Interviews

The Downside of Art Going Viral

Photographs by Kristine Potter in her Greenpoint studio, 2010 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
West Point photographs by Kristine Potter in her Greenpoint studio, 2010 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

I first encountered Kristine Potter‘s work in her studio in Greenpoint in 2010. I remember her West Point series, known as The Grey Line, which consisted of large black and white images of cadets at the military academy. She came across as protective of the images and allowed me to photograph them only obliquely, and from a slight distance. The above photo conveys a great deal about the work and its scale. These stark images are not your typical über-masculine meditations on future soldiers, but they blur subject and background, often feeling like the men — they are all male — disappear into the landscape.

Kristine Potter (photo courtesy the artist)
Kristine Potter (photo courtesy the artist)

Potter, who still lives and works in Brooklyn, comes from a family of military men, so the project was very personal. The way she guarded the images from my camera in 2010, a few months before she was planning to exhibit them at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, suggested to me the body of work was emotionally complicated and unresolved for her.

Then, last week, Buzzfeed writer Gabriel H. Sanchez posted “An Intimate Look At The Cadets Of West Point,” which included (with Potter’s permission) many of the photographs from The Grey Line, interspersing the images with quotes from the artist. It wasn’t the first time Potter had been the subject of internet attention, but Buzzfeed coverage can invite a tidal wave of digs, snark, and ridicule on any given subject.

The comments on the Buzzfeed article don’t come across as particularly offensive compared to the usual banter and taunts found online, but they were enough for Potter to request that the images be removed. Potter explains that many of the subjects themselves were uncomfortable with the comments, some of which accused the photographer and subject of disrespecting West Point, which was never anyone’s intention. Potter felt that the negativity and mindless criticality on the post was snowballing. (The twitterverse also had a field day.) Since this is the internet, even though Buzzfeed honored the photographer’s request, the post survives in archival form.

One of Kristine Potter’s image from her The Grey Line series (image courtesy the artist)
One of Kristine Potter’s image from her The Grey Line series (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Nevertheless, people react when an article gets “censored.” Media types are particularly sensitive to requests to remove critical items, afraid that exceptions like this one will lead to a deluge of requests that court-shy publishers may comply with. When Buzzfeed removed the post, Gawker responded with a provocative headline, “Buzzfeed Deletes Homoerotic Photos of West Point Cadets,” ending the story with: “Gawker readers are invited to share homoerotic military photos of themselves or others below. No judgment.” The website didn’t have permission to post Potter’s images, but they bypassed that by embedding tweets, which are difficult to police for copyright.

“Jeeze. [sic] I’ll try and be careful not to look homoerotic next time someone takes a picture of me,” one Gawker commenter jabbed. “Battle of the Bulge,” another joked. “The real crime is the low-contrast black-and-white. Too much ‘T-Max’, not enough ‘Tri-X’. … Also the homoeroticism. Say nay to gay,” a blatant homophobe offered.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an artist unsure of how to cope with online pressure. I’ve known many incidents where performance artists were harassed as the result of nude performances on YouTube or ridiculed by commenters who have an ax to grind. Artist Jason Hanasik, who works in a similar vein to Potter, was disappointed in the Buzzfeed and Gawker responses. Reacting in Four Two Nine Magazine, Hanasik writes:

If we follow the logic which has been presented in light of the Buzzfeed and Gawker articles and comments, if one wrestles in the woods, lies in repose in a meadow, sits for a portrait in one’s uniform and stares into a camera, and walks through the forest with a friend  — amongst other pedestrian activities  — we too have trespassed across an unspoken line, perhaps that is ‘The Grey Line’ Kristine Potter wants us to expand?

I decided to talk to Potter about the fallout from the Buzzfeed post and its redaction. She requested that the story not be illustrated with any photographs containing multiple soldiers (except for one), as those have been most targeted by negative commenters, or photographs of officers who have asked her that their image not be used. This is our email conversation.

