. Consent, once given, cannot be easily revoked. The picture, once published, cannot be recalled. You will do harm, if you take enough pictures.

Try to do more good than harm.

Gene and Aileen Smith, in this book, and shown us the way on both fronts simultaneously.

Thanks, guys.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Policy change -

This is a change in policy, I've been thinking it over and there's a distinct gap in my very liberal comment moderation policy.

Insulting other commenters, even as a joke, is likely to get your comment silently dropped. Unfortunately, I can't edit your comments, I can only publish them, or dump them. I will err on the side of assuming that when you appear mean-spirited, you are mean-spirited, and will dump comments as necessary. If your comment doesn't appear, feel free to re-make it, with the insults removed! I may even contact you, if your contact info is easy to find!

I realize that this is a new thing, and I am not going to go "clean up" any existing comments. Up until this moment, I had no policy on this (except, arguably, the "don't be a dick" policy, which I admit was rather vague). It has a chilling effect on conversation when you attack one another. Attacking me just makes me talk more, so keep that in mind as well. But I have to be here, nobody else does.

Thank you!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Two Quick Notes

I have a copy of Gene Smith's Minamata book and I am absorbing it. It's a big deal. More later.

I have successfully bookified this essay from earlier, and you can buy it at cost here. You don't need to, since it's all online anyways, and I don't make any money, so. But if you want to, you can have a physical thing. A few people will be getting a copy from me. If I have never stayed overnight in your home, though, you're safe.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Another Opportunity for Comparison

Comparing, this time, what people say with what they do. Here's one of the righteous people out there on twitter fighting for what is right and true, one Maria Lopez. Maria has been doing her bit to condem people who take terrible exploitative photographs, here she is commenting somewhere:

I’m no photographer. I’m a visual anthropologist (yes there is such thing). And as such, I want to say to photographers and image producers: either you come up with narratives that respect the subject (hint= do not deny agency over the discourse about themselves, do no deny dignity) + tells something interesting (hint= interrogates the interrelations that make up the complexities you should be interested in) , or you don’t shoot. It’s that simple.


Now let us examine some of her fine visual anthropological study, available here: remembering hell

A quick google around reveals that these are literally the standard tourist snaps of the standard objects everyone takes when they go to Choeung Ek and take the standard 1 hour (or whatever it is) Killing Fields tour. Keep in mind that, for all we know, some of the skulls she so dutifully photographs could be muslim skulls, or skulls belonging to some other religious group, the original owners of those skulls might not be thrilled with the current regime using their body parts for display. Maria Lopez doesn't care, though.

Not a hell of a lot of that "respecting the subject" here (she "can't" speak to the survivors, everyone else "doesn't" speak to them, everyone else "wants a piece of them" and Maria bravely photographs them, or some goddamned thing). Not a hell of a lot of interrogating the interrelationships here. She gives no evidence that she has even read the wikipedia page on the Cambodian Genocide. There are "interrelationships" which could be "interrogated" here, but she doesn't bother, doesn't care, she's had her 1 hour tour and she's done.

By being a standard tourist, she is simply regurgitating the narrative the current Cambodian government wants to promote which is at the very least a bit problematic (those damned skulls).

Tourist girl goes to Cambodia, takes the standard tour, takes the standard snaps, writes a few hundred words of weepy bullshit about events that happened decades before she was born and half a world away, and throws it up on the web as "visual anthropology", then takes to twitter to decry unethical photojournalism.

This is the quality of person we have "policing" the ethics of an industry. This is the quality of person that presumes to dictate to Magnum how they ought to conduct themselves. She makes James Curtis look like an intellectual superhero.

Crit: Laura Saunders, Tracing Gila RIver

Saunders is another one of those photographers/artists that seems to exist in some zone between journalism and art, describing herself as a documentary artist. I don't know if she is "in the same circle" as Lewis Bush, but I think I got from one to the other in a couple of clicks someplace.

The work I want to look at is here. This is presented as a work-in-progress, what you see may, I suppose, not be what I reviewed. As an aside, I hate the now-universal side-scrolling photography web sites. Some sort of pointless nod to the codex form, paid for with clumsiness in access. Not a worthwhile tradeoff, but whatever. One gets past it, and moves on. This piece isn't actually a photography piece, although it contains many photos.

So what do we have here? She's going to look at some geography in Arizona which has contained several different variations on the USA's obsession with incarcerating people for various reasons, some not very good. It looks, from the first pictures, as if she's going to try to put these incarceration efforts into some kind of context, her first picture is of a woman of the first nations, a native of the relevant region.

I sat down to re-look at the work, and to write, fully prepared to hate it and to rip it apart. I don't know if Saunders has been updating it, or if I simply quit in a huff last time I sat down for a look, but I don't remember any of the later material. There's a lot of the kind of thing in here that I dislike. I am always suspicious of work built on appropriated material, and I an suspicious of photographs of documents. These seem to me like cheats, cheap and easy. The politics are also obvious and kind of simplistic. I found myself, well, you'll see.

The first thing that jumps out at me is in the text, she suggests that the current immigration detention industry is costing (costing the US taxpayers, we assume) $2 million a year. This figure is so tiny as to be silly, and doing a little poking around we find that she's made the error we suspect, conflating millions with billions. It's a bit more than $2 billion, a much more reasonable figure. I don't think you could incarcerate 10 people for $2 million a year.

A minor mistake, let us set it aside. The ex-software guy in me notices these details.

We begin with a collection of more or less random historical pictures that set the stage. Ellis Island (nowhere near Arizona, but relevant as a site of a lot of immigration processing) and some historical photos from the region, illustrating some history. Cotton and prisons.

