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Thursday, April 8, 2021

Something to Look At

Here's a photo by Cristina de Middel that's getting a very very small amount of shade thrown on twitter by the usual we-hate-Magnum #photoland cabal-of-three-dudes.

It is called "Confusion of the Pipe" and it's from a series and a book, called "Midnight at the Crossroads" which is about the spread and evolution of certain African religious practices.

In it we see someone who presents as a young Black person with what appear to be two pipes emitting bluish smoke stuck in their ears. Their eyes are slightly bloodshot. There are two stars on their top. They stare with a certain force at the camera. That's pretty much it. It's a very simple photograph.

A closer examination reveals that at least one of the pipes is not in fact stuck in the subject's ear, suggesting that the pipes are in fact mounted behind their head. The pipe stems on both sides of the head appear slightly too high to be in any ear canals. This raises the question of whether it's a poorly executed illusion, or whether we're supposed to understand the pipes as behind-the-head, rather than in-the-ear. There is an ambiguity here, but there is at least a clear nod to "pipes in ears" here.

The juxtaposition is absurdist to the point of opacity to my, western, eyes. Given the context in which the picture appears, we could reasonably speculate that it represents some religious or quasi-religious ceremony. Certainly pipes and smoking appear in at least some substantial offshoots of the religious practices de Middel is investigating. The title also suggests a reference, though, to Magritte's painting of a pipe, The Treachery of Images, which in turn suggests a maybe-too-highbrow commentary.

The absurdity, to my eyes, suggests that the subject is being made fun of, is being placed into a silly position and photographed. The subject's gaze, on the other hand, suggests a seriousness which speaks against that. I am necessarily uncertain about how the subject feels about the situation, and being photographed in it.

Anyways, the consensus among people who already hate de Middel is that the picture is absolutely racist, and that's all there is to it.

Let us back up and think about the larger context a little. de Middel and her husband Bruno Morais undertook the study of a diaspora, tracing the routes and evolutions of certain West African religious ideas and practices that have spread across a large portion of the world (largely as a result of the slave trade.)

The standard modern idea here, that these stories are best investigated and told by insiders, immediately runs into trouble. There are no insiders. There is nobody who is "inside" every aspect of this tremendously broad diaspora, the only way to tell this story by necessity involves outsiders. One hopes that de Middel and Morais collaborated closely with insiders in each region, in each enclave, but I have no way of knowing whether or not they did.

So, what about the photo? Well, it strikes me as an archetype of a certain kind of Religious Photo, a kind which by design baffles the outsider, which explicitly "others" the subject. It is intended to be illegible to outsiders. See, for instance, this photograph by Khadija Saye (who tragically died in the Grenfell Tower fire:)

Nobody would claim this photograph is racist, but that it only because the person who made it was herself a person of color. It is of exactly the same type, it presents a ritual as a mystery. Presumably Saye and members of her community would find it perfectly legible, but I do not, and I submit that I am not supposed to find it legible. I am supposed to find it puzzling, mystifying.

There are surely loads of Victorian-era photos of Mysterious Religious Ceremonies one could dredge up, and there are plenty of photos of American Snake Handling religions, and so on. There's a long and storied history of "look at this crazy religious shit" photos.

The difference, as near as I can ascertain, is that de Middel's photo does not actually document any existing practice. It references a number of things (perhaps Papa Legba's pipe smoking, and some folk-medicinal practices of blowing smoke in to ears, that kind of thing) while also referencing Magritte, and also the trope of the "crazy religious shit" photograph.

de Middel is offering us not a document as such, but a signifier.

"Confusion of the Pipe" can absolutely be read as a racist picture. It is explicitly, to my eye, "othering" the subject. It refers to lots of other pictures which "other" the subject.

In the same way, Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" can be read as simply anti-Irish. The literal text is absolutely anti-Irish, there isn't the slightest ambiguity about it.

This is the essential risk of satire, and satire-adjacent criticism. It is based on a thing which people are likely to object to, that's the point. If the author and the reader manage between them to do a bad job making sense of the "criticism" part, the base will still stand, and then things can get pretty ugly.

Does de Middel succeed in critiquing the stereotypical "lookit the freaky shit Africans get up to" tropes? Well, I don't have any trouble reading it that way. I can make sense of the critique part, but then I've been thinking about these things off and on for quite a while now.

The reference to Magritte can help us out here, Magritte's picture is called "The Treachery of Images" and there's literally a whole theory around it. We are, once we make that pretty obvious connection, immediately aware that we're not supposed to take de Middel's picture literally. Again, it is not a document but a signifier and what it signifies is not what's literally in the picture.

The breadcrumbs urging us to look and think more deeply are pretty clear, here. Insofar as the word "satire" applies here, the satire is fairly broad. Which, you know, doesn't mean you have to follow the breadcrumbs. If it's just not working for you, well, so be it.

