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Monday, 28 May 2012

What's for Sale

 Last week I mentioned Michael Sandel's book, What Money Can't Buy, in which Sandel concluded, "The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?"

There is a crossover with Arlie Russell Hochschild's The Outsourced Self, a book (which again I have yet to read) which looks at how some people (within a particular cultural, lingual and economic minority it must be said) "outsource" their most basic social interactions.

What doesn't have a price in other words (and Blake Andrews points out that Lewis Hyde's The Gift looks at the question with respect to the arts) . Where do we stop with the price. It's a question that has great relevance to photography,  where the veneer of right-on do-goodery and some of the contradictions of the concerned photographer have been stripped of their sheen this week. Which is not surprising and might be a good thing in some ways. Too much of a consensus hints at underlying hypocrisies and double think that disguise an essential opportunism, capitalism and conservatism that has been apparent in photography since its very beginnings. More on Ron Haviv here, here, here and here.

At the same time as resisting the markets, people do need money to make work. The problem is as Hochschild points out, a belief is promoted that says that what is for sale if superior. This is extended by people in government, in business, in advertising and marketing to say that what uses the language of being for sale, what enters the discourse of the market is superior, and conversely, what does not use that language is inferior.

In the UK, this extends to education, health care, the arts and the voluntary sector (ie NGOs). The UK government believes that because Charities work with criteria above and beyond market values, that means they are somehow lesser than private enterprise. They also extend this to mean that because charities have different criteria then somehow they don't need money. This is reflected in government policy which, whilst stripping charities of funding on the one hand, is also attempting to market-ise and privatise charity work on the other. Simultaneously, there is a de-skilling of charity and NGO work, the idea being that only professions that have financial considerations as their absolute heart have any worth. David Cameron calls this practice the Big Society and it a more half-baked crock of shit idea you could not come up with.

This kind of thinking extends to education, health care and the arts. For the  photographer or the writer, it manifests itself in the stripping away of money making opportunities - in exhibition costs, in editorial fees, in commissions, in everything. Which makes it difficult to make a living, especially if there is a simultaneous increase in photographers who have a money-doesn't-matter attitude and who can afford to live in a garrett because the mattress they are crashing on is stuffed with the dollar bills of their trust fund.

So the dilemma for everybody is how to be selective in using that language of the market, when to use it and when not. And perhaps at the same time to change that language to resist it by refusing to use it, or to mess with its contradictory logic to undermine that particular, virulent way of thinking.  And I suppose, int the same way, that is the dilemma Haviv has. How do you make your money; do you take BAE money, do you take tobacco money, or government money, do you get embedded, do you do any commercial work or any government work? What publications do you work for? Do you work for Murdoch, or Fox, or the BBC, all of which have their own agendas? Is your photography carbon neutral, you make a book, what's it published on? Do you use Macs? If so, why so? How about Dell? Will you shoot the Olympics, or work for car companies or Coke or MacDonalds?  God, I'm exhausted just thinking about it.


Stan B. said...

We all live and balance our lives on various degrees of hypocrisy. Capitalism makes a righteous, guilt free existence nearly impossible. Back in the nineties I stopped banking at Citibank when they fired their... janitorial staff to "save money" and hired underpaid, non union workers- the following day I read the bank I had just switched to had close ties to the Russian mob.

Personal lifestyle choices also take their toll. If your photography is totally digital, you contribute to the abuse of people mining (and salvaging) precious metals under subhuman conditions. Totally analogue and you waste untold quantities of water washing film and prints to archival purity- and are you disposing of those chemicals properly?

We're all born despoiling and polluting our planet- and we will continue to do so for the rest of your life. Propagate and you magnify the problem. Clearly, solutions (even partial ones at that) must be found- and do, in fact, exist. Unfortunately, we have been slow, resistant- and in most cases been prevented from engaging them on any large and truly meaningful scale.

Many of us will never escape these most pernicious economic and political systems- where we can draw the line however, each and everyone of us, is to choose not to personally participate with those institutions that are solely involved in the destruction of our environment and our fellow human beings. That is the line that Mr. Haviv crossed, all the while enjoying and maintaining the publicized veneer of a... humanitarian.

