Thursday, 22 May 2008

Salgado and Afghanistan


picture - Sebastiao Salgado

From mines in Kentucky, to mines in Brazil and this image from Salgado's Sierra Pelada series. I love this image for its complexity - it combines economic, racial, social and environmental elements in a manner that also resonates with symbolism from the religious and art historical.

Salgado has been criticised for the sentimentality of his work and the inherent exploitation of its subject - Victim photography with a capital V. Alfredo Jaar was one critic - he made his own pictures of Sierra Pelada miners and showed them in a massive print in a gallery setting as a counterpoint to Salgado's exploitative images.

Not sure quite what the thinking was behind Jaar's rhetoric and how the agency or empowerment of the miners quite worked out in the scheme of things. I'm not even sure if ethics and exploitation are even terms that should apply for photographers working in this situation. It is a little self-centred to measure a humble snapper's (and great as he is, Salgado is just a humble snapper - as is Dijkstra, Mann, Lux, Crewdson, Sherman or whoever) efforts on the same level as the economic wheels that destroy an environment and the people that live in it.

Anyways, the great thing about old school photographers like Salgado is they do get straight to the point and show the peopled environment - he shows the environment people live in, their effect on it and the effect economic forces have on how they live in it.

I find this much more appealing than abstracted representations of environmental disaster, famine or war - representations that remove the people from the equation and show aftermaths of events denuded of human habitation. Jacques Ellul’s suggested propaganda was "an enterprise for perverting the significance of events."
Sure, Salgado might have once had a sentimental optimism (and why not?), but he also addressed the issue head on - he didn't pervert the significance of events.

By contrast, photographers who denude a landscape or nation of its people do, perhaps not in isolation, but certainly in combination with the work of others and also by circumstance do. Two of the main British representations of Afghanistan in recent years are Simon Norfolk's Afghanistan and Paul Seawright's Hidden. Hidden is a sophisticated work (by far my favourite of Seawright's work) but it doesnt' stand in isolation. Throw Norfolk's work in, add the odd Sunday Times photo-essay of marines camping out in the desert, follow up with a bit of Royal PR on behalf of Prince Harry, watch BBC Television's broadcasts on the Eurasian campaign and a common theme emerges - nobody lives in Afghanistan, there are no people there ( bar the odd balloon seller) the place is empty, the enemy is invisible and it's just a dried up old desert. That's what we are repeatedly shown and that is what we see - a perception that does "pervert the significance of events".

Except it's not a dried up desert of course. So, given the option between picturesque images of pockmarked palaces and orphans and war dead, I'll take the latter anyday, even Luc Delahaye.

3 comments:

Stan B. said...

I've never understood people who criticize photographers for taking photographs of their subject matter in the most creative and/or direct or illuminating manner possible. To do any less would be the real disservice to the subject. And it's usually not all that difficult to tell when the subject matter is truly being exploited or manipulated.

Both history and photography are best served by accurate representations of the causes, actions and consequences of an event. As any boxer knows, the job gets done with combinations.

Colin, too bad you weren't at Mr. Norfolk's talk at NYPH '08 to raise your hand!

colin pantall said...

Well said Stan - what exactly did Simon Norfolk say in New York?

Stan B. said...

http://www.robertwrightphoto.com/writing/?p=230