Sunday, April 24, 2022

Let's Read This!

Here is an essay by Andrew Jackson, which essay is getting passed around by the usuals as a must-read, so important, and so on. This is normally compelling evidence that the piece is anything but, but I read it anyway, and it made me think! Which is great, right? I mean, I don't agree with a lot of it, but thinking is good! Here are my thinkings!

First and foremost, this piece is a restatement of Mr. Jackson's constant argument, which is that Black photographers take different pictures, presumably also photographers of any established Identity take different pictures, and that therefore White photographers ought to be excluded from taking certain kinds of photos where their Identity means they take Bad Photos. Where Mr. Jackson mentions his own "Double Consciousness" he is referring to his ingenious argument that, since he grew up in dominant-white culture, he can also see and photograph as a White person. This is a very clever argument, and in fact is quite sound given the philosophical basis he's starting from.

It is also, transparently, a rationalization of "you should give me all the Black assignments, but also let me compete at least on level ground for all the White assignments as well."

The fact that it is a rationalization doesn't make it wrong, though.

I find the fact that he chose to use his father's death as a jumping off point for another essay reiterating his constant theme to be slightly icky, but then, maybe it's also the perfect time, I dunno.

Set these things aside.

Mr. Jackson's position is that he, as a Black man, takes different pictures than would a White person, and he offers up his photo of tassels as somewhat unconvincing evidence of that.

It is on this point that we disagree. In virtually any genre, the photographs are simply a given. As I have remarked repeatedly (we all have our constant themes, don't we?) photojournalistic pictures are not made to show what is different and unique about an event, but rather to show what is the same. They reify the event by connecting it to all the other events of the same type. Your skin color doesn't matter, your gender, your sexual preference, none of it matters. You will, to first order, produce the same photos as anyone else.

This is fairly obvious for photojournalism, but I think much the same holds true across genres. Your identity, generally, does not shine through. Your photos, one-by-one, look pretty much like everyone else's, perhaps with a little personal flair, perhaps not.

The example of John Ford, which Mr. Jackson uses early on, is telling. On the one hand, maybe Ford didn't shoot the African American soldiers because of their skin color. On the other hand, in War Photography we almost literally never see any kind of logistics work. The closest we come is infantry guys sitting on boxes of stuff between battles.

D-Day was, I dunno, 99% logistics. A months-long logistics efforts that led up to a few days of intense combat. Yet, the photos of D-Day, that visual record, contains nothing of logistics. Did Ford lower his camera because the subjects had dark skin, or because they weren't doing anything "interesting?" Probably a bit of both, eh?

Nevertheless, I don't think Mr. Jackson is completely out in left field.

People with different identities, when assigned a story, will generally take the photos that go with the story, regardless of identity. But which stories do they choose to tell?

Gordon Parks gave us a Harlem Gang Leader. You can go on about how his being Black made his photos extra-Black if you want, but that is to miss the point. It's not the photos, it's the story itself that's relevant here.

Female photographers are giving us stories that simply wouldn't occur to male photojournalists. Even now we, at least I, cannot help thinking of these stories as "background." When I see something about, I dunno, Ethiopian Women Something Something Schools or whatever, I think of it as filling in the details around the Real Story. This is deeply stupid of me, but there you are.

Life is rich, broad, deep. It is certainly true that our cultural identity shapes which slices of life we see as important, as worthy. What is to me trivial is to a child the purest magic. What seems to me as just something the kids are doing is a new style of street dance that is going to dominate the world of dance for the next ten years, starting next year. I literally don't see it. But someone does.

I do not agree with Mr. Jackson that he should get special access to stories deemed Black. I do agree, though, that the stories he might choose to tell are not the ones I would tell. I'd be happy to read those stories, though. Further, it's not even merely that he and I are different people. The fact that I am White and he is Black probably is pretty clear in the stories we might choose to tell, even though our pictures one-by-one don't look much different (I will stipulate that his are likely better. I'm just a mook who struggles with his camera.)

It's not that your identity makes you take individual pictures in some special way, in some distinctive way, in some way that Reveals Extra Hard. Identity doesn't change the pictures much at all.

Identity changes the stories that we tell.


  1. Based on a cursory examination of his website, Mr. Jackson developed his chops in MFA land, and it shows, perhaps even moreso than his putative identity; all the usual structural and framing tropes of what he decries as "white" photography. It tends to vitiate his thesis on a personal level.

    I can't help but think if he hadn't chosen this path, with its instantly-recognizable conceptual silos, but had developed outside it, he likely would have had an easier time of centering on his identity -- and no easy way in (relatively speaking) to a career in photojournalism!

    Having said that, his work is the equal of white contemporaries as published in the usual outlets, and he deserves a shot -- as indeed his impressive resume demonstrates he's had, in the usual outlets. May this success continue!

    Here's an irreducible truth of this medium: it is extremely difficult to overcome its anodyne and homogenizing character, to produce personal work that may be recognized as such. I think this may be even harder within the constraints of photojournalism.

  2. I always have a problem with such broad-brush "identities": it's surely at the intersection of more fine-tuned identity characteristics that the interesting stuff happens. Things like place of origin, education, social class, and personality are surely just as formative as race, gender, or sexual orientation?

    You are a "white" American, sure, but so are Donald Trump (OK, bad example, he's an Orange) or Sarah Palin.


    1. Right?!!

      I am always very uncertain when we enter the land of specific Identities, in this sense. I suppose my photos are shaped by the fact that I am White, but also by the fact that I am mildly affluent, that I am increasingly old, that I have arthritis in my hands, and that I live in a blue house.

      Who's to say what factors actually show up in my photos?

      Obviously being White has a larger impact on my life than the color of my house, but my photos are not my life. Perhaps the house color looms weirdly and unexpectedly large in my photos. These are mysterious things.

    2. If I'd known that you live in a Blue house I'd have been more tactful in the past. Respectful apologies for any triggering remarks.

      Have you noticed, btw, that everybody without exception is increasingly old? It's a mystery. Doesn't mean they're allowed to identify as Old, though.