Of course, he is not alone, and the more we allow those just like him to go about their business unchallenged- the more we allow ourselves to be corrupted by the very system that ingested him.

colin pantall said...

Great points Stan and I'm with you all the way on that. I think photography, especially documentary and photojournalism should be a bit more honest about itself and the way that they work and who they work with and perhaps their participation in the aggrandisement of things that are less than wholesome. Ron Haviv is just one small part of that. I do get the feeling that the line he crossed is one that many, many others have crossed before - but perhaps they are more difficult targets. The whole humanitarian schtick really wears thin for me. As you mention more honesty would be good for everyone, less pretence and saviour-complex bullshit.

At the same time, don't you get tired of all the finger pointing and witch hunt ganging up on the latest victim aspect of photographic ethics. Don't you find it tiresome, almost as tiresome as self-serving excuses for the unpalatable and hypocritical.

Stan B. said...

Perhaps it wouldn't be so wretchedly tiresome and redundant if there were, in fact, real consequences applied- regulations, reforms, transparency.

Remember Obama's pledge for the latter- he makes Nixon look like an open book. Unfortunately, it's what we've allowed ourselves to be reduced to- ineffectual finger pointing and name calling. And sometimes we're lucky to get that far. Whistle blowers are fairing worse under Obama, and even before Bush, any talk of gun control (let alone any real action or legislation) here in the States had been effectively quashed. We used to at least go through the motions after every new gun inflicted, domestic mass slaughter- no longer.

Occupy pointed a way, I'd like to say we were smart enough to listen, realize, and follow through- if only for our own self interest.

colin pantall said...

It is tiresome but I think memory is a great thing. If we can constantly remember what people say and do, the promises they make, and hold them to it in some way, perhaps we can adjust our thinking according to what our pasts, presents and consciences tell us. I think that might be good.

And if we apply that to everyone, then we can determine the seriousness with which we should take them, or the admiration which we should hold for them, or the contempt we should view them with.

And we should do that for ourselves as well as others. And if we do not end up being quite so squeaky clean and virtuous as we imagine, then maybe we should not cast stones at others so much, but instead look inside our own hearts.

But that's what you're saying anyway, Stan.

Here endeth the sermon!


John Mac said...

Colin - I think the reason why these matters are worth airing, teasing out and sometimes thoroughly dissecting in all their complexity, moral ambiguity and sometimes ugliness - is because if we dont there will grow up a generation of photographers who might not have any grasp of the moral and ethical minefield that we daily walk through, and who may consequently act without thinking about the implications of their actions. Who may lose the ability, or impetus, to actually question what they see and, perhaps crucially, what they do with what they see.

As Stan eloquently points out, every decision we make on a daily basis is in some way a compromise. We cant avoid it, but we can certainly be informed about it.

It is impossible to steer a purely ethical course through life. But what I think it is possible to do is at the very least have some idea of the compromises we are making, and be aware enough of the reasons why to be able to argue our case and show that we have actually considered the personal balance we are trying to achieve.

Personally I'd rather see compromise from someone who has made that compromise with a clear understanding of their actions, than from someone who has acted with no moral compass whatsoever, and who just shrugs it off.

The bottom line in all of this for me is that photojournalism and a lot of documentary work is all about investigating, dissecting and teasing out the nuances of a situation, and that very ability to question and honestly portray what is encountered has to be founded in something personally and morally robust. If it's not then we are all being deceived.

colin pantall said...

Absolutely, John, but one has to do it in a particular way that is considered, constructive, transparent, equitable and fair.

Otherwise all we are doing is finger-pointing. Perhaps the finger deserves to be pointed, but finger-pointing is what it is and nothing more.

Anyway, all of this is exhausting. In the last week alone, I have seen countless examples of photographers doing work that is questionable in ethical terms (and a lot of it I like). But I don't always need to view that work through an ethical lens.

At the same time, it's important we use our memory. Sometimes all we can do is shrug our shoulders and go, oh well, oh dear.

But then the next time somebody presents work that is supposedly humanitarian in nature, that proposes this, that and the other, the least we can do is remember what came before and judge it in that light.

That's important I think.