Saturday, April 30, 2022

Something to Look At

Here's a photo:

This was shot by Magnum photographer Newsha Tavakolian, and was the center of an extremely small shitstorm on social media (certain people who spend a lot of time loudly shouting that you have to protect identities of marginalized people are now taking exception to the admittedly crude method used to protect the identity of a marginalized person. uh, I think. Honestly either it's not super clear what's so problematic, or maybe I'm not paying much attention on account of I don't care.)

Let's look at this thing. There is a black person, gender indeterminate I think, wearing a pink top, possibly a t-shirt. The background is dark, some sort of interior wall? There are two slender vertical columns that appear to be wooden or similar, apparently supporting a dark fabric. This could be a makeshift studio, or the inside of a tent, or some kind of more permanent structure.

Notably, and most importantly, the figure has a net draped over their head and face. A friend might recognize them, but to my eye they are rendered thoroughly anonymous, although some sensation of an expression comes through. While the hairstyle (if indeed this person has any hair on their head at all) is completely concealed, the net is draped in ways reminiscent of hair slightly past the shoulder. One might imagine, for instance, cornrowed hair draping in a similar way, although of course we have no way of knowing a priori if this person would or would not consider such a hairstyle remotely appropriate.

It's not clear whether or not the drape of the net is intended to suggest hair, but it's certainly possible. The suggestion of hair is so strong, to my eye, is that my initial impression is that the subject's back is turned, and we're looking at hair down their back. It almost feels like a Rick James quotation, if you squint, which is extremely weird and arguably very very inappropriate in-context. It cannot, not seriously, be taken as a conscious Rick James reference, but it's what comes to my mind.

The subject, insofar as we can make anything out, seems to have a neutral-to-subdued expression, the body language is consistent with a subdued manner as well. The subject's sightline is a bit to the side, away from the light. Possibly contemplative or bored, possibly looking at something to the photographer's left.

The surrounding information tells us that this person is a woman who lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is a rape victim.

Let us assume, without much reason, that the net covering her face was not simply the only acceptable expedient for disguising her identity. It is certainly possible that it was, and that could be explored, but it's not the possibility I am interested in here.

This photo belongs to a genre of "documentary" photography, which isn't very documentary. The idea is to present as documents things that are actually so larded up with art and artifice that they are in no useful way actually documents. They do not function as documentary photographs, but rather as often poorly conceived conceptual art projects. Indeed, you might as well consider them as second-rate conceptual art, larded up with "news-ish" intention and context, in order to lend some sort of gravitas to a second-rate project.

What, exactly, are we to make of this picture?

If a photograph is a portal to somewhere, where does this portal lead? To a darkened room with an anonymous figure draped, incongruously, in a net. To a darkened room where it is obvious to anyone that a conceptual art piece is being shot. Either that or it's some spy movie, Unlike most such obviously-studio setups, though, there isn't even any clear meta-story.

A model on an obvious set, wearing Gucci and wrangling a pair of borzois, is trying to tell a story. To be specific, a meta-story of sorts, in which Gucci is associated with wealth, power, and dogs. In Tavakolian's picture, and in myriad similar ones, there's no meta-story. It's just an anonymous figure with a net on her head. To be fair, sometimes photos in this genre do point to some meta-story, but all too often the gesture is weak, or absent.

There might be something interesting in here about "news." Perhaps it's that real life is nuanced and subtle, at least when compared with the blunt instrument of Gucci Branding, so no gesture in this sort of thing can have the muscle of the Gucci ad. If so, this suggests that the entire idea is bankrupt and should be junked. Just shoot straight documentary photos and leave the conceptual art to the artists.

This picture strikes me as much like Cristina de Middel's "The Afronauts" which has the same kind of surreal photos of Africans, but which, in a supreme instance of weirdness, might actually be pretty accurate representations of an actual "space program" that Zambia had running for a while. It's a legitimately wild set of photos built on a legitimately wild genuine occurrence, but it has the same vibe as this photo.

Magnum does seem to be scraping up a lot of these people. It seems almost like it might be their Thing now. Not sure it'a great way forward.


  1. How odd, this business of showing something about an incident as a substitute for showing the incident which we missed. As if Picasso decided to paint some shattered bricks instead of Guernica. Personally, I enjoy picking up references -- we all do. But is it Art? Since around 1970 it has been, I guess.

  2. Grist for the outrage machine. It's tough to get any traction when there's a European hot war in full flower, so thank God for twitter silos.

  3. “What, exactly, are we to make of this picture?”

    What I make of it is that it’s exactly the same laughable MFA garbage with an obscured by hair, or posture, face that has been ruining ‘serious’ photography for the last 10 or so years.

    Also, the Afronauts and it’s reception when it came out was a shocker… A book that, basically said look at the funny black people with their impossible dream of a space program. That really is Condescending, bordering on racist stuff, and more so than the image above which is just a trope.

  4. The posse (Ben and Paul, that is) succeeded in forcing the host organization to see the picture through their lens, rather than through that of anyone who was actually present to the scene, such as the subject, and the photographer. A magnificent, if transparently mendacious piece of moral panic promoted on social media, thanks to all who 'liked'. Well done, with literally a 'click' of your wee pinkies, you made a difference!

    1. Indeed. They might even be right, but I don't think that matters, especially not to them. The point is, they're forcing MSF to kneel, and that's all they want. The thrill of forcing someone, anyone, else to comply with any command of any sort.

      The object of power is power.

    2. "Has only taken three weeks of relentless tweeting." The work is exhausting!