But here we have the usual thing:

The picture admits multiple readings. To insist on only one reading as uniquely "valid" is naive. By all means, read the photo as racist, or as a selfie of a young person goofing for instagram, or as a metaphor for cheese. It's fine. But do not confuse your singular reading as a critical understanding of the thing.

A critical understanding of any photo has to acknowledge and seek to apprehend multiple readings.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Polysemy of Photographs

I've been continuing to putter around reading Barthes and "polysemic" is my new favorite word.

When we look at a painting, or other constructed art, we see it as a fiction. Perhaps a fiction based on a true story, but a fiction. Because we accept it as a fiction, we accept that it has many meanings. A fiction is unmoored, subject to interpretation. When we look at a photograph, we see it as a truth. Not the whole truth, not every truth, but as a truth. We know, everyone knows, that there was a true thing there, a singular ground truth which the camera partially recorded.

When we attempt to understand a photograph, in the end we are basing our efforts on an attempt to read the ground truth, the singular ground truth. We seek to fill in, to guess, to extrapolate, the single truth that was actually present at the moment of exposure. We might do more, but this is where we start, because we know there was a truth, and we know that the photograph is moored on that truth, and that truth is therefore what we start with.

Paradoxically, this increases rather than decreases the actual polysemy of a photograph. Because we are seeking to flesh out a truthful scene around the slender visual information of the photograph, we bring our own experiences, our own lives, our own prejudices to bear. Looking at a painting, we attempt to work out what the painter meant, and we probably read the blurb on the wall, or in the catalog, or we remember what someone said about the painter. These things we share with everyone around us. We bring little of ourselves to bear on the problem of "what is this painting about? What does it mean?" and yet we bring almost nothing but ourselves to bear on the same problem for a photograph.

At the same time, though a sophisticate denies it, we believe implicitly in only a single meaning for a photograph while we allow a painting to have many.

We have, after all, constructed a ground truth for the photo. We know that a truth exists, existed, and we have developed a theory of that singular truth, and this is all there is to it.

It takes an effort of will to allow that other readings, other understandings, of the picture might also exist, and might have equal force to our own. We know the truth, we see it with out own eyes, it is right there, obvious to all.

What we feel so definitely about photographs is precisely the opposite of what in fact obtains.

In reality, a photograph is more generous, admits more breadth of reading, of meaning, than does a painting; yet at the same time, we cling more tenaciously to our singular reading of it.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Something to Look At

Here is a photo:

Photo by Baz Ratner, of Tigray refugees in Ethiopia. I do not pretend to understand the details of the conflict, but a quick perusal of stuff suggests that it's another instance of ethic/religious conflict that has simmered for decades or centuries, boiling over again. They did that to us then so we're justified in doing this to them now. Whether this conflict truly is one of those or not, forgive me, doesn't really matter to the present discussion.

The author Maaza Mengiste offered some criticisms of this picture on social media, of the usual contemporary photo criticism sort, and was promptly dragged by apparently all the Tigray people in the world. They seem to think that the genocide they're experiencing is maybe more important than whether some photo "others" someone. They seemed generally pleased to have gotten some news coverage in the west. Mengiste, to her eternal credit, has rolled with it and not decided to double down, which would be the usual strategy. She has roots in Ethiopia, and one assumes actually cares about these issues. In contrast to, um, others.

So what did she see?

Well, there is no question that there is a hint of the seraglio to be seen in the poses of the foreground girls. Mengiste asks rhetorically if the photographer posed the girls, a question to which no certain answer can be known. She repeats, or suggests anyway, the standard complaints about representation and othering, suggesting that to pose these girls in this fashion is "a violence" [sic] to them. Precisely the sort of dopey rhetoric we see far too much of. It's not her fault, she's just been hanging around with idiots.

So, what do we actually see in this picture?

We see the interior of a very generic structure. It's the kind of thing built purely to enclose space. It could be industrial, athletic, religious, or just a warehouse. Dramatic light rays flow from the windows, it's probably morning or evening. The energy in the people feels more like morning.

The room is filled with people and things. The things are arranged suggesting some organization into separate collections of objects. The people appear to be moving with purpose. Gathering things, preparing things, sorting things, managing children, etc. We can't really see what any specific task is, but the sense that miscellaneous tasks are being performed rather permeates the thing.

As an aside, I am having trouble seeing this as anything other than "displaced people, temporarily sheltered" which is what it actually is. What I can't do is point to anything specific that makes this the only possible way to read it, but nor am I able to credibly develop an alternate reading.

People are dressed in bright prints, and are dark skinned. I hesitate to say "it looks African" but it's probably fair to say that the look of the people, and of their dress, is at any rate consistent with a lot of other pictures I have seen of Africa. That is surely the continent I and many others in the west would guess, if pressed.