These historical things segue fairly smoothly into more recent historical material concerning the Japanese Internment of WWII, one of the USA's more shameful ideas that seemed like a good idea at the time. Not the most shameful by a stretch but, you know, worth noting. More randomly selected historical pictures and documents, interspersed with a handful of remarkably uninteresting snapshots of local deserts, presumably contemporary and presumably shot by the artist? No provenance is given for anything, as far as I can tell, although with the help of google image search you can check some of Saunders's work.

After a while we begin to see similar material blended in, and eventually dominating, regarding the current border management. We see contemporary photographs of the artifacts of migrants (Saunders consistently uses the word "migrant" here, which is the first serious sign of an honest political stance). At the same time, Saunders is blending in photographs and documents supporting the essential loyalty of the Japanese who were being held, another hint. Also a pretty damned good idea.

By the time we reach the end (well, the end as of this writing -- this is a work in progress) Saunders is in pretty full voice talking about the for-profit corporation(s) that run both prisons and immigrant detention centers, and then we're done.

Ok, so, structurally I quite like it. It's varied enough to be interesting, it hangs together as one, it's balanced to my eye, and she has a good sequence that builds neatly to a pretty strongly stated point. In fact, I like the work as a whole.

Saunders is taking a stand, not merely giving us a pack of random facts. The piece starts out infuriatingly neutral, but it ends up taking a pretty firm position and, after a fashion, making the case. The picture of the prison with the corporate branding emblazoned across it is pretty damning, and her captions are pretty stout. The sequence supports her position well, I think, and I think she is in fact wise to start out neutral. She builds trust by showing us material, without being shrill and annoying, and then slowly eases the stronger position out into the open.

The politics, while obvious and simplistic, are maybe the right thing for this sort of work. It's not clear you can really do a detailed critique of capitalism with just pictures, after all. This seems to be an set of issues Saunders genuinely feels strongly about, if you poke around you'll see that she is also a bit of an activist, and I think actively works to help migrants. I think stamps around the desert saving lives.

Where the piece is weak, I think, is in the seemingly random assemblage of material. It feels too loose, to me, and too random. It feels like she's just reaching into piles of stuff and pulling out anything that fits. It feels like a slapped together patio of roughly fitted slates rather than fine joinery. It's possible this is her point, that one can simply reach in and pull out any collection of 50 or 100 artifacts, and it will reveal the same story. If she is trying to make that point, she is overly subtle, and it passed by me. Also, I don't think it's even true, so there's that.

However slapdash the execution, however loose it is, it does reveal a pretty strong story.

I wish she was stronger on provenance of the artifacts. She's dragging out all manner of material from 60 to 80 years ago, in order to bolster her case, but she's not giving us chapter and verse on it. The fact that she muffed the budget figure right out of the chute, I cannot look through the rest without constantly doubting it. Some provenance would help with that, and generally give more of an air of authority. Even, I suppose, if she simply made up file numbers "NARA XYZ-1234" to slap on the historical photos. Better, of course, would be real file numbers etc.

She could also drop several of the uninteresting pictures of desert. Sticking to the ones with evidence of the things she wants to show us would tighten this thing up without losing anything that I can see. The ending could probably use a few more hard hits. She's not pussy-footing around, and she is making her point, but you can always hit the points harder and I think perhaps she should.

Anyways, all up, a pretty decent piece. I give it a B+!
This was a huge surprise to me. As I noted, this is the kind of thing I specifically hate, it has a lot of features that are the kind of thing I hate. Saunders has done a solid piece of work with these shoddy tools, though, and is ultimately rescued by the fact that she has something to say and that she says it.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Ethical Photography, Where Do We Go From Here?

Apologies to my regular readers, this isn't what this blog is about, and we're all pretty bored with Andrew ranting on about Ethics In Photography. This is a "gather it all up for external publication" piece, and I'll put the main content below the jump for those of you sick of it.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Board Books

I am highly enamored of the board book as a structure. It's essentially the same structure as a "book dummy" in which verso/recto spreads are glued together to form a remarkably ugly simulation of what your book will look like. The difference is that the stock used is heavy, so the glued-up pairs for a fairly sturdy piece of cardboard.

these things are often done for kid's books, in which case they include a remarkably clever bit on the back so that the cover will work correctly given the complete rigidity of all the parts.

I love these for photos, because the photos don't flex.

Does anyone actually use these things in, uh, "real publishing"?

Crit: Milnor, ESSAY #1

Daniel Milnor, as always, is putting us all to shame by grinding out book after book. He's making his current series, ESSAY, available for purchase on blurb (that link just talks about #2, he's up to #4 now and counting).

I'm doing a thing of my own, and pulled a test book for myself and threw in #1 and #2 of Milnor's to combine shipping costs. I've spent some time with #1, and here we go.

The pictures in this thing are an ultimately interesting jumble. At first they make no real sense, and it's not clear they'd ever make sense as a unit without the text. One by one they're Milnor-esque photos. Some are a little more vernacular-flavored than his usual, some tend definitely toward the formal end of the Milnor spectrum.

Color, b&w. Colorful mobs of tourists, somber B&W meditations with the Grand Canyon visible behind the safety rail, a color closeup of a kid with an eyebrow piercing, and back and forth. Stew in this mess for a while, glance at the text, and the theme emerges. It's all people at or near the Grand Canyon, all apparently tourists, being tourists, Some of the pictures are quite old (pre digital camera) and some are timeless. A car with JUST MARRIED on the window.

In terms of variety, well, there's a lot. The book almost blows itself apart with the variety. It's balanced, in the sense that there's a bit of everything. The unity, the togetherness is not obvious at first, but ultimately I think it reveals itself. Sequencing? I don't know. It starts out meditative, lands on a jumble of tourist chaos mid-book, returns to meditative, and then ends on a jarring pair of colored tourist pictures that are probably taken in town, not at the Canyon. So, there seems to be a plan.

