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Monday, 10 February 2020

Cultural Appropriation, Interpersonal Voyeurism, and Own Voices

How do you photograph things that are outside your realm of consciousness or knowledge? It's  a problem for photography as much as it is for literature, possibly because so much photography is about photographing the other, the exotic, the weird, the outlandish. Photography is about making things look interesting or spectacular, it's about honing in on specific elements of a scene, creating a visual inroad into something or somebody we may otherwise know little or nothing about.

It is a huge problem of course. John Edwin Mason wrote on  it for National Geographic a few years ago, commissioned by National Geographic  as part of what seemed like some soul searching on its part. But of course it's more difficult to change a way of seeing and thinking overnight, especially if the will really isn't there and a particular way of seeing is embedded in every form of photography, including those that are apparently seeking new ways of seeing.

It's  interesting to see ideas of cultural appropriation developing in fashion or literature. In literature in particular, it seems there are attempts to make the debate and the language manageable and workable, identifying what it really is that makes a story work or not work in narrative terms. This helps bring forward the debate in a constructive way that opens worlds up and makes stories that are more engaged and nuanced.

Last week in the Guardian, Nesrine Malik wrote about American Dirt - a book with Mexican protagonists written by a non-Mexican author that got a huge advance and huge controversy centred around the idea of cultural appropriation and the idea that the story is not the author's to tell..

According to Malik, the problem with American Dirt’s  is bad writing, not just cultural appropriation.

'Because here’s the real issue. Once one cuts through the noise and actually reads the book, what becomes clear is that the problem isn’t that Cummins wrote a story that wasn’t hers to tell, but that she told it poorly – in all the classic ways a story is badly told. Two-dimensional characters, tortured sentences, an attempt to cover the saga of a migrant without even addressing the wider context of migration or inequality. No wonder the book was so popular with publishers.'

Sound familiar? And here the problem of the bad story is not one that is limited to culturally appropriating authors. It is one that applies to all writers, including those who are not culturally appropriating. You can have the most woke writer, photographer or film-maker going but if they tell a two-dimensional story. Well, they're not that woke really are they.

Partly this is due to the fact that most stories written are bad stories. Most writers are bad writers, most books are not great (20,000 were published in the UK last year. They're not all hits). But partly it's due to the fact that simplistic stories are what get commissioned. Publishers and editors love a bad story, especially if it's about something that is other to them.

'Despite the claims that white authors are savaged by philistines who cry cultural appropriation at every juncture, the reality is that non-white authors are the primary victims of the publishing world’s habit of catering to cliched taste, forcing them into topical ghettoes. In 2015 the Writing the Future report found that the “best chance of publication” for a black, Asian or minority ethnic writer was down the route of literary fiction that confirms the stereotype on themes such as “racism, colonialism or post-colonialism, as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”, said report editor Danuta Kean.

The idea here is that buzzword-ticking projects, however well-intentioned, might be limiting in voice, in story, in world view. Just because you stick post-colonialism in the blurb does not make it a good story. In fact it probably makes it a bad story for all kinds of reasons. It's the same in photography where you get stories about identity, gender, or space - that challenge, interrogate, and question - but don't.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't address these issues, not at all. The question is how do you address them. In her book We Need New Stories, Malik writes that one does need to face up to one's present and past history, and that one cannot gloss over one's past. In Britain, the glossing over the past comes with a wallowing in colonial history. This wallowing is “an exercise in mass consensual dishonesty... By glossing over the detail and omitting the legacy of imperialism, the British approach towards history is defensive, therefore inevitably dishonest and, ultimately, delusional… reduced to national hagiography...'

The idea here is that things need to be recognised but in a three-dimensional manner that recognises the emotional, the personal, the creative sides of life, and goes beyond the limited didactic voice.

The current issue of Mslexia has a feature on cultural appropriation by Debbie Taylor. It quotes the problem as exemplified by Kit de Waal, as one where "When one culture, the dominant one, uses stuff that belongs to a minority culture, that minority culture can feel a sense of loss of injustice."

It also looks at #ownvoices as a guide to what might count in your own voice, and also includes this considered diversity check list developed by MOGAI writers.

For Bran Lindy Ayres of MOGAI Writers, the real question is one of laziness. Stereotypical portrayals are the product of laziness, 'whatever our identity, whatever character we are creating.' Research is central to creating rounded characters. 'It doesn't need to be a political issue. It shouldn't be about ticking a box for diversity. It's just about being a better writer.

Taylor recognises the need for stories to have research, to be three-dimensional and addresses the problem of what you can write about (it uses Girl by Edna O'Brien book as an example) and the potential blind alleyways you can get stuck in. If you can't write about anything other than what you are and the world you inhabit, then very little would get written.

Kit de Waal echoes this point with her belief that 'We want the freedom to write the book we choose, to inhabit other lives and explore the full range of our imagination and ability.'

Zadie Smith agreed, writing that she has been many things in her fictions, she has had many voices that are not her own, and recognizes that writing about others can either be a containment (ie a negative form of control through stereotyping - as with Mammy in Gone With the Wind) or something that can expand our understanding - and possibly compassion. 'I sometimes wonder,' she writes, 'if our preferred verbal container for the phenomenon of writing about others was not “cultural appropriation” but rather “interpersonal voyeurism” or “profound-other-fascination” or even “cross-epidermal reanimation”? Our discussions would still be vibrant, perhaps even still furious—but I’m certain they would not be the same.'

There are people working in the same ideas in photography, but I sometimes wonder if the language of empowerment, compassion, or engagement (to take just a few terms used) is a kind of cultural appropriation deflector shield, if all the recognition and respect and involvement doesn't create more 'interpersonal voyeurism' and 'profound-other-fascination' that is two-dimensional and flat, or just visually uninteresting and doesn't recognise the real complexity of life with all its loves, its losses, its cruelties, its dilemmas. Life isn't a simple story arc or a basic plot and if you reduce it to that in a two-dimensional manner, then you are doing yourself and those you feature a disservice. If you are recognising the complexities of life, its nuances, its passions, its emotions, its histories, and your thinking process and research reflects that, then perhaps you are not doing a disservice to those you represent.

 If writing's not interesting, you try not to read it. The same goes for photography. The complexities and contradictions of life, the flaws and imperfections, the ability to recognise our own failures are what makes things interesting. And that is why the roadmap mentioned above makes so much sense. How the story is told really. And if you flatten and simplify and idealise and deal in heartwarming cliches, then the storyis probably not going to be great. Which is exactly the point Nesrine Malik is making above.