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Monday, 20 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Make Like a Native and Weave

picture: Colin Pantall - Lijiang: Death by Tourism

There's one photographic tendency to portray other people as victims already noted in the Do Mind That post. The general idea is that these other people live in faraway lands of which we know little. The little that we do know about them tells us that these people are primitive people living lives that, in true Hobbesian form, are nasty, brutish and short. We know this because we have seen the pictures of skeletal men and screaming babies. They are helpless infants leading terrible lives only we, the people of the developed and civilized world, can provide a solution to. If only they would do as we said, then everything would be alright.

The flip side of this version of events is the Noble Savage, the Never Mind That version of events. One of the most memorable things I ever overheard whilst travelling was in Sapa, Vietnam. An Australian tourist educated to postgraduate level bemoaned the fact that the young Hmong girls would go to school and learn to read and write, thus taking away the oral tradition inherent in learning to weave, dye and embroider the Hmong clothes. The clothes are great and there are many thing wrong with Vietnamese education, especially with regard to minorities but that took the biscuit/cake; a classic example of Noble Savage relativism.

The Noble Savage is uncorrupted by civilisation, consumption and materialism. He is naturally happy and lives his life in the forests and jungles and mountains of faraway lands of which we also know little.

The Noble Savage wears colourful clothes and fancy hats. He uses feathers for decoration, plays ancient atonal music of the forests/woods/mountains. He has a good sense of rhythm and can run through the jungle like a deer or climb a mountain like a billy goat.

If he lives in the jungle, he doesn't wear many clothes at all, but if he lives in the mountains, his womenfolk weave and embroider colourful clothes that they wear on market days.

Because the Noble Savage lives outside the world of consumption, he has a simple and happy life and knows little of the evil worlds of which we are part until the loggers, miners and tourists come to visit, destroy and corrupt.

The Noble Savage looks great in a photograph and often takes part in the Vacation Slide Show. That's why it is important to photograph him, because then natural nobility shines through and it raises awareness of the threat that consumption, materialism and deforestation, mining and cheap T-shirts pose to their world.

And then they can carry on with their weaving and their foraging and water-hauling because there is nothing they like doing better. Except for posing for our pictures. They love that.

And so on...

In the 19th century people used to photographic "natives" in this manner, enthusing about their unspoilt childlike manner, so making it easier to rationalise away the abuse, enslavement and humiliation of colonialism. But that was over 100 years; people are more than the sum of their cultural token parts just as people are more than the sufferings they are forced to endure. That the truth is more complex than either both the Hobbesian and the Noble Savage ends of the spectrum portray.There are few newspaper, magazine or TV editors who are happy to show this complexity so for the time being it seems we're stuck with being shown a simplistic state of affairs in the world.

But there are lots of photographers who have cottoned on to the fact that the world is not such a simple place and try to portray a different front to the world. Perhaps the rest of us should follow suit, wherever we are, whoever we are and whatever we do. And then the world would be a better place. Perhaps.

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