The overall sensation is mournful. There's a lot of softness, both the softness of things seen through vast masses of air (it is the Grand Canyon after all) and the softness of things not in focus. There are a couple things that might be double exposures, or very long ones, in which people render as translucent blurs standing at the safety rail. There's a sensation of the past, now lost, of sadness and passing away, somehow. A bird, and later an airplane, silhouetted against a pure white sky. Distance. Melancholy. Things past, gone. The Grand Canyon, nature, beauty. These themes are found, later, in the text. In spades.

The text, though, is what makes it shine. Milnor's odd modernist-beat sensibility drives this thing, a sort of mournful, wistful, paen to the open spaces on the American West mingled with a despairing nod to the reality of "development" and "progress" which is inevitably eating it. He is particularly pissed about proposed development in a specfic little town, Tusayan, AZ. This is, evidently, the "gateway" to the Grand Canyon. It's the town you stop in for gas and chips when you leave, I guess. Someone has a plan for developing a bunch of hotels and entertainments and strip malls and condos there, eating another little slice of the west and turning it in to bullshit.

Does it work, in the end? Yes, yes it does. The pictures by themselves strike me as too chaotic to get it together on their own, but I do see his point. With the text, the thing falls together pretty well. Was it worth $10.79? Yep. It strikes me as a modestly successful exercise in moderately radical book making.

There's some nice design work in it, although it is pretty design-light. He has some white text overlaid on dark parts of his pictures, which is something I always forget to think about doing. He's got a couple two page spreads with large text, quotations from some source on the subject of the Tusayan development, in some industrial-damage font laid out in scattered fragments over a mostly pure white photograph. I have to think more about putting text on photos, not just captions, but commentary, and also just pieces of the main text flow.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Crit: Lewis Bush, The Borderland

Lewis has a work-in-progress up on a tumblr blog, entitled The Borderland. He's experimenting with animated GIFs and satellite imagery, to document certain things.

Let me begin with the disclaimer. I think Lewis isn't very good, and I don't like this sort of thing. Still, I am going to do my best to give him a fair shake here. If I don't arrive at the identical conclusions I have on less-considered looks, I will summarize my prior thoughts (i.e. the thoughts I have as I type this now, rather than after I finish my re-examination) at the end.

Bush is gathering up satellite (or high altitude?) imagery of various border and border-related sites. Actual border fences, refugee camps near borders, ports of entry, pieces of ocean across which people (refugees in particular, I think but I'm not positive this is Bush's point) pass, from one nation to another.

Where possible, he gets multiple images over time, and creates an animation that illustrates the changes. We see refugee camps growing (or, possibly, shrinking), we see border fence infrastructure expanding, we see boats coming and going from ports and on chunks of ocean.

In terms of the basic structural material, well, the work certainly hangs together being more or less the same visual methods, and closely allied content, over and over. It is in that sense balanced, because it's all more or less the same thing. Visually, there is some variety, some interest, as he's selected various kinds of landscapes and seascapes for this project. The conceptual drumbeat, though, is clear, it's all borders, it's all about expansion of infrastructure aimed at keeping people out. Or at any rate, that's what I assume. The format allows one to read it as the shrinking of infrastructure aimed at keeping people in, but that strikes me as unlikely.

As for sequence, there's not a lot of wiggle room here. He mixes things up to avoid visual monotony, here's a refugee camp, here's a fence, here's an ocean, here's an office building and, here we are back at a refugee camp. tumblr does not exactly allow sophisticated sequencing, to be fair, and tumblr is probably the best available choice for animated GIFs, so I can't fault Bush here.

So, I'll stipulate that structurally this is pretty good. It flows tolerably, it's interesting enough to look at, it hangs together. Even though these things are not in and of themselves which are either Good or Bad, we can say that the work possesses these qualities, and that they make it more or less interesting to look at, structurally.

So how does this extend outward, how does it fill itself in to create a larger picture? I guess it does a solid job of expressing the idea of an expanding mission to contain people. The ocean pictures are a little vague, but I think they add both visual interest, and also lead us conceptually outwards to the bigger idea of the nation-states of the world are expanding their structures for containing/excluding people (refugees? other?) so I think they work, even though they're a bit of a puzzle when you first see them.

So far, so good. Bush has captured and expressed a pretty Big Idea.

But what is he trying to say?

This is where I get stuck. He doesn't seem to be saying anything beyond these structures are expanding. We can guess, if we know a little bit about Bush, that he silently adds and isn't it awful! afterwards, but this doesn't really read in the work itself, that I can see. We're free to project our own ideas, and perhaps that is all I am doing here. I think an isolationist Le Pen supporter might look at this work in-depth and read ... and that's a terrific thing! just as well.

Bush doesn't want to make a stand, he declines to take a position. Or, perhaps, he hasn't worked out how to insert a position into this work, how to make a more definite statement.

I suspect, but do not know for sure, that he is indulging in a fetish current among documentary types to just show the facts. No judgements, no positions, merely the facts. This forces, I suppose, the viewer to engage critically with the work or something, but ultimately reads as simply weak and lazy. By being unwilling to say anything beyond the bare facts of the case, the artist need not do the artistic work of making work that speaks. The documentarian, under the current fetish, can simply assemble any random jumble of facts, visual or otherwise, and leave it at that.

Bush, to his credit, has done somewhat more than that. He has assembled a set of visual facts that support the idea of an expansion of certain aspects of the state, which is more than a random jumble of facts. Still, while he has done a little more than a random jumble, he has not done a great deal more than the random jumble does.

Distinguishing this kind of work from conceptual laziness is, I think, literally impossible. While Bush has clearly done an enormous amount of technical labor here, and has clearly come up with an idea he wishes to express, his conceptual work seems to have simply petered out early, and if my suspicions are correct, that is on purpose, by design.

And coming back around to the beginning. I was surprised to see how visually interesting the work is, and how well it hangs together, structurally. My early impressions were of a monotonous bunch of nothing, and it's not that.

Conceptually, I didn't find any surprises. Bush simply doesn't have much to say here.