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One of Kristine Potter’s image from her The Grey Line series (all images courtesy the artist)
One of Kristine Potter’s image from her The Grey Line series (image courtesy the artist)

Hrag Vartanian: What was your original intention with the photo series?

Kristine Potter: I grew up around the military with a long, long line of military men in my family tree. I was very aware of the image and presence of that kind of man. I was particularly aware of the parameters of that image; what seemed to be allowed, and what wasn’t. The original intention of the work was to look at the transition from civilian to officer. For me, that is a perfect place to look at the construction of that image and to consider the fact that it is only one facet of the human experience. I wanted to remind myself as much as anyone, that our soldiers are human, with complex emotions and experiences in this world. I wanted to broaden the way they could be seen.

My choice to only look at men was the more deeply personal decision. I needed to separate this work from the purely documentary notion of the expose of West Point. My experience with the military had always been with men and so it seemed like the right way to keep this work close to my own biography. In retrospect, I think I just had more ideas about what I envisioned was a kind of learned masculinity.

HV: Did people’s responses surprise you?

KP: The work has been around for years. It’s been through exhibitions and a modest amount of critical review. For the most part, the reception has been very positive. People have been able to parse out a tone of sensitivity that the military rarely affords its enlisted troops. Occasionally the topic would veer to the sexual, but that certainly wasn’t the dominant overtone. The truth is, the work always lived in a space (the art world) where people are prepared to look more deeply into images and their signifiers.

When the work got displayed on Buzzfeed, the audience grew exponentially, and it did not benefit from my thorough contextualization. Suddenly, a quarter-of-a-million people saw it in one day and saw it in the same way you might see “21 Cute Kittens For Your Monday Morning.” The comment section filled up with puzzling remarks from mostly current and former cadets. It was all terribly negative and shocking to me. The comments went immediately to homophobic slurs — not even thinly veiled. Out of courtesy to the cadets (now officers) who posed for me, I pulled the article. My impulse was to protect them from any further mischaracterizations. While I’m well aware of the razzing that goes on between cadets, and particularly between the Army and the Navy (a rivalry that played out in the comments section), I did not anticipate the kind of vitriol that emerged. I have to say, “Don’t Ask, “Don’t Tell” being repealed seems to have changed very little about that culture.

Among the multitude of questions I asked myself during this episode, one of the larger ones was “Is this what happens when you take ‘Art’ out of the ‘Art World’?”

One of Kristine Potter’s image from her The Grey Line series (image courtesy the artist)
One of Kristine Potter’s image from her The Grey Line series (image courtesy the artist)

HV: I find it interesting you felt the need to protect the men from reactions. It seems antithetical to the way we often think of the military and soldiers. Why not dismiss the comments and allow the project to take on its own life on the internet? Are you afraid it might overwhelm the project?

KP: I cannot control people’s responses to my work and I don’t want to give the impression that I can’t take the heat. If it were all about me and my camerawork, I’d have let it play out. I was actually amused by the few comments that went there. But I feel sensitive about the fact that most of those ridiculous comments were slurs about the cadets by other cadets.

Here’s the thing: when you photograph another individual there is a line of trust (however brief) that must be established. I work with a view camera, it takes a while to set up, the subject has to hold still, take direction, etc. We have to work together to make the picture. I’m not in the business of manipulating people, so I talk a lot about my ideas and my desire to tell stories with my images. When the context of these photographs got overrun with the flippant, immature, and malicious opinions of others on Buzzfeed and Gawker, my instinct was to protect. There was no evidence that letting it continue would encourage more thoughtful responses.

I’ve considered the critique of me “backing down,” but I don’t see it that way. I defend the work. It just wasn’t a constructive conversation for anyone and out of courtesy to the cadets who posed, I opted to remove the images from a forum that seemed challenged to consider the photographs with any depth.

