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Monday, 24 February 2014

Paying for Pictures: Prostitutes and the Homeless

picture above by Philip-Lorca diCorcia

It's always good to see Philip-Lorca diCorcia's Hustlers and now that there is a book of the pictures out, we can read about it some more too. This is what Joerg Colberg says about the pictures, the central element of which is a transaction where diCorcia pays male prostitutes a fee (normally paid for sexual services) to take their picture.

"That’s what makes Hustlers such a powerful body of photography, such an indictment of the larger culture that spawned it. It’s all about the sex and the money and the violence. It’s all right there, sex and money in obvious ways, and the violence in the form of the larger sphere that creates the boundary conditions within which for some people there is only one way to survive."

Colberg also points out that diCorcia '...spent money given to him by the US government, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, to pay these hustlers, sticking it to Congress and their “general standards of decency.”'

The "general standards of decency" being that you don't make work that involves giving money to prostitutes. And that is exactly what diCorcia's project is about.

Another artist who paid people to pose is Barbara de Genevieve. She was also villified (along with Andres Serrano and Merry Alpern) for using National Endowment of the Arts funding to produce work that was interesting.

In her Panhandler project, De Genevieve paid homeless people to pose naked. This project arose when a student of de Genevieve was making work on the homeless and de Genevieve started listening to herself talk about how you should make work on the homeless, the language you should use about the homeless, how you should protect the homeless etc, etc. And she saw how basically she was making the homeless became this homogenised "them" where all gradations and subtlety of being are lost to

'...the politically correct situation where we have to protect "them" even though there is no collective "them" and even though the idea of protection is in itself a remnant of a rather odious colonizing attitude. I was responding in the typical, liberal, hyper-sensitive, white, academically correct mode that had been established over the past 30 years in parallel with the politically correct language of feminism and identity politics.'

With this in mind, de Genevieve worked out that

'Most problematic is the assumption made by many cultural and photographic theorists that this segment of the population is incapable of giving informed consent about the use of their image. It has become routine to denounce such images as exploitive and objectifying, based on the predictable and unexamined illusion the art world and PC liberals like to entertain - that homeless and marginalized people everywhere are a protected class of victims. I don't believe academia is really interested in providing anything but the faulty logic of protectionist rhetoric that further marginalizes already marginalized people.'

And so she went out and photographed homeless men naked. She paid them money for a hotel for the night, bought them meals and photographed them. I really like this idea. I find it strangely liberating because it doesn't employ those hierarchical ethical debates in which the photographer /artist is placed on some upper plane as part of an all-seeing, all-knowing judge and jury. And I like it because it's physical and it shows black, male nudes but this is underplayed and incidental while also being completely central.

There are lots of ways to read a picture, lots of different perspectives that play out in how we see it, how we understand it. Let's do a cake analogy because cakes are good. A picture is like a good cake, with many ingredients - where the cake has the flour, eggs, butter, sugar ingredients, a picture has how the subject sees it, how the photographer sees it, how the subject wants to be seen, how the world sees it.

Go online and find an American recipe for a cake. The cake will be great but you have to cut the sugar in half or you end up with something that is sickly-sweet. Similarly for pictures. Follow the American/Angloid recipe for pictures and you end up placing too much emphasis on how a very small section of non-picture making critics see the picture. You end up with too much superiority, bitterness and constraint. You lose the earthiness, physicality and uncertainty.

All de Genevieve is doing is taking one or two of those perspectives down a shift and returning things to a more egalitarian and organic balance. See her pictures and watch the videos of them being made here and  and read her project statement here.

There's an interview here.

Barbara de Genevieve Panhandler Project

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