The White Stuff

Nick Vossbrink of njwv announced an allergy to "white guy photography" this week and the online photography world went, well…as crazy as a bunch of generally well-mannered and considerate people that don't want to upset each other too much go, some in defense, some in attack.

I'd like to use his posts to engage a few thoughts on how vision works and about the contemporary ethics of photography, because his main points – which become clearer in his second post – I agree with and I actually find it more shocking that he had to write these posts at all rather than finding something shocking about the content of them.

Before I get into my points, I'd like to explain why I say that. I think part of the negative side of the responses to his posts comes from this paragraph in the first post:
What I'm having problems with is the approach which entails traveling, or moving, someplace with the intent of documenting and photographing so as to "explain" or "capture" it for others. And the amount of privilege required to start such a project and make those kinds of claims is generally limited to (but not exclusively the domain of) white guys.
It's a problematic paragraph because it seems to essentialize a vast range of photographers and reduces their intents, awareness and sensitivities to context into one type and labels it bad. Stopping there would provide fodder for a seven-part response, but he connects the dots himself in his second post:
Being aware of your privilege is usually enough to avoid abusing it. But if you want a primer on avoiding it, it’s almost all about the framing of the project…Present it as personal as you can and acknowledge that it's your point of view. Collaboration is not the colonial viewpoint. And don't treat people like animals or objects.
In short, here he limits his argument to a plea for self-awareness in people photographing from a point of privilege (i.e. white wealthy men) and a reminder to those people of the importance of sensitivity to context and knowing your subjects (unless, perhaps on this last point, you are doing traditional street photography).

He attaches these points onto a pronouncement of boredom with projects that don't do these things – boredom is a generous word to choose – and that are subsequently thematically rooted in capturing a superficial sense of otherness in people or place who bring those photos back as, basically, trophies. Not going to argue against that.

So let's dig into points beyond – but related to – Nick's two posts. I'd argue that it's natural to photograph difference. If you put me in a green room filled with green objects for two weeks, then reveal from below a green box a smaller red one – holy shit! - I’m going to stare at it for the next two weeks. If you give me nine sunny days, then one with some evil overlord Armageddon clouds, I'm going to stare in a way I wouldn't if every day I saw clouds like that. How many photos of a white picket fence with one broken slot have we seen? If we travel six months in the Andes, seeing another snow-capped Platonic ideal of a mountain won't impress us like the first one did. Visual "difference" attracts our attention. Repetition of the same visual elements does not.

I’ve lived outside the country for three years in a city that has a very small population of foreigners. The first time I returned to the US, I remember standing in the transit lounge in Fort Lauderdale and thinking – man, people are really, really white. And really large. This is funny because I’m really, really white. The large part's not funny though.

I had become conditioned to a visual container. Suddenly being put into a different one meant a lot of visual stimuli. I stared at people. No matter that I looked just like them. They were different from people I'd been looking at for six months, a large change in my visual fabric. Absurd, but true. What mattered was what I was seeing, not who I was.

Why do rich white suburban kids wander around the city photographing black people or poor people or urban decay? There are all sorts of reasons I won't even attempt to figure out, among them previous photographic traditions, a sense of transgression against their upbringing, to be connected to something they perceive as more vital or authentic than the suburbs, to flirt with identity, but also because it's visually different from their normal visual container. Photographs suddenly appear everywhere out of that difference. I'm not saying it's THE reason, but rather one reason, and it's one that benefits the conversation to come in a moment here.

It's the same thing when a someone from the US travels to, say, Thailand. Kayan Lahwi women with elongating neck rings? PHOTO! People squatting on their heels while they talk together or eat? ANOTHER! The old lady with no teeth smoking a pipe that looks like the photos they've seen in National Geographic of an old lady with no teeth smoking a pipe? MEGAPHOTO!

Here's the crucial point, however. While an understanding of the importance of visual difference in terms of generating visual/photographic interest can be understood as coming from a response to natural processes of visual conditioning, let’s remind ourselves that what's natural is not always good.

We also have natural instincts to kill, fight, rape, steal, and cry out "Free Bird!!!" at concerts that ethical and community shaping forces have brought into line so that we can live together in a way that provides a degree of harmony to our communal existence.

Likewise, while a visual, biological root to "staring" at people with the camera might be there, as a society we have evolved an ethic that states that that type of basic, unsophisticated, unconsidered, unfiltered looking is socially and historically problematic. We call it exoticism or Orientalist or sexist or colonial or imperial or a host of other words depending on who is staring at whom.

In short, vision has ethics and we are responsible for our vision. We have socially evolved the concept of photography beyond our natural instincts of leveling our camera at "difference" and bringing those photos back to show off or display. We have arrived at a higher visual sophistication and expectation that it is our duty to understand – especially as photographers - in terms of how to look and how to approach photographing. That doesn’t make photography that stares or doesn't respect those ethics transgressive or exciting. Nick's right. It's boring. It's what people did for 100 years or more.

The writer Annie Dillard gave me my greatest of my many great personal rejections, all of which I have sworn to avenge, but none of which I have yet.

Ms. Dillard, in addition to being a fantastic writer, was a professor of creative writing for many years where I went to university. I applied for one of her classes with a short story based in my high school experiences. She read submissions and selected a few of the applicants. I got my essay back with a note of rejection that said, paraphrasing, part of the duty of an artist is to look beyond yourself.

What did she mean? I've heard arguments that basically have said, "How dare anyone speak about others. How could you depict them with any authority? How can an outsider understand another reality?" Frankly, and this will possibly make me sound a little pretentious, I think this is an unsophisticated argument, one that misunderstands some basic ideas about art, and ultimately it's a damaging line of thought.

While we photograph from our perspective unavoidably and by definition, the camera needs to be allowed to engage a complete range of potential subjects. Ourselves and our experiences are part of that range, to be sure, but we need photography to be capable of being a tool for knowing and resolving curiosities about what's beyond what we currently know, as well as being a way of speaking from the strengths and certainties of what we know well from our experience. We need it to go beyond solipsistic projects and situations where photographers are doing things like reverting to abstraction because they aren't allowed to photograph social environments. (That's what happened to photographers in the McCarthy era and it wasn't great.)

Why? Because as important as it is to be able to provide self-definition through images about one's own country-religion-race-community-neighborhood, and as lacking as many communities have sadly been in their ability to do so visually given the economic realities of photography and some very complicated and troubling history, to say the opposite - that photography of community can only be about self-definition - is a line of thinking that radically reduces the arena for creating art by tightening the delineation around creating it. Trying to limit what subjects can be explored through art is damaging.

There are other equally important reasons as well. Unchecked self-definition is not good, witness the use of art as propaganda by Fascists. In addition, reflections on other people or cultures or countries have produced great work that has been important in terms of conversation about and within that culture when it's done at a high level - Frank's The Americans to name a handy example that I think we'll all agree on. It can also help make art more a conversation than a monologue. Navel-gazing isn't a better cure for boredom than exoticizing. The ability to reference the broader world also, perhaps, maintains open a traditional street for engagement with art's great universal ideas and themes by showing commonalities, not differences; see the writings of Joseph Campbell.

We continue moving beyond photography of the past and beyond some base visual instincts to think at a higher level about how we frame, compose, and create. We are responsible for our vision and how it is going to be read by eyes that understand historic and contemporary context. Photographs not created within agreed upon ethical guidelines should rightly be given the labels it will be given.

Moving beyond the ethical standards we continue to evolve about the language of photography, however, not only is it important to defend against limits placed on who can create what types of images, some might even raise the argument to agree with Dillard: that it's part of our responsibility as artists to relate our art to the world beyond just ourselves.