Monday, May 15, 2017

Crit: Laura Saunders, Tracing Gila RIver

Saunders is another one of those photographers/artists that seems to exist in some zone between journalism and art, describing herself as a documentary artist. I don't know if she is "in the same circle" as Lewis Bush, but I think I got from one to the other in a couple of clicks someplace.

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+!
This was a huge surprise to me. As I noted, this is the kind of thing I specifically hate, it has a lot of features that are the kind of thing I hate. Saunders has done a solid piece of work with these shoddy tools, though, and is ultimately rescued by the fact that she has something to say and that she says it.


  1. I don't get it. There's a big building with a sign on it, looks like literally every prison I've had the misfortune of seeing. Then a nice looking shop... So what? Was that supposed to be against private prisons? Am I just being dense or something?

    1. Yeah, you should be against private prisons. As soon as someone's making money putting people into prisons, more people are going to get put in to prisons.

      Money has a corrupting effect, which is one of the reasons you want governments doing certain things, no matter how incompetently the government does it.

      It goes like this:

      Private company gets a contract to run prisons.
      Company makes a lot of money.
      Company diverts some of that profit to lobby for tougher laws.
      More people get sent to prison.

      This is one of the many reasons the USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

      So, there's some interesting cultural content here for us! A "branded" prison unlocks a whole mass of crap when I see it, but not for you.

    2. And this you see in the photoessay where exactly?

    3. And you are, obviously, correct. Keeping profit out of things like education or incarceration is the way things should be.

      But I don't see that here. I literally only see a fairly nice looking building and a cozy shop.

    4. This is another case where she's relying on culture to unlock it. She literally just has to say "private prison" to me, and it unlocks a dozen articles, and thousands of words of writing on the subject. A flood of information and opinion pops up in my head just hearing that phrase, just seeing a picture of a prison with a corporate brand name on it.

      While you can, obvious, grasp the theory that private prisons are bad idea, you haven't lived with decades of opinion pieces, articles, advertisements, politics, on the subject, so you don't get that instant flood of context.

      This is *so* interesting!

  2. If she stomps around the desert saving lives why aren't there pictures of that instead of whatever wishy-washy nonsense this is? That actually sounds interesting.

    And what does the whole japanese part even add? Was the point to make it look bad? But it doesn't look bad, all of those pictures look like something from a summer camp or an old age home.

    Honestly, one before after picture of an Indian industrial school graduate had more of an impact on my view of your country than this entire drone-fest of a photoessay.

    1. As I see it, her point is that the USA has a long history of incarcerating people for not particularly good reasons, of shoving immigrants into prisons and internment camps.

      Again, I think this resonates more clearly for people here in the USA, where we're pretty aware of the Japanese Internment during WWII. It was one of those ideas that definitely seemed like a good idea at the time. Nobody, as far as I know, has made any serious effort to determine how many potential spies/collaborators got locked up, but probably some.

      Whether it was "worth it" is unknowable, but there's no denying that the Japanese got screwed in the whole deal. Even if half of them were spies, there should have been a lot more effort made to protect their assets and give them a fair shake. A lot of them came out after the war with a whole lot less than they went in with, for a variety of reasons.

    2. ... and yet, over in Hawai'i, with its large Japanese population and closest proximity to Japan, there were very few internments during WWII. Another story worth looking at.

    3. Yeah, some people think that the Japanese Internment was a scan to steal their stuff. And, it probably was.

      There are always as many different motivations for these things as there are people making the decisions, and when the government is involved, there are loads of people making the decisions. So, pretty much any theory is "true" in at least some small, local, sense.

      Apparently they lost a lot of stuff, and some white folks acquired a lot of stuff. So.

    4. See now that is a point worth considering...

      So why aren't there pictures that relate to that instead? I mean, it sounds difficult, but SURELY it'd have more to do with the topic at hand than a few old guys playing go.

    5. This is so interesting!

      To me she doesn't have to, because I literally grew up with this. She *could* tell that story too, but that's a different essay. She's relying, and I totally did not see this, on her audience basically being steeped in the history of the Japanese Internment, so she basically just has to mention it, and it unlocks a whole mass of material in my mind.

      But of course it doesn't translate much farther than that. It's possible that there are plenty of people in the USA, let's say the average Trump voter (no offense intended) who also don't have the right background.

      I probably read a lot of New Yorker articles on this, and not everyone reads the New Yorker (the official magazine of the Liberal Elite!)

    6. Literally preaching to the choir then, neh?

      What's the point?

