Monday, July 13, 2009

Representing the Unrepresentable: Locating the Viewer in a Position of Power

This is part eight in series of posts adapted from a paper titled Representing the Unrepresentable: Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange that I read at the Aesthetics of Catastrophe symposium at Northwestern University. Each post stands alone, but the series is best read as a whole starting here.

In an interview with World Press Photo Evelien Shotsman, the picture editor of Oxfam Novib, lays out her basic strategy in establishing a means of framing her subject, the world’s poor.
For a photojournalist it is not effective anymore just to try and capture the facts of life or tell an untold story. The media won't pay, the people won't buy.

We are spoilt: seen it, been there, done it.

It is getting more difficult for NGO's to convince the general public of the moral obligation people have in the rich parts of the world to support the less fortunate living in the poor parts.

But I still think photography is a strong tool in advocating a world without poverty.

Not by trying to capture the big contemporary issues, like climate change and food crises in a general way. But by telling small stories of people trying to live a small but happy life. Not by trying to show "the truth" but by showing that the truth has many faces.

For people to become interested, they need to be moved in an emotional and esthetical way.

So all techniques, manipulations and enhancements are allowed to highlight the emotional quality of the photo. In this sense I see a need for the photojournalist to become a photo artist of reality.
The photojournalist has always been a photo artist of reality. There never was any other alternative. What Shotsman is recognizing is that direct political visual interactions with world poverty are not welcome either by the broad viewing public or the media. What she is calling for are new forms of depicting world poverty that are marketable within media business models that are increasingly dependent on advertising for their viability.

The interaction between the “people in the rich parts of the world” and the images she describes is a profoundly political exchange in itself, for it directs the affluent viewer away from the systemic roots of poverty towards an emotional experience that subtly reinforces his or her affluence and privilege. In our neighborhoods and jobs we may be of somewhat unremarkable status, but when faced with someone whose entire annual income measures around $100.00, suddenly we become immensely powerful. The $28,000.00 price tag on the average American car becomes a symbol of 280 years of labor by another. In these terms the cost of the average American house represents 2,000 years of labor. If that person is living a small but happy life, then we must be near gods in our own economic might.

Continue reading with Part Nine.

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