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.


  1. Interesting, I think, how being a parent changes the nature of one's "gaze", especially where children of the opposite sex are concerned: any question of dubious "desire" (presumably partly what bothers Mengiste) is usually extinguished by more tender, protective feelings. Or, in my case, the thought that these are impertinent and lazy little madams who should get off that bed and get *busy*, thank you very much.


    1. Indeed, I recognize them entirely as a type, very present in my life, and no more sexualized than my toaster.

      I realize that "there are people..." but it turns out that "there are people ... who are aroused by diesel locomotives" as well, so I don't think it's worth planning my life around.

  2. Replies
    1. I spent some time with the CIA factbook this morning, and there appear to be at least two separate ethnic conflicts in progress in Ethiopia, and Eritrea is sticking its oar in as well.

      The Tigray used to be rather large and in charge, in Ethiopia, so one might imagine that there is a little pent-up resentment. The CIA offered no guidance, and I assume wikipedia is currently enduring a savage edit war, so no point in even checking there.

    2. Social media, Huh! What is it good for?

      Apologies to Eric Burdon.

      (As an aside, I accidentally let slip that Bypass Firewalls thing. No. Don't even go there. Bad mojo. Bypass Paywalls is the thing you want.)

  3. A good something to look at.
    Maybe no posing at all. My first impression was some young girls lounging around bored, quite appropriate for displaced persons. Ho hum, what do we do today?
    The god light certainly ruins any intention anyone had to make it suggest a seraglio. Really it looks like a church rummage sale, early Saturday morning.
    But smack in the center there's Ethiopia's poster boy, silhouetted against the brightness.

    1. "The god light certainly ruins any intention anyone had to make it suggest a seraglio"

      "smack in the center there's Ethiopia's poster boy"

      Two very sharp observations I completely failed to make! Thank you!

    2. Recycled from Biafra. Anyone remember Biafra?