conflicts near vs far

Martin Schneider, Central Park, 2:33p Thanksgiving Day 1966, during an air pollution emergency at Con Ed’s Ravenswood facility

I was mulling over the that hairy divide between expressive and constructive documentary photography when I read in Eye of Conscience: Photographers and Social Change this bit about Michael Abramson’s photos of the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party:

Abramson respects the images of the poor and the deprived that Riis and Hine and others have made. But he points out that sixty years later, countless millions here and abroad remain “enlaved in the conditions of poverty, human degradtation, and oppression. It is time for photographers to stop photographing the victims of America and begin to record the struggle of those who fight against their victimization.”

Thinking about the difference in those two approaches in terms of victimization makes a lot of sense. How much of a photojournalist’s role is recording the circumstances and outward appearance of vicitimization, and how much is actually helping the victims or changing our own long-term behaviors and beliefs?

A few years ago, while browsing through the winners from the World Press Photo contest, it hit me that almost all the images show darker-skinned peoples suffering and struggling in one way or another. I’ve begun to think Nachtwey is right when he wonders if what he’s doing is somewhat exploitative in the film War Photographer).

Martin Schneider, mercaptan-containing mushroom cloud over pulp mill in Missoula, MT in the Rockies

Maybe the key is, not surprisingly, whether the viewer feels there’s an impact on his own life. While almost everyone feels horrible looking at photos of starving children, I doubt that many people in developed nations ever think they will find themselves in those circumstances, that war and strife will come to them. The photos are heartbreaking but unmistakably distant.

On the other hand, there’s something about Martin Schneider’s photos of air pollution and industrial plants releasing invisible toxic chemicals that is deeply scary in a far more direct way. We could breathe in those chemicals! So it becomes a question of how to demonstrate through visuals that conditions in the developing have an effect on our lives. The point is a very basic one – we are all somewhat self-focused.

I’d guess that the main reason that there has been an increase in interest in China over the past couple of years is that, in spite of the distance, most of us can very easily imagine how rapid industrialization there will affect the West in positive and negative ways, not only in a geo-political sense but simply as a consequence of living in a world of limited resources. Somehow this is going to change our lives, maybe in little ways but likely in big ways, and this makes plenty of us very interested, perhaps moreso because we don’t know.

At the end of the day what distinguishes novelty from lasting new work is that one is fairly disconnected from our lives and can only serve as passing amusement, whereas the other shows us something new about ourselves, even in very indirect ways, that we hadn’t thought of before.


~ by Jin on April 24, 2009.

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