Yay



Issues 1 and 2 of Milnor's "Essay" series. And a test copy of one of mine, to save on shipping. More later.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Thinking About Portfolios

I am going to spend a few words here writing down how I think about a group of pictures and accompanying material. A book, a gallery show, an online portfolio, a box of pictures. It turns out that whenever I review something, a day or so later I think to myself damn it! I forgot... So I want to take a moment now to write down the things I think matter when looking at a body of work.

Soon, I'll be looking at some bodies of work, and hopefully by having performed this exercise, I will be in better shape in terms of the various ways I evaluate the work.

First and foremost, the only things that really matter are aesthetics and utility. Do I like it in some way (aesthetically), which is inextricably entangled with does it work (utility). Does the artist have something to say, something to communicate; can I discern roughly what that is; and does the work succeed in making that communication. Secondarily, is the something worth communicating. Ultimately the goal of criticism needs to be to answer those questions. I don't think anything else really matters.

Still, to answer a big question, one often breaks it down into little questions. Here is, roughly, the collection of "little questions" I think are worth digging through before tackling the "big questions."

Technical aspects. I like to think of portfolios in terms of unity, variety, and balance. Does the work hang together as one? Is there variation sufficient to keep it interesting? And, well, is there balance. Whatever that means. Like pornography, I know it when I see it? These are not criteria for judging value; the work need not be balanced to be good. They're just rough metrics, not that different from how many pictures are there?

Sequencing. Is there, or is there not, flow? How do the pictures relate to one another, and can I follow those relationships? Again, just a kind of metric, although without some sort of functional sequence, I don't really see how a portfolio can work. Sequencing has some relationship to the three qualities just mentioned. Does it emerge from them? Or vice versa? I don't know, and I don't think it matters.

trame and the opposite. What is actually in the pictures, and what is implied by the pictures but not in them? How does the combination of those two things work? Does it create a coherent whole, a complete "story", or something else? This is some sort of gestalt idea, what is the sum total reaction I get looking at this stuff?

Content. The elephant in the room, the biggest single factor. What the hell are these pictures of?

I think that unity, variety, balance, and sequencing should work together to support content, producing the gestalt reaction. So each thing, sort of, builds on the previous. But things feed backwards as well. Content plus the previous "structural" ideas leads to my total reaction to the work, I think.

At this point, I think I can now evaluate the big questions. Does it work? What's it trying to say? It that worth saying? Does it succeed in saying it?

And then, finally, as the final judgement, because I am not a weenie, is this stuff any damn good?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Scholarship of Fakery

In the recent teapost-storm over Souvid Datta we see a fair number of shrill doofuses trying to attack Magnum by digging up the same old stories about Capa. "The fire he faced at Omaha Beach wasn't withering as he said, it was relatively light!" and so on. Most famously, did he stage the Falling Soldier photo or not? The naysayers, of course, are sure he did.

They can't even read the wikipedia page to learn the juicier accusation that Capa didn't even shoot it. Their historical ignorance is, as a rule, astoundingly complete.

Anyways, be that as it may. In 1936 we were just learning that handy device for discrediting photographs we don't like by accusing them of being staged, modified, faked, or what have you. My intention here is to give you a little insight into the kinds of scholarship that turn up in this little cottage industry of tearing down.

In 1936 James Agee and Walker Evans spent some time with some sharecroppers, documenting their lives with photos and words. The assignment was for Forbes, and the resulting article was, for a long time, lost. More on that in a moment. Forbes declined to publish, so the two eventually (1941) put out a famous book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which is a pile of experimental writing from Agee, and some pictures by Walker Evans. Everyone knows the pictures, and nobody has read the book.

In the 1991 James Curtis published a book entitled Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth in which he points out the now-obvious fact that the FSA photography project was propaganda. In it he makes the claim that Walker Evans moved stuff around to make better pictures, while on assignment with Agee. This is something Evans would deny vigorously. He didn't think moving things around made better pictures, but I don't think he gave much of a damn in terms of literal truth of the frame. At any rate, not in the modern hysterical sense.

Curtis has a lot to say in his book, much of which seems to be pretty spot on. He does, however, level specific accusations at Evans. He wants to say that Evans staged all sorts of stuff, moved things around on the sharecropper cabins willy-nilly. He's on pretty shaky ground, but he has one big smoking gun that makes the rest of his stuff seem more credible. His arguments are repeated, questioned, and ultimately found to be pretty sound in Errol Morris's book Seeing is Believing. The smoking gun is this:

At one point in Agee's writing there is an exhaustive list of the contents of a mantel. In Evans's photo of the same mantel we see much of what Agee describes, and an Alarm Clock, not mentioned in the list. At this point, Curtis essentially makes the argument that it looks like a travel alarm clock, the kind Evans would have, and without saying as much "and what would a bunch of poor dumbshit farmers have a clock for anyways." The whole argument hinges on the idea that the family doesn't have a clock because why would they, and also Agee doesn't mention a clock in his text.

I will now quote from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In this passage, in a section entitled The House is Left Alone Agee is talking about what it's like to be alone in the house, inspecting it unwitnessed:

... it is now my chance to perceive this, their home, as it is, in whose hollow heart resounds the loud zinc flickering heartbeat of the cheap alarm two hours advanced upon false time; ...


I'm going to start swearing loudly now, because this still infuriates me, years later. These Curtis's crap is everywhere, thanks to Errol Morris, and that angers me.


Goodness me. What could this be. Why, it's Agee, saying that the Gudger family owns a fucking cheap alarm clock.

Curtis didn't read the goddamned book. Errol Morris didn't read the goddamned book. Curtis's critics, to their eternal shame, evidently didn't read the goddamned book. Has anyone except me read this fucking thing?

This is just lousy scholarship. Curtis simply couldn't be bothered to wade through what is admittedly a difficult book to check his assertion (or, worse, maybe he did and just hoped that nobody else would, an apparently worthy hope).

