Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Ethics of Position

If we have learned nothing else from historiography, we have learned this: in order to relate anything whatever about the world, in order to make anything about the world coherent and comprehensible, one needs to take up a point of view, and one needs to simplify.

This is an ugly reality. The act of recording or relating history is inextricable from the act of taking a point of view, and simplifying.

Photography is in many ways precisely the same as history, here. You cannot take a photograph without literally taking up a position in space. Further, one's moral and philosophical "position" influence where you will stand and how you will aim. Then, the photograph invariably simplifies the world it depicts. If nothing else, it leaves most of the world out.

Contemporary critical thinkers on photography spend a great deal of time concerned with this position-taken and associated simplification. We see a more or less endless stream of minor think pieces about how refugees, women, people of color, and so on, are portrayed and how badly the job is done. The implication is that if only we had better positioning, or more colorful photographers taking these pictures, then all would be solved.

This is a ludicrous implication.

There are certainly better and worse positions one can take, better and worse simplifications one can make. Historians and the methods of history evolve, slowly. Some ways of framing history are fashionable this decade, others are decidedly unfashionable. Some are recognized as just a bad job and are, we hope, discarded forever. The current debate around the 1619 project really revolves around whether the methods of the project are merely unfashionable or in fact bad.

But no serious historian believes that there is a singular ideal way to frame history. There are many ways, inevitably, to frame history, to tell those stories. Each and every method of historiography comes with a built in set of problems, biases, assumptions, which will in turn tend to obscure or falsify certain things while, hopefully, illuminating others. This is simply how it is.

In the same way, recruiting Africans to photograph Africa is not some magical panacea which will somehow render The True Africa in photographs. The result will, maybe, be a substantively different point of view, and a different set of simplifications. Ideally it might be deeply illuminating and wonderful. But, the result will certainly have its own set of problems. It will be false in its own ways, it will lie by omission in its own, new, ways.

At worst, of course, it will simply result in the invention of and repeated rolling out of some faux African Photography tropes to delight the self-styled critics of, you guessed it, Europe and America. We are already enduring this in Women's Photography, with endless projects filled with either nude selfies or sad-brown-women-staring.

I am very much in favor of more colorful photographers doing projects that delight them. I do not think this will make all the problems go away. Many different framings, all flawed, is better than one flawed framing, but is not Truth.


  1. Well said. There is no truth, for each of us remember differently. I think what you are discussing plagues photography. Yes, bring on the colourful people, share interesting stories, acknowledging our biases.... thank you.

  2. well said! as someone who frequently photographs in Africa, this is refreshing to read since i have been the subject of such critique in recent settings.