Essays

Capitalist Realism or Poverty Porn?

Shelby Lee Adams, "The Home Funeral" (1990) (via shelby-lee-adams.blogspot.com)

For more than three decades, Shelby Lee Adams has photographed families living in the Appalachian hollers of Kentucky. Adams sees himself as a documentarian and observing participant in the communities he works in, developing close friendships with his subjects and allowing them to shape his photographic practice.

Adams’ picture of the Napier family, entitled “The Hog Killing,” was taken in Beehive, KY after a ritual hog slaughter.The yearly slaughter of a hog provides a family with meat for three months, some of which is shared with neighbors as a way of reaffirming friendly ties. Adams planned and posed the entire shot, desiring to capture a disappearing Appalachian tradition. He purchased the hog at a cost of $150 since the Napiers were unable to afford it themselves. The Napiers had not partaken in a hog killing for almost fifteen years. Some characterized Adams’s staging of the event as disingenuous, an intervention that betrayed the responsibilities of a documentary photographer to capture his subjects as they lived, without any goading or theatrics. Is this kind of practice truly documentarian or is it exploitation? Similar criticism has been directed at the work of Walker Evans, who is said to have staged certain depictions of 1930s Depression-era America.

Shelby Lee Adams, "The Hog Killing" (1990) (via shelby-lee-adams.blogspot.com)

Although Adams identifies with the mountain people of Appalachia and claims them as his own community after years of work, his class position is that of an outsider. He grew up in a solid middle class family in Hazard, KY as the son of a gas salesman and only came into contact with extreme poverty when on business trips with his father. His work has been published to great acclaim and fortune in the art world, while his subjects continue to be exploited by state and corporate forces. At what point does artistic license to portray a region become a mythologizing or branding effect that exploits the poverty of others for profit?

Adams does not use any formal ethnographic methodologies in his work. In The True Meaning of Pictures, a documentary film about his life and photography, he states that his work is an expressive art carried out amongst friends, and that his photographs are not “objective documents.” But the lack of backstory for many of his pictures and the marketing sheen given to his books (with suggestive titles like “Appalachian Legacy“) may encourage some viewers to think that Adams’s goals are far more lofty. The “legacy” of poverty in the American South sells and remains a source of intrigue.

In On Photography, Susan Sontag once compared photographers to sexual voyeurs, stating that the photographic impulse “is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening. To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.”

Shelby Lee Adams, "Gracie Serpent Handling" (1987) (via shelby-lee-adams.blogspot.com)

Photography remains a powerful sociopolitical tool. Pictures affirm memories, histories, and transmit information across class strata. But Sontag notes that “photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.”

While many of Adams’s pictures are stunning in their composition and technique, his work exceeds what is purely documentary. The natural progression of an event or action is usually interrupted so that he may direct his subjects. He is functioning as dramatist and director, breaking with the traditional mold of a documenting photographer in the vein of Dorothea Lange or Jacob Riis and modifying situations for maximum effect. Adams’s body of work may come from a loving, genuine admiration of the Appalachian people, but their portrayal is as much about Adams’s interiority as it is about what he sees in his subjects.

The process of taking a picture is highly selective. There can be no master narrative. The photographer organizes and converts the real, lived experiences of others into the realm of the photogenic. When dealing with scenes of impoverishment, photogeneity is often contingent on the inflation of well-worn class stereotypes. Pictures can conceal and distort just as much they can disclose. The presence of stereotypes in society should not exclude the poor from being photographed, but photographers working in an ethnographic or documentary capacity must be cognizant of the politics of representation and the agency of their subjects.

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