    7. Yes, that is possible, and it speaks to me doing a lousy job in this criticism. I thought it was more broadly accessible, it felt a lot more rich and meaningful than Bush's satellite photos, but I'm no longer sure that's the case.

      It's structurally a lot more interesting, and it takes a strong position, but in the end it might not be any... I don't know if *better* is really the right word, but something.

    8. I think your looking for an adjective that would describe Eugene Smith's Minamata pictures. Significant? Important? Meaningful?

      Having any place in the world outside the weird artist makes art for artists vortex that so much of today's stuff finds itself in?

    9. Not sure it's the artist's fault here, really.

      The Minamata work is pretty universally accessible, being centered on the human body. We've all got one of those.

      Saunder's work is an very American story, and I'm not sure it can even BE told (as Art, rather than, say, a book) in a way that would really be accessible outside the USA. I don't know, but it doesn't seem to be working for you, and it works fine for me.

      I am hoping some of our British, Australian, or African readers (or others, but I know there's at least one of each of those!) will chime in at some point.

    10. I'm curious though. Is it an American story accessible to most Americans, or just to a small, small elite? Because it seems a bit redundant in that case.

      Show it to some blue collar fellow na, I'd be interested in what he thinks of it.

      Oh yeah, I hope irritating British guy comes along.

    11. That is the question foremost in my mind. How would a Trump voter read the essay?

      Would it make sense, or just be gibberish?

      If it made sense, the reaction might well be "SO WHAT? LOCK 'EM ALL UP AGAIN!" which I disagree with, but at least Saunder's work would be "reading". If it was just pictures of desert and buildings and Japanese people having fun, well, that would be super interesting.

      I'd have to find me a Trump voter someplace ;)

    12. OH NOW I GET IT. For you, looking at those pictures is like a milder version of a German looking at pictures of Auschwitz! Is it?

    13. Well, hmm. MUCH milder, I expect, but the general idea is correct, I think.

      At least, that's an important part of it, right?
      Imagine a German looking at a photoessay that has some Auschwitz material, and then used that to comment on something contemporary that the artist wanted to make some parallel with.

      If I stuck up three iconic photos of concentration camps, and then a picture of Angela Merkel, well, I'd be jolly well making a statement, right? But you didn't recognize any of it, it's be "building, building, fence, old lady" huh?

      Does that make sense? You'd have to be pretty ballsy to compare Auschwitz with something, but it's a much smaller leap to compare the Japanese Internment to something, the latter was shameful but not nearly as shameful.

    14. Ah ha, ok now I understand. But I get the feeling that there just isn't enough acid in this photo essay. I mean, why aren't there any photos of trump, or if she doesn't like photos of people, more red hats and such?

      Moving one's lips is useless without the force of one's lungs, yknow?

    15. And I've got the adjective it's lacking: forceful.

    16. And just for reference, Abhishek, I'm going to ask you to rein in your remarks regarding fellow readers. Possible you mean it in jest, but if soe remember that it's the internet and jokes don't read well.

      If you don't mean it as a joke, please try to keep it bottled up. We cannot really judge one another on the basis of a few words of comments here and there anyways.

  3. Hi all,

    A few random comments to make: I'll give my perspective as a NZer, New Yorker, NYT, Wash Post, Politico, Mother Jones, The Stranger and Economist reader, former NGO fundraiser, winemaker and now occasional craft brewer. Incidentally, I was detained in New York in 2002 (not arrested) for not having ID and taking photographs near bridges and tunnels. That was scary, as I knew I had no legal recourse whatsoever.

    I find the work pretty clear in it's intent, even as an outsider. Having said that, as a native english speaker, however long abroad, I'm pretty familiar with American culture in a broad sense.

    Re the comment regarding Auschwitz, I haven't been there, but I did visit Dachau. The photos I took there were roundly criticised by my (lovely German leftie) wife as looking 'too pretty' - they were taken midsummer on a beautiful day. I expect there were beautiful midsummer days even during the Holocaust. I can even imagine that some people felt 'happy'-ish there on those summer days, however horrible that thought might be. (If I recall, Andrew, you posted something along these lines this a while ago?) I'll plead "Ivan Denisovich" on that one.

    1. Thank you for your perspective!

      (I hope you're not finding my remarks about NGOs too offensive, as a full disclosure, I still contribute to a couple of global aid organizations, despite my misgivings, so perhaps that will give a less unpalatable picture of my ideas)

    2. Having heard too much unmitigated nonsense I generally concur. For the rest I'll write you an email. :-)