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
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.