The work I want to look at is here. This is presented as a work-in-progress, what you see may, I suppose, not be what I reviewed. As an aside, I hate the now-universal side-scrolling photography web sites. Some sort of pointless nod to the codex form, paid for with clumsiness in access. Not a worthwhile tradeoff, but whatever. One gets past it, and moves on. This piece isn't actually a photography piece, although it contains many photos.
So what do we have here? She's going to look at some geography in Arizona which has contained several different variations on the USA's obsession with incarcerating people for various reasons, some not very good. It looks, from the first pictures, as if she's going to try to put these incarceration efforts into some kind of context, her first picture is of a woman of the first nations, a native of the relevant region.
I sat down to re-look at the work, and to write, fully prepared to hate it and to rip it apart. I don't know if Saunders has been updating it, or if I simply quit in a huff last time I sat down for a look, but I don't remember any of the later material. There's a lot of the kind of thing in here that I dislike. I am always suspicious of work built on appropriated material, and I an suspicious of photographs of documents. These seem to me like cheats, cheap and easy. The politics are also obvious and kind of simplistic. I found myself, well, you'll see.
The first thing that jumps out at me is in the text, she suggests that the current immigration detention industry is costing (costing the US taxpayers, we assume) $2 million a year. This figure is so tiny as to be silly, and doing a little poking around we find that she's made the error we suspect, conflating millions with billions. It's a bit more than $2 billion, a much more reasonable figure. I don't think you could incarcerate 10 people for $2 million a year.
A minor mistake, let us set it aside. The ex-software guy in me notices these details.
We begin with a collection of more or less random historical pictures that set the stage. Ellis Island (nowhere near Arizona, but relevant as a site of a lot of immigration processing) and some historical photos from the region, illustrating some history. Cotton and prisons.
These historical things segue fairly smoothly into more recent historical material concerning the Japanese Internment of WWII, one of the USA's more shameful ideas that seemed like a good idea at the time. Not the most shameful by a stretch but, you know, worth noting. More randomly selected historical pictures and documents, interspersed with a handful of remarkably uninteresting snapshots of local deserts, presumably contemporary and presumably shot by the artist? No provenance is given for anything, as far as I can tell, although with the help of google image search you can check some of Saunders's work.
After a while we begin to see similar material blended in, and eventually dominating, regarding the current border management. We see contemporary photographs of the artifacts of migrants (Saunders consistently uses the word "migrant" here, which is the first serious sign of an honest political stance). At the same time, Saunders is blending in photographs and documents supporting the essential loyalty of the Japanese who were being held, another hint. Also a pretty damned good idea.
By the time we reach the end (well, the end as of this writing -- this is a work in progress) Saunders is in pretty full voice talking about the for-profit corporation(s) that run both prisons and immigrant detention centers, and then we're done.
Ok, so, structurally I quite like it. It's varied enough to be interesting, it hangs together as one, it's balanced to my eye, and she has a good sequence that builds neatly to a pretty strongly stated point. In fact, I like the work as a whole.
Saunders is taking a stand, not merely giving us a pack of random facts. The piece starts out infuriatingly neutral, but it ends up taking a pretty firm position and, after a fashion, making the case. The picture of the prison with the corporate branding emblazoned across it is pretty damning, and her captions are pretty stout. The sequence supports her position well, I think, and I think she is in fact wise to start out neutral. She builds trust by showing us material, without being shrill and annoying, and then slowly eases the stronger position out into the open.
The politics, while obvious and simplistic, are maybe the right thing for this sort of work. It's not clear you can really do a detailed critique of capitalism with just pictures, after all. This seems to be an set of issues Saunders genuinely feels strongly about, if you poke around you'll see that she is also a bit of an activist, and I think actively works to help migrants. I think stamps around the desert saving lives.
Where the piece is weak, I think, is in the seemingly random assemblage of material. It feels too loose, to me, and too random. It feels like she's just reaching into piles of stuff and pulling out anything that fits. It feels like a slapped together patio of roughly fitted slates rather than fine joinery. It's possible this is her point, that one can simply reach in and pull out any collection of 50 or 100 artifacts, and it will reveal the same story. If she is trying to make that point, she is overly subtle, and it passed by me. Also, I don't think it's even true, so there's that.
However slapdash the execution, however loose it is, it does reveal a pretty strong story.
I wish she was stronger on provenance of the artifacts. She's dragging out all manner of material from 60 to 80 years ago, in order to bolster her case, but she's not giving us chapter and verse on it. The fact that she muffed the budget figure right out of the chute, I cannot look through the rest without constantly doubting it. Some provenance would help with that, and generally give more of an air of authority. Even, I suppose, if she simply made up file numbers "NARA XYZ-1234" to slap on the historical photos. Better, of course, would be real file numbers etc.
She could also drop several of the uninteresting pictures of desert. Sticking to the ones with evidence of the things she wants to show us would tighten this thing up without losing anything that I can see. The ending could probably use a few more hard hits. She's not pussy-footing around, and she is making her point, but you can always hit the points harder and I think perhaps she should.
Anyways, all up, a pretty decent piece. I give it a B+!