The original Agee article was eventually unearthed and published in 2013, well after Curtis and Morris did their damage, as Cotton Tenants. This book contains the following footnote:

Though each family has a lowprice alarm clock and as a rule keeps it wound and is respectful of it, the clock is almost invariably an hour or two fast or slow, and they are innocent of any time except the sun's.


Now, I don't know anything about the allegations surrounding Capa's "fakery" beyond what I've read on wikipedia, and I don't care. The point is this: there's some very bad scholarship out there. You can make a name for yourself tearing down, and you don't have to be very careful about it.

Curtis, for reference, is a vastly more respectable scholar than most of the people involved in tearing down in this modern era of the Internet.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Conscientious Photo on Mosse

I spent some time the other day bitching about sophomoric reviews of this Mosse guy, and was waiting with well-chewed nailed for Colberg's review.

Colberb is not 100% reliable, but he's come through in spades this time. He's reviewed the book that goes with Mosse's recent show. And look! He gives us a little context to explain how he's thinking about it, what the current political situation is like (just enough to understand what he's saying) and then tells us his reaction to the book, both immediate and at longer remove, and then he judges the damned thing and tells us that it's simply not very good.

Possibly I approve too much on the grounds that his review exactly matches my vague impression of Mosse's show (which I have not seen).

This is a review to aspire to. This is real criticism. Thanks, Jörg!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Some Indian Photographers

This rambles a bit. I have tried to rein it in some, but, it's still wandering around.

A brief preamble to begin. I had a moment of crisis when I realized that, in effect, I am demanding that non-western photography be to a degree incomprehensible to me to be "truly non-western" which you could certainly read as way to be a racist dickhead, Andrew, with your stereotype of the inscrutable east. I thought about discarding the idea as just that, but I cannot. It's not that the east is inscrutable, it's that I am ignorant. Not, I hope, much more than the average person, but I don't know everything, I don't grasp your culture in any meaningful or complete way.

So, I am sticking to my guns. If some non-westerner shows me photographs that are easy for me, I am going to treat them as (probably) essentially western photographs shot by a non-westerner.

But this begs the question, is there any such thing as non-western photography? Or is it all just pictures, sometimes of non-western stuff, sometimes of western stuff, but all pretty much the same thing? It seems silly to parse the photograph apart from its contents, but I think there's something to be poked at here. Various cultures famously have different ideas of personal space, for instance how close you should stand to a person you're conversing with. Perhaps this, I imagine, might manifest in how photographs are framed, or similar. A photograph that feels extremely intimate to me might, I imagine, seem a trifle removed and distant to someone else.

Surely other, less obvious, aspects of culture might inform the overall aesthetic, the "look" of the work? Or, more obvious. Could not African traditional art inform the photography of an African?

It is certainly true that there can be cultural barriers (indeed, there often are) in grasping the content of a picture. This is mostly what I experience. Still, I feel that there may be essentially photographic things that could throw my understanding off as well.

Another aside before I start looking at pictures. Art photography, in my mind, has to take a position, it needs to make a statement. You have to want to express something, and the body of work should be judged largely on the basis on how well it says what you want it to say. Documentary photography needs to be more objective, obviously, we're trying to tell truth here after all. Taking too strong of a position will slant the story (and all too often it does).

Still, it seems to me that there is some strong overlap between simply telling the story, and taking a position.

The difference between photojournalism and the artistic photo essay is, perhaps, that the former tells a true story with true pictures, and the latter need not.

A recent piece on another matter which I read cites Ritesh Uttamchandani as one of India's great, but unsung-in-the-west, photographers. Looking through the work, I see, obviously, that the content is non-western. The people don't look like me, the land and the buildings don't look like Bellingham, WA, USA. Do the photographs look different?

I'm not sure. I see stylistic echos of Raghubir Singh, but I could just be imagining things. I also see, in Uttamchandani's "Ceilings" portfolio (under short stories) what looks like a nod to Eggleston, but it could simply be that the guy was shooting ceilings (he was) and one of them happened to be red. Or did he see the red ceiling, and pass through Eggleston to I should shoot these ceilings? Does Uttamchandani even know who Eggleston is? I don't know, but I certainly read a reference to the Eggleston picture, and perhaps that's what matters.

In any case, in both the work of Singh and Uttamchandani I see something stylistic, a sense of space (yes, that sounds lame, and it is, sorry). I don't know if it's an accident, my personal prejudice, or something essentially Indian. Maybe they both just like wider lenses than I do.

If it is just wide lenses, is that an Indian choice or a personal preference, indistinguishable from the personal choices of a westerner? How would I even know?

I've mentioned Singh before, here where I noted that he seemed to be to be showing me a more real India than Steve McCurry (not that this is a stretch). I get the same sense from Uttamchandani's photographs. I am willing to accept that India actually looks like that. Now, Uttamchandani's work suffers to my eye from being documentary in nature, he's not taking any position on anything. Even the "Ceilings" work, which strikes me as an attempt at Art, the sort of place where one might make a comment or take a position, he does not. He's simply documenting ceilings (and, incidently, illustrating a somewhat narrow view of human sex. Do prostitutes really look at the ceiling all the time during their work? I admit that I don't know.)

Even though the text suggests that Uttamchandani has some strong opinions about Bal Thackeray, his pictures again of the man's funeral again appear to me to take no position, make no statement.

While, in a sense, this is what you want from documentary pictures, in the end I think Uttamchandani's unwillingness to take a position means that he's not even telling a story. His work seems designed to illustrate the stories written by other people, which I think is literally true.

Anyways. I feel strong western influences in these pictures, but also that sense of space which comes from somewhere. A western influence is expected, I guess. Photography isn't really old enough to have a huge backlog of history to draw from, and much of that history is western. Uttamchandi might well and reasonably have shot an homage to Eggleston, why not? But perhaps there is also something essentially Indian here, apart from the content.