HV: You talk about taking “art” out of the “art world” but what is the essence of that three-letter world? Is it a sense of a safe space? I’m curious what your soul-searching on the matter has revealed.

KP: I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of some incredibly intelligent minds in the art world. I’ve even had it happen in a public forum. It doesn’t feel great, but I’m not afraid of an intelligent conversation about ideas and images. Art is interesting when it challenges. I suppose the three-letter word presupposes that those engaged are willing to consider what they’re seeing with some depth.

I’m not trying to be an elitist. I actually like the idea that this work, in a larger forum, could start some engaging conversations about masculinity and the very narrow spectrum in which we allow men to be viewed. And also about beauty, which is a word I’m not afraid of attaching to the work. I’d even be happy if someone actually acknowledged that it was a woman who made this work. But so far, one thing that is very well established after this incident, is that images of men that are not hyper-masculine make certain people very uncomfortable.

HV: That’s an interesting point around masculinity. In some ways it feels like an attempt at shaming them for being vulnerable in front of a photographer. I keep wondering how some of these men would be feeling right now if any of them happen to be queer and had to read the homophobia in the comments of the posts. Do you think people assume a “male gaze” when they look at these photos, even though they are taken by a woman?

KP: I think about that too, about how using homophobic slurs hurts people in dynamically different ways. How is it still so pervasive an insult after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” Why should “vulnerable” be translated as anything other than one of our myriad of human experiences? If my day-to-day job hazard included possibly being killed in battle, I’m certain I would travel through a lot of human emotions, even if I was just training for eventual deployment. Why can’t we talk about that?

And yes, I do think that many people assume a male gaze, in almost everything. Our culture teaches us to see this way and unless you fortify your awareness against it, it is somewhat of a natural disposition. I think that is particularly true with images of the human form. If it is covetable or affectionate in any way, it must be for a man’s desires. With photography, I think in many cases it is relevant to consider who is behind the camera. In this case, it is a heterosexual woman. So why characterize the images as homoerotic? It’s just a knee-jerk reaction based on anxiety with a perceived lack of male dominance. That’s how I interpret it, anyways.

One of Kristine Potter’s image from her The Grey Line series (image courtesy the artist)
One of Kristine Potter’s image from her The Grey Line series (image courtesy the artist)

HV: Do you see anything political in your photo series? I wonder how you think people read politics into this body of work.

KP: I always see the political in the personal. But more specifically, I made this work during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In some way, I was trying to disrupt the binary language that gets publicly heightened in conflict. Right/Wrong, Good/Evil, With Us or Against Us. My impulse to find psychological nuance felt like it complicated those hardened narratives. And it’s not because I blurred the lines between say, “Good” and “Evil.” It was more about expanding our vision of what the military experience could encompass psychologically, that was my protest.

I would argue that acknowledging the humanity in people is a critical and important way to support them. But I never intended for this work to be socially active in that way. It is all very complicated: War, the necessity of having a strong army, the battle of peace keeping — all of it. I don’t think there is any one statement that can encompass its complexity. I look to other photographers who work around the military industrial complex (An-My Le, Jason Hanasik, and others) and I think … none of us are saying definitively “Yes, War!” or “No Bad!” Because it would be shortsighted to do so. My voice has always centered around the human drama. These are people and they get used in the political sphere. But in the end, they’re human and I find that really compelling.

HV: If you had to do it all again, would you have asked to remove the photos from Buzzfeed or let them stay?

KP: I don’t know if I have enough space between me and the event to have clarity about that yet. Right now, I would still say yes. I think it was the right thing to do considering the circumstances. We all have to weigh the pros and cons of any situation and the pros were so small to me. “Trending” is not really something I care about. I can say with some humor, that going viral feels worse than getting a very bad virus.

But who knows, maybe in time I will see that this had some ripple in the real world that would not have happened without the hysteria. And if Art can still affect ideas and thoughts outside of our small, academic circles, then I think that is kind of amazing. I’ll probably never know.

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