In the foreground, a cot. There don't seem to be any other cots in frame, although there are several objects that could be cots, or could be tables. Are the cots folded up for the day? Do people sleep in the area behind the photographer, somewhere else?

On the cot, three girls. Guessing ages is always fraught, but they appear to be pre-teen, or early teens. The poses of two of the girls are distinctly "lounging" in what we might reasonably speculate is not quite a natural posture. They appear to be aware of the camera, as nobody else in frame particularly is. They appear to be posing.

One girl gazes to the side with what seems a distracted air. The next-closest girl looks directly at the camera with a neutral/serious expression. The nearest girl looks to the side, but in a way that feels deliberate, camera-aware.

So how might we read this thing? Especially, the girls in the foreground.

Certainly they are posing. Possibly they have been posed, to some degree. The nearest girl certainly has the look of someone who has been asked to "look that way" but also of someone who has simply chosen to do so. The second girl back, with the direct gaze, could be doing a "get out of here" glare, but also could be offering up her serious camera-face. She's quite neutral. The third girl back, who appears to be the youngest, seems uninterested and possibly nervous.

So what suggests the seraglio here? The bright/rich colors of the clothing, certainly. These are, surely, just the clothes these girls wear, though. The posture, the lounging on their sides, heads propped up, certainly recalls virtually every painting of a seraglio ever, at least if you're thinking along those lines. On the other hand, girls and women in groups do actually relax that way.

Certainly one can guess reasonably that the photographer selected this pose, whether he arranged it or not, and unless he's been living under a rock, he's certainly seen the kind of paintings I'm referring to here. What he was aiming for we will never know, but we can certainly see it in the result as a possibility.

Having seen it as as-if seraglio, one can further read the girl's manners as submissive (farthest away), bold (middle), coquettish (nearest girl.) One could sexualize the scene, if one were so inclined.

But nobody is fooled. Nobody thinks these girls are part of anyone's harem. This is obviously a room filled with displaced people, temporarily sheltered, it is not a seraglio. Nobody looks at this picture and thinks "lying about like whores, how lesser are these African people!" Anyone who brings that kind of energy to this picture is already a bigot, and this picture doesn't even do a particularly good job of confirming their bigotry. Does this "other" the girls, or make them familiar? I have daughters not too far off the ages of the pictured girls, and I find the picture charming and familiar. Maybe that's just me, I suppose.

Of course, this raises the flip-side complaint, that I am too familiar, and am making sense of another culture in terms of my own, which I guess I ought not to do because Ethiopian people are not cheap xeroxes of Americans, they are their own unique culture, etc etc.

So, the general flavor of the seraglio is, to my eye, certainly present. Since it does not fool anyone, and is immediately recognizable as a sham, and it is immediately recognizable that these are just girls posing for the camera, what exactly is the difficulty? How is this different from my daughter playing dressup Dementor?

The picture serves its function as an illustration to the article it goes with: it reifies these people. It shows us that the refugees mentioned in the article are real, here they are. It humanizes them, we recognize in the posing girls something of our own daughters, regardless of our local culture. There are universals, or near-universals, shown here. This is the function of the picture, and to pretend that it does not serve its function tolerably well is simply to be disingenuous. There is room here for multiple readings, as usual, but only a hardened and deeply stupid bigot would not see it as a humanistic, humanizing, picture.

Or, let us be generous here, someone who is fully committed to finding and rooting out Orientialist Sin everywhere.

I think the argument, if it goes anywhere, has to go to something like this: well, while nobody is fooled by the single picture, this picture along with all the other pictures, creates a cultural environment in which African refugees are seen in certain ways, which contributes to a culture of racism and colonial oppression.

Well, ok. I have argued in the past that this phenomenon is at least as much a reflection of existing culture as it is a force for shaping it, but let's set that aside.

There's no way to slice it: we're really very far away from this photo constituting "a violence" [sic] to these girls.

There is a something like a spectrum of possibility: from a warm fuzzy sensation of being loved, all the way over to violence. The responses evoked by a photograph are almost always attenuated. This clips the ends off the range of possibility. A photograph will essentially never evoke the same degree of emotional response that a personal interaction, a real occurence, will. Neither the most powerful good emotions, nor the worst possible, are in general available.

By its very nature, photography offers a narrowed range of responses. "Violence" is at one extreme end, or in one extreme corner, of the possible world, and it is as a rule simply not contained in the narrowed range offered by photographs.

To propose that a photograph is "violent" is simply to adopt the dopey terminology of the mediocre thinkers who pretend to criticize photography today. The use of the word "violent" is nothing more than in-group terminology amplification.

I gotta say, I quite like this photo. Tween girls are pretty great.