And, in closing, if Uttamchandani is a mighty photographer, one of the truly great from India, I am not really seeing it. But then, I could be missing it, couldn't I? That's kind of my point here.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Enough!

That's enough about media and ethics for a while.

I am pleased to report that I have a couple blurb publications by Daniel Milnor on their way to me, so when the US Postal Service sees fit to gift me with my new possessions, I will be writing a review of them, and trying to distill out some ideas worth stealing.

I will share all but the very best of those ideas with you, hoarding the last few for myself and myself alone.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Documentary Photography and Truth

I'm going to set out for your consideration this thesis: that the only relevant yardstick for measuring documentary photography is its inherent "truth" (which will prove slippery in a few more lines). I want to set aside even ethical considerations. While documentary work gathered unethically (whatever that means) reflects on the photographer, and may define whether we want to do business with the photographer, or gift that photographer with our attention, ethics play no role in judging the work itself.

What it "truth" here? In photography we can talk of many layers of truth. You could make a book of entirely staged photos that told some "truth", in the same way that a novel or a play reveals truth.

This isn't documentary.

In documentary work we traditionally have truth all the way up and down the ladder of abstraction. There are probably many ways to dissect this, but here's one. We desire "truth" in the details of the literal picture, that what appears to be in the frame is what was actually there. We desire truth in the "story" implied by the contents of the frame, where we construe "story" very broadly. If she appears sad, it is because she was sad, and so on. We desire truth across the sequence of photographs, that the "story" implied by the sequence, the captions, and any accompanying text be also true.

But what does "true" mean? Well, in many cases there isn't an objective truth. If I collect a bunch of completely unaltered photographs of some world leader looking like a drooling idiot (or a wise statesman) there are many who would argue that this is "true" and many others who would disagree. There is no resolution, here. The individual frames are all "true" but the greater story implied by the sequence is subject to interpretation.

I propose to deal with this issue by ignoring it here. I do not think it's important to what I want to talk about.

Souvid Datta has been "outed" as having plagiarized and photoshopped a picture. To my eye, his photoshopping made the picture "false" in several ways. The literal contents of the frame did not look like that. The story implied by his modified frame, and supported by his caption, are both untrue. While there may have been a woman named Asma who had a friendship with a younger woman named Rhadika, this picture does not depict Asma (that's a plagiarized picture of a transvestite) nor does it depict the story of that friendship.

According to an interview with Datta on time.com, there was an Asma and a Rhadika, but Asma did not wish to be photographed. This is supported, albeit weakly, but the existence of another picture captioned to identify these two women if you poke around the internet.

Datta has lost an essential element of my trust, here. While it does not make his entire Sonagachi essay collapse, it certainly weakens it in my eyes.

Ok, so far so good. Now let's consider what the world has said in judgement of Datta.

In general nobody gives a damn that the picture is untrue. What matters is that it's photoshopped. Ben Chesterton's tiny twitter mob, the commenters on PetaPixel, all are obediently mouthing the "photoshopping is terrible and wrong and Datta should suffer" routine. This is a standard bit of theater that serves the western press extremely well.

Gene Smith "photoshopped" a lot of things, a lot of documentary things. What he did not do, as far as I know, was to falsify any of the pictures in the ways I am describing. He did not alter the facts of the frame, he did not alter the story implied by the frame (although he enhanced it, indeed, that was the point of his manipulations -- to emphasize what was already there), and so on.

It's not the photoshop that matters, it's the falsification, and nobody seems to get that.

Not to accuse anyone of conspiracy, and I genuinely do not think there is one, but let me re-iterate a couple of themes I have gone over in the past.

The "no photoshop!" idea is a self-serving fig leaf invented by the press to create the illusion of truthfulness. By asserting that the facts of the frame will never be altered in a photo that appears in the New York Times, the NYT essentially claims that you can trust them to carefully husband the truth through all the layers of abstraction. This is manifestly false, of course, as anyone who has read the NYT knows.

Similarly, the "ethical reporting" standards invented largely by NGOs have the side effect of guaranteeing that, in the interest of protecting human dignity, all negative stories are vague and distant. The only stories with names, dates, places, and journalistic punch, are the positive ones. This creates a built-in pro-NGO, pro-western slant to the coverage. We've all experienced it. When an NGO has failed, it's "groups of refugees somewhere in Africa" and when an NGO has succeeded it's all "Lakshaki, thanks to the assistance of blah blah now runs the trendiest tea shop in the bustling technology hub in Mumbai!"

And so we have a generation of media types, like Ben Chesterton, who are devoted to rule-following. They believe, I think genuinely, that by abiding by guidelines and rules they ensure that they are Truth Tellers. Their identity is tied up with being Truth Tellers, it is unimaginable to these people that they are anything but. They know that they are, they are assured of their basic goodness, because they abide by the rules.

Souvid Datta's crimes were not, in their eyes, about a failure to tell truth, but about failures to abide by rules. While Datta did fail in his duty to the truth, this is irrelevant to Chesterton, it is irrelevant to the mobs, it is irrelevant to all who would judge Datta. What matters is that he broke the rules.

Since he broke the rules, he must be destroyed. If he had merely falsified the story while complying with the rules, all would be well with the world. After all, that's what the press does.

The rules, let us review, have very little to do with Truth Telling. And Truth Telling in turn is the only thing that actually matters in documentary photography.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Souvid Datta

UPDATE: The photographer has been "outed" as having photoshopped one of his pictures, lifting a person from a well-known photo essay on Indian prostitutes from the 1970s and pasting that person into one of his pictures, around 2014. At this point, I am thinking about what that means. I will probably write more on it later, but it's not likely to affect my positions on Ethics or Media, although it inevitably will color how I feel about Souvid Datta and his work.

