Monday, May 1, 2017

The Terror of Photography

Surveying the remains on twitter it appears that there was a tiny little tempest yesterday, lensculture (some twitter account representing something or other) posted a picture of a (possibly) underage probably-trafficked prostitute with a fellow on top of her in, well, an extremely suggestive arrangement. The assumption is that an act of prostitution was taking place. You might argue this has no place on twitter, but given the gruesome things people say on twitter, it's not clear that there is a line.

Lensculture has take then thing down and apologized, which is generally a sure sign that a bunch of idiots piled on and howled about how awful it was. That said, I don't know for sure and cannot be buggered to go find out.

I only noticed one member of the (presumed) pile-on team, Lewis Bush, who said this: Re this: Tendency in doc of taking/using photos that seem more about showing photogs skill for access than anything. This is a particularly upsetting example, but you see it all the time. Incongruous 'intimate' images that often have little to do with story and which in the process put subjects on public display to an (I think) uncomfortable, unnecessary degree.

Lewis seems to be complaining that documentary photographers are getting too close, too intimate. That they are exploiting their subjects. And specifically saying, bizarrely, that a photograph of sexual exploitation has little to do with a story on sexual exploitation.

I can imagine how Lewis and his crew of sterile junior league academics would handle this story: photos of receipts, facades of buildings, some "appropriated" surveillance footage, and a bunch of bollocks about dialecticss comma playing with. Which they would hang in a "pop-up gallery" (i.e. someone's spare room) and then they would write about at length how bold they all are.

In a piece about sexual exploitation of minors you have to take that picture. This is the point of photography, to deliver the basically emotional this is really real punch. It sucks, it is itself more exploitation, but there's no point in having pictures for this piece if you haven't got that picture. You can't do a photo essay on soup without having a picture of some soup. If you cannot stomach a picture of a child being raped, well, good for you. It's a terrible thing to see. I got no problem with that. But now it's not a photo essay, it's a piece that doesn't include pictures, and that is OK too.

You can write an essay about soup without any pictures. David Foster Wallace famously wrote a long essay about lobsters and I am pretty sure there are no pictures of lobsters in it. But that's an essay.

So your documentary photographer is engaged in this act of exploitation. So what? It's all exploitation. Consider the reaction of people around the world to being photographed. Go out on the street and photograph some people. Do they act like you are handing them dollar bills and candy? Generally, no. Generally, they act like you are taking something. Given that these are emotional things, their emotional reaction is the reality. You really are taking. You are exploiting.

Sontag was talking about this in the 70s, it's not new. And she didn't invent the idea.

The ethical photographer knows that it's all exploitation. They follow the implicit contract which is: I will take from you, but I will try my best to do something good with it.

I am pretty sure this is one reason that Lewis and his crew prefer "appropriated" pictures, and a generally more distant approach. Satellite images, very long lenses, thermal cameras, computational photography, LIDAR, and on and on. There's a theme in low-end Photographic Art to try for as much distance as possible. Instinctively these blokes feel the debt incurred, and want as little to do with it as possible. The idea of getting a short lens and taking an honest picture of a human is terrifying to them -- as it should be. It is terrifying. It's also what photography is. The reality of the photograph, that essential character, is inextricably tangled with that terror.

As with so much in photography, in Art, there is a price to be paid at every step. By photographing someone on the street, you incur a debt, you pay a price. If you're ethical, you will do your best to repay that debt by doing something worthy with that picture. You might not be Gene Smith at Minamata exposing the deformities of victims, you might not be Robert Capa taking someone's actual death, but you can at any rate be respectful of what you have. You can at any rate be careful, and be aware of your responsibility.

A guy who takes a picture of a child prostitute being raped has incurred a hell of a debt, no doubt about it. Best they try very hard to use that picture to make a difference, to do something important.


  1. Would that be the site with the original pictures?

    1. With regards to this particular tempest, you can read an alternate viewpoint over here:

    2. Also recommend checking out the duckrabbit web site to see what they do, and pop that into the mental mill as further grist.

    3. And, I hope, last: is the photographer in question, you can see other work from the project, which has some real depth. I don't know if it's *good* as such, but he's definitely trying to work off his debt.

    4. I simply wanted to know whether these were the pictures in question. I thought you would have seen the original pictures on tweeter.

      As to controversial photography, check Larry Clark's early photography series Tulsa and Teenage Lust. It makes me sick each time I see them.

  2. Excellent piece. Bang on the mark.

  3. I wonder what Lewis Bush would have made of Lensculture's interview with Laia Abril and the examples of her project 'Tediousphilia' shown there. She takes photos of young couples offering to have sex for money via webcams in those empty moments when they are waiting around for someone to pay them to get started. That interview seems to have disappeared too, but I think I saw that she did not seek the couple's permission to use their photos in an upcoming (or current?) exhibition.

  4. I guess fatuity happens by becoming the Captain America of the photo blogosphere. Photographers, poets, musicians, writers, sculptors and generally, artists, don’t owe anyone or anything, anything. Creativity does not incur debt. Unfortunately it is the fatuousness of people like you who perpetuate the insidious ignorance that photography takes. You have a shallow understanding of art and photography.

    1. Wait, who's the Captain America of the photo blogosphere?

  5. In my view there is difference between:

    1) running a photo story about underage prostitution to draw attention to the problem and possibly make things better

    2) promoting a photo contest with a picture about underage prostitution

    While 1) follows the concept of "I will take from you, but I will try my best to do something good with it", the other - at least in my ethics framework - doesn't.

    1. That is a very reasonable point, and one that I am wrestling with. If Datta can take the picture (and I believe that he may, although he incurs a debt), then the picture exists.

      By the time we get around to using it to promote a competition, it certainly feels like some wrongness has crept it. Was it wrong to submit the picture to the contest? Is this Datta failing in his duty toward the subject?

      Or does that duty, that debt, now carry forward, to the contest operators, who now much treat the picture with respect and care?

      All of the above?

      I'm not sure, but you're right, using that picture as an advert for yet another money grubbing competition definitely feels crass, at best, terribly wrong at worse.

      On the up side, it sure as hell got some people (me, in particular) more aware of these issues. If you'd asked me 48 hours ago about child sex trafficking, I would have had many fewer facts on hand.

      Does that make a *difference*? I dunno. Not very likely, but it's possible. Datta is picking a direction, and pushing, and hoping that there's a bunch of people pushing in the same direction.

      Maybe lensculture's advert is the spark that was needed. Not likely, again, but it's possible.

    2. This is variation of "any publicity is good publicity" argument - which I don't feel like opposing here (too broad, etc).

      Based on what is said by the photographer in the first paragraph:, LensCulture owes an apology (at very least because of publishing something the photographer asked not to publish - he foresaw the issues?).

      The rest of the Datta's argument seems to be an answer to this:

      It's a thin line. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it...

    3. There's a difference, albeit subtle, between "the ends justify the means, so doing this is OK" and well, damn it, that sucked, but here we are, what good can we make of it?"

      People will argue that if you try to find good in a bad situation, you're just encouraging people to do the bad thing again, but I think that people are more sophisticated than that. They still do bad things, but not for that reason. I could be wrong, though.