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Tuesday, 14 April 2009

How Not to Photograph: The Freak Show

picture: Colin Pantall - Only a Two on the Ballen Scale of Freakiness

Diametrically opposed to the Man of Average Height is the Freak Show. Diane Arbus was the mistress of this, showing both her regular freaks as well as flipping things round and imbuing the ordinary with a freakishness that belied their apparent conventionality.

In other words, you can photograph freaks as freaks and ordinary people as ordinary people, or you can photograph freaks as ordinary people and ordinary people as freaks. It's like a circle of life that swings from the ordinary to freaks and back again.

We are all freaks in the end, just as we are all ordinary. The only question is where you end up placing your photography on that circle of freakiness/normality. One thing that isn't any good is photographing ordinary people as ordinary people because then you just end up with a load of pictures of men of average height as mentioned in the previous post.

Photographing freaks as freaks is one of the great cliches of photography. Photographing the oddities of human nature as oddities is as insulting as calling them oddities (or freaks) in the first place. There is nothing intrinsically interesting about giants or little people or transvestites beyond the simple act of staring. Freak show photography is a trivialisation of the human condition.

It is a trivialisation that has many forms. The worst kind of photojournalism or NGO reportage, where the starving and the suffering stare big-eyed and helpless at the camera is a kind of freak show. We see people in their passive state, afflicted by conditions beyond their control, conditions that they have no power over or ability to change (only we have that power, by pledging only £5 a month, we can save...). They have no power over their starvation and disease because it is shown as intrinsically part of them. They are different to us. And because they are different to us, their afflictions are not quite the same as ours. It doesn't really matter what happens to them. They are different to us and we can stare. So we stare. But at the same time, if photography is not about staring what is it about?

The best kind of freak show is that where the freak is shown as ordinary and human. The most successful example of this from recent years are Pieter Hugo's pictures from Nigeria. He blasts his hyena men at us in full freakovision, but then undermines the effect with his muted colours and fifth-flyover landscapes. Throw in the fact that the hyena action is taking place in Africa, where you're not supposed to show that kind of thing, add the bloodshot, musclebound power of the hyena guys and you end up with a sensation of flipping between the ordinary, the exotic and the outlandish, ending up in a space where you are neither here or there. Somehow, between all these gaps other aspects of African life seem to shine through. Or am I thinking about it too much and is it just a darned good freak show?

That is Pieter Hugo (and more recently, there are photographers who do a similar, but lower-key thing admirably as well). However, most of us who attempt to do this aren't so successful. We try to show something freakish as beautiful/ordinary but this is only because we have chosen beautiful subjects in the first place, subjects with a symmetry of figure and face that belies their condition. We are choosing our freaks for their beauty in the first place and ignoring the ones who are, in conventional terms, too ugly, too scarred, too defeated, too unsymmetrical - the ones who are too freakish for our good taste. Which kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise and reveals it for what it is - an exercise in having your cake and eating it. But then what is the point of having a cake if you don't eat it.

There is also the danger of the freak becoming the slightly-odd-looking-person which also defeats the purpose of the exercise. However, many of us live in such a conformist world with such an overflow of images of distorted beauty and normality that this becomes something visionary and almost empowering - almost but not quite.

Some photographers are not remotely interested in the slightly-0dd-looking person, and his name is Roger Ballen. His cast of characters look anything but normal and the viewer can project his own genetic, physical and mental illnesses onto Ballen's subjects and the puppies, wire and scratched world that make up their photographic universe. I don't know if these imagined conditions and syndromes are any kind of reflection of reality. Perhaps Ballen's subjects all have Phd's in Rocket Science, nibble on Heston Blumenthal cuisine and dress in Prada when Ballen's not photographing them. Perhaps, but I suspect there's a bit of a South African country thing going on. That and the fact that Ballen's Hasselblad has a special Freak setting (that goes all the way to 11 and gave the name to the scale by which freakiness in photography is measured, The Ballen Scale). We don't have that kind of Hasselblad - just one reason why we shouldn't try to copy.


Stan B. said...

Am I the only one who prefers Ballen's previous "straight" portraits of freaks which subtly suggested the even more pervasive all around freakiness within and without there environment than his staged, in your face, latter day freak out concoctions?

Anonymous said...

Dissecting everything just isn't going to produce a better photographers. Better watch out, you might not find anything to photograph..

Anonymous said...

Stan, you are not alone. I saw an exhibition of his later puppies, freaks and scribbles and after the first 10 images I thought I had started at the beginning again. So did the chap I was with.

The freak thing is quite good though, as a subject. Colin I thought you might have thrown in Anders P. and Antoine D. and Anders P's protoge, whatshisnamethepictureslipmymindjustnow, or maybe the "Tokyo" guy, though perhaps they in themselves constitute another inyourface genre who many aspire too, few succeed at where one is enough to make it a genre.

Btw, Goldblatt (oh God him again, sorry I'm on a Goldblatt binge) received much criticism for a series of everyday Afrikaaners, who were indeed just everyday but seemed to have a degree of freakishness about them. Unintended I am sure. As unintended as Ballens freakishness surely is.

And what about Witkin the ultimate freak photographer? At least you know what you are getting into when you open his books.


Anonymous said...

Me again, just read anons. comment about dissection, and remembered how much Leo. Da Vinci liked dissecting things (do you thinks his mates called him Leo?, "Hej Leo how about a drop of Barolo?"), as well as designing helicopters and war machines and all sorts of things. And most of the time he was right. He was way ahead. Ironically though it was all for nowt because nobody used that knowledge, no one took it further and when it was rediscovered several hundred years later it had all been 'thought of again', by other folk. Funny to imagine what sort of war toys we would have now if someone had carried on where old Leo left off instead of waiting all those years. Or where would cardiac surgery be today with that gap?

Good old Leo.D.V


Colin, Remember to do one about Metaphors.

colin pantall said...

Hi Stan, I know what you mean but I warmed, if that is the right word, to the Cloud pictures in the end.

Anonymous, it's looking that way isn't it. But at the same time, I'm not saying don't photograph these things, just I shouldn't be so predictable about it. Still lots of things to photograph - it's just that we don't photograph them.

colin pantall said...

Great Suggestions, SA. I didn't mention Witkin because I don't really like him - and everyone I mention in the posts I really, really like (they are the how to photograph section - but of course you can't copy them because that doesn't work).

I do like the Anders/Antoine axis of evil though but know what you mean about having enough to make a genre - but there will be a section on channelling people's work - but you can do a lot worse than channelling Anders/Antoine because it's so much to do with the subject matter despite the stylistic overload.


simon anstey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
colin pantall said...

...and worth dissecting. Definitely.

Anonymous said...

You're the winner!

michael said...

Loved "the Ballen Scale" part! but even with the risk of being anal: he's using a very special Rolleiflex SLR (6008) in Freakmode. Ithink it was custommade by zis German folks in Nuremberg...

colin pantall said...

Thanks for that Michael - I always thought he used a Hasselbald do you know how the rollei it was customized (I use a 6006)