The work I'm going to talk about appears here. It's not easy work to look at, but it has a sort of weird beauty to it, and I think it's quite well done. There's a nice balance of text and pictures, working together to paint a more or less complete picture.

That said, I am not from Kolkata, I have never even visited India, and much of what I am looking at certainly escapes me.

What is clear is that the situation is terrible, that Datta is vigorously opposed to it and seeks to change it, and that he has gained somewhat remarkable access to show us what is there. While everyone "knows" that there's a terrible global problem with child trafficking, usually for the purposes of sex, it's quite another thing to have specific locations, names, people, faces confronting us. It's not just vaguely distant problems any more.

The pictures are weirdly lovely. There's what has to be a conscious Steve McCurry look to them, but it's sure as hell not McCurry's India. We see a man holding the cleaver he uses to kill people. We see prostitutes of all ages, bonding together, sharing joy, anger, and anguish with one another because there is nobody else to share it with. We see the community, we sense the uneasy (terrible? bad? but more complicated than that) relationship between the girls (the slaves) and their environment. On the one hand, they are slaves. On the other, this is home, this is their life.

In one photograph, a transvestite is described as auditioning. What that means, I do not pretend to know, but it suggests a degree of agency.

I don't pretend to understand the depths of it all, but I do know that it's nothing like the American conception of slavery. It's not just vicious overseers, and always the possibility of escape to the north. In reality, there may be no escape, there may not be a situation for these women which is both conceivable and better. In reality, their captors are not faceless thugs with infinite authority (although we do not see their faces, the women obviously do). The relationship is something I cannot understand, but it's not merely jailor/prisoner.

The women are slaves, captives, but they are ensnared by more than simple force of arms. The preamble text Datta provides suggests/confirms my own guess that all of society conspires to keep them in bondage.

Escape is evidently possible, Datta's primary subject is apparently out of the system. Still, the women depicted come in all ages, which suggests that not everyone escapes

This is literally what photography does. If Datta followed the de-fanging guidelines of the global press, and the global aid organizations, and so on, we wouldn't see this. We'd be left with more vague "oh my, how awful" and then we could move on.

It is notable to me that the recent critic of Datta's work, Benjamin Chesterton, is a white guy. Representing a company composed of four white guys. A company with the actual mission of teaching people to produce media content that meets the various guidelines imposed by other white, western, people. Reading the UNICEF guidelines, I am struck by how embedded the various western ideas are in it. Baked into the whole mess is the assumption that there are, somewhere, responsible adults around who care and can provide guidance. Baked in is the idea that there's a strict line between Children and Adults. Etcetera.

The reality shown in Datta's pictures seems to, in no way, map on to UNICEF's guidelines. Nothing except the broadest "try not to get anyone killed" ideas seem to translate.

Chesterton has cited the work of groups (presumably more white people, or if genuinely multi-ethnic then led and funded by white people) who are working away on these problems. Datta's point is that these well-meaning foreigners are not making a dent in Sonagachi. As one would expect, to be quite blunt. Organizations founded and funded to solve a problem almost invariably drift toward perpetuating the problem rather than solving it.

We have in our hand, in fact, a nice sample of how the drift occurs. One of the kinds of things organizations like UNICEF do is write guidelines like UNICEF's. By setting up a reasonable sounding standards, informed by the affluent and basically safe west, we end up with standards that produce journalism without teeth. Vague, distant, journalism, that keeps the funding flowing, but doesn't say unpleasant things like UNICEF isn't doing a goddamned thing to help child prostitutes in Sonagachi and doesn't demand action in specific places, to change specific things. Keep it vague and distant, and let the affluent white people in their London offices decide how to allocate the funds, thank you for your donation.

This is not to suggest that UNICEF et al are evil schemers. Certainly not. Every single person involved in drafting those standards for media was a good-hearted soul, trying to do their best for the kids. But the result was shitty, gutless, journalism. Chesterton's firm will, for a fee, teach you how to produce that kind of work. No wonder Chesterton has beef with Datta.

These people are all doing their committee-driven best to help the kids. One result is shitty, toothless journalism. Another result is a nice little add-on industry so that people like Chesterton can make a living teaching people how to make shitty, toothless, journalism. These are just side effects, but who's complaining? It's good for everyone! Well, it's not so great for the now conveniently faceless, nameless, kids in Kolkata. But you can't have everything.

Datta is the bull in the china shop, demanding specific action and revealing that the westerners and their standards are, well, at best not particularly useful. Of course the western establishment dislikes him. Being careful, I will not ascribe this to Datta as a specific intent, but it's certainly a reading of his work.

I have to admire Chesterton's hubris, though. A white British guy who wants to dictate to an Indian guy how he ought to deal with an Indian problem in India. There was a whole thing about that, you know. But some of the British just won't let go.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

On The Ethics of Photography

We tend to treat the ethics of taking photographs in a very much black and white fashion. We judge He should never have shot that or alternatively She is on firm ground shooting that, it is OK and then arguments revolve around that, never resolving anything. We see Rules Written and Guidelines and so on, to protect people. In the recent lensculture/duckrabbit spat, we see duckrabbit citing UNICEF rules and guidelines, for example.

Here are, for example, some of UNICEF's guidelines. The first, general, parts are excellent, but very general. When you get in to specific guidelines, things become a little dicier, as we shall see. While I applaud efforts for UNICEF and everyone else to protect kids, victims, indigenous peoples, and everyone else, the effort to do so with rules and guidelines is necessarily naive.

Photographs are intimately tied to context. You cannot, a priori, say that such and such a photograph exploits or stigmatizes someone or something. While the picture might be exploitative in one context, change the caption or change the pictures around it, and it becomes a powerful message of hope, a driver of change, an examination of human tragedy, or what have you. It is therefore absurd to say you must not take that picture.

