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Monday, August 2, 2021

On Truthful Representation

Dr. Colberg's most recent book review triggered a kind of cascade in a collection of ideas that have been rattling around my head for a while now, so here we are again.

There's a fair bit going on in his little essay, most of which isn't the focus of my attention here. What I am interested is the idea of a standard, held by Colberg and his colleagues, a standard to which photographers "ought to" aspire: to somehow completely, or at least holistically, present a kind of truth about their subject matter. The idea that a photographer going to Liberia ought to aspire not merely to avoiding grinding out more disaster porn, but also to somehow get at the essence of Liberia, to translate Liberia as a complete thing in some meaningful way to us, to Dr. Colberg, to whomever is the book's audience.

Now, I am rather fond of the idea of digging down to some sort of essence. I agree up to the "some kind of essence" point, completely.

Where I diverge is when we propose that the essence should be somehow complete, it should be whole, and it should be in some sense objective.

I recently saw a remark, an anecdote, in which someone showed a book about (I think) Kenya to some Kenyans, and they said that it didn't look like the Kenya they knew.

Well, let us think about this a little. Kenya is a big place. Lot going on there. Pick two people at random from Kenya's population, and they're pretty likely to have some divergent ideas about what Kenya looks like. They're gonna share some stuff as well, of course, but they're different people.

No photographer will produce a project that "looks like" my conception of even a little place like Bellingham, WA (where I live.) Not even, I think, me. All I could hope for is some sort of slice that I recognize as a slice of how I see it. Maybe even an essential slice, or any rate the slice might boil down to some essence of itself. The world is large, it is complex, you're not gonna get there from here. To propose that photography is the tool to, somehow, "show you" the city of Bellingham in its essence is to misunderstand photography as a tool.

Robert Frank did not show us America, and sure as shit Alec Soth didn't. They both gave us narrow, personal, slices of the thing. Frank's was interesting largely because he saw a small handful of very specific things that were, and remain, particularly salient. Soth was just pandering to bigots in New York. But neither project looks anything like "my America" and they're not supposed to. They are, respectively, Frank's America, and Soth's America.

To propose that the standard to be aimed at is to show the essence of Liberia, to reveal to Dr. Colberg something of the whole reality that is Liberia, is to rig the game so that it cannot be won. Maybe that's the point, maybe we're supposed to know this to be un-winnable, but that is the North Star which should guide us anyway. That's not how I am reading it, I think that the game is in fact being rigged, and occasionally I think it's being rigged on purpose by people who really don't like photography.

What makes it particularly odd, at least to my eyes, is that the same community of critics who want photographers to be in this sense truthful are also constantly reminding us that photographs are incapable of being truthful, which renders the entire philosophical underpinning of this brand of criticism kind of suspect.

This is not to argue in favor is disaster porn, nor do I have an opinion on whether Herzau's Liberia is any good. I don't know, and I'm not terribly interested.

The point is that Colberg's standard for judgement here appears to be rigged, and philosophically untenable.


  1. It is heartening to note that JC has called out the incipient violence of marking up contact sheets with blood-red crayons, as harbingers of murderous intent.

    WWJD? Not that, obv!

    1. Yeah. I take that as a hint that he's just phoning it in at this point. You can't write that sort of thing down un-ironically unless you're not really paying attention to your words.

    2. Whelp, someone else has been paying attention: https://aperture.org/editorial/do-blue-chip-photographers-prop-up-global-capitalism/

    3. Well that makes two of us who actually read the dumb thing.