Less naively, you could try to encapsulate in guidelines shoot whatever you want, but never show it except in a "good" way, whatever that means. This is, obviously, difficult to distill into rules and guidelines, although UNICEF is clearly trying to do just that.

Consider instead this approach to photographic ethics.

Every picture you take constitutes, in at least a tiny way, an exploitation. Photograph a stranger on the street, without asking. Then ask them if they feel you've given them something, taken something, or if the transaction was neutral. I submit that in the majority of cases the answer will be I feel as if you took something from me. You can argue with the stranger if you like, but there's no changing the fact of how they feel about it.

Consider, then, that every picture comes with a built-in debt. You owe the subject (be it a homeless man, a flower, or a rock) some degree of respect, of care in handling of the picture. You owe the subject your effort to do something worthwhile with the picture.

If you start to examine photography through this, excuse the pun, lens, then many tricky issues become clear. Photographing the homeless on the streets of the USA? It's no longer a "you should" versus "you shouldn't" issue. Instead, you owe those homeless people a debt, you carry a responsibility to do well with the pictures. Perhaps sticking them up on your instagram feed doesn't really discharge your responsibility, whereas publishing a moving photo essay in a local publication does.

You get to decide, and each of us decides as well. It's not really a set of rules that we use to enforce standards, but rather a system we can use to understand and discuss our own reactions. Instead of saying that guy shouldn't have shot those pictures we say instead I do not think she carried out her responsibilities well enough.

Getting back to the issue that started it. Did Souvid Datta have the "right" to take his photos of exploited girls? Yes. That question isn't even meaningful. He did incur a hell of a debt, though. By taking those pictures, he took on a huge responsibility to respect his subjects, to in some fashion serve them well with these pictures. That means to show them in contexts that are appropriate, that may mean to work specifically to improve the lots of the girls in Sonagachi.

It looks as is Datta is at any rate trying to accomplish this. He seems to be aware of his burden.

lensculture, having some of these pictures in their hands, had a similar obligation, a similar burden of debt to the subjects. They failed to appropriately carry that responsibility, but crassly used one of the photos to advertise what certainly looked like a for-profit photo contest. At any rate, in the judgement of many people, and in mine, they failed in their responsibility.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Terror of Photography

Surveying the remains on twitter it appears that there was a tiny little tempest yesterday, lensculture (some twitter account representing something or other) posted a picture of a (possibly) underage probably-trafficked prostitute with a fellow on top of her in, well, an extremely suggestive arrangement. The assumption is that an act of prostitution was taking place. You might argue this has no place on twitter, but given the gruesome things people say on twitter, it's not clear that there is a line.

Lensculture has take then thing down and apologized, which is generally a sure sign that a bunch of idiots piled on and howled about how awful it was. That said, I don't know for sure and cannot be buggered to go find out.

I only noticed one member of the (presumed) pile-on team, Lewis Bush, who said this: Re this: Tendency in doc of taking/using photos that seem more about showing photogs skill for access than anything. This is a particularly upsetting example, but you see it all the time. Incongruous 'intimate' images that often have little to do with story and which in the process put subjects on public display to an (I think) uncomfortable, unnecessary degree.

Lewis seems to be complaining that documentary photographers are getting too close, too intimate. That they are exploiting their subjects. And specifically saying, bizarrely, that a photograph of sexual exploitation has little to do with a story on sexual exploitation.

I can imagine how Lewis and his crew of sterile junior league academics would handle this story: photos of receipts, facades of buildings, some "appropriated" surveillance footage, and a bunch of bollocks about dialecticss comma playing with. Which they would hang in a "pop-up gallery" (i.e. someone's spare room) and then they would write about at length how bold they all are.

In a piece about sexual exploitation of minors you have to take that picture. This is the point of photography, to deliver the basically emotional this is really real punch. It sucks, it is itself more exploitation, but there's no point in having pictures for this piece if you haven't got that picture. You can't do a photo essay on soup without having a picture of some soup. If you cannot stomach a picture of a child being raped, well, good for you. It's a terrible thing to see. I got no problem with that. But now it's not a photo essay, it's a piece that doesn't include pictures, and that is OK too.

You can write an essay about soup without any pictures. David Foster Wallace famously wrote a long essay about lobsters and I am pretty sure there are no pictures of lobsters in it. But that's an essay.

So your documentary photographer is engaged in this act of exploitation. So what? It's all exploitation. Consider the reaction of people around the world to being photographed. Go out on the street and photograph some people. Do they act like you are handing them dollar bills and candy? Generally, no. Generally, they act like you are taking something. Given that these are emotional things, their emotional reaction is the reality. You really are taking. You are exploiting.

Sontag was talking about this in the 70s, it's not new. And she didn't invent the idea.

The ethical photographer knows that it's all exploitation. They follow the implicit contract which is: I will take from you, but I will try my best to do something good with it.

I am pretty sure this is one reason that Lewis and his crew prefer "appropriated" pictures, and a generally more distant approach. Satellite images, very long lenses, thermal cameras, computational photography, LIDAR, and on and on. There's a theme in low-end Photographic Art to try for as much distance as possible. Instinctively these blokes feel the debt incurred, and want as little to do with it as possible. The idea of getting a short lens and taking an honest picture of a human is terrifying to them -- as it should be. It is terrifying. It's also what photography is. The reality of the photograph, that essential character, is inextricably tangled with that terror.

As with so much in photography, in Art, there is a price to be paid at every step. By photographing someone on the street, you incur a debt, you pay a price. If you're ethical, you will do your best to repay that debt by doing something worthy with that picture. You might not be Gene Smith at Minamata exposing the deformities of victims, you might not be Robert Capa taking someone's actual death, but you can at any rate be respectful of what you have. You can at any rate be careful, and be aware of your responsibility.

A guy who takes a picture of a child prostitute being raped has incurred a hell of a debt, no doubt about it. Best they try very hard to use that picture to make a difference, to do something important.