Essays

Capitalist Realism or Poverty Porn?

by Jason Huettner on July 7, 2011

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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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_T2ADM6KF6H4EMEOW3K53KIZ4JE Elzo

    This is a great piece. Thank you.
    Can I reblog this?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      We ask that you quote from it and provide a link, not post the entire piece. Thanks.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_T2ADM6KF6H4EMEOW3K53KIZ4JE Elzo

        But of course. And Thank you again.

  • http://www.dannyolda.com Danny Olda

    Very nice article.  That last paragraph had a lot of thought in a few sentences.

  • http://www.dominickbrady.com DomBrady

    I have a problem with art, photography or even documentary photography having to be a socio-political tool in order for it to be valid. For what? If art is about expression then let it be about that.  What’s curious to me is that Adams is considered to be a  documentary photographer even while he’s staging photographs. THAT, to my mind, is an issue.  This part of the essay’s argument makes sense to me: “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.”I don’t think you’d see Eggleston walking around with his camera staging shots but he’d probably take whatever’d enter is frame if it interested him— this even with Eggleston in some ways bucking Cartier-Bresson and Capa’s sense of  precision in the photographic moment.I think we have to allow space for that kind of thinking and at the end of the day a story is a story.  Sometimes class is a part of that story.If it’s about dignity why do we assume that dignity can’t be found not in spite of but in conjunction with poverty? I think the essayist here does a decent job of at least attempting to weigh different sides of the debate and still manages to come off protectionist.If you were to go to any family reunion of my youth in Trelawny, Jamaica only a lesser photographer would miss the opportunity for shot of my family (with dozens more people in the frame) interacting, arguing, playing and talking adjacent to the hanging carcass of a goat being cleaned while it’s head is being prepped for mannish water soup.There’s nothing degrading in that alone. That’s culture.  It is what it is. As for this sentiment: “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.”   It’s a tricky thing. If as a photojournalist or documentary photographer one is over-thinking about which shots to take  it’s possible good shots will be missed. Keep shooting.  The fact that there shouldn’t be any staging is why there can’t be second guessing in the field, in my opinion.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/JYKLSWFPPQHSTMNMPWKFUYPP44 jason

    i believe the topic in question here is very valid for artists to ask themselves.

    i once asked film director fernando meirelles (referencing his “City of God”) about this. that is, when an artist is attempting to tell a story of a people the artist finds worth telling, how does one distinguish the line between telling and exploiting? his answer was, if you don’t tell the story, no one learns about what you saw that you felt was so strongly in need of telling.

    which struck me as a polite way of saying “keep it simple, stupid”, and pergaps even: “trust yourself as an artist, and a fellow human being, and tell the story as you understand it”.

    so in reading this, i have to say that it’s not stereotype if it is real -and- if it in fact does attempt to
    tell the whole story as far as the artist is able.

    i come from the kinds
    of places represented in these photos. i’ve shared meals with folks from the same hollers, gone to school, fell in love with, fought, friended, worked with, and indeed, am even related to some of them… even the snake handlers. as far as i can tell by looking at these photos, the whole
    story is no more and no less than what is depicted.

    this whole
    article really seems to be committing the same over-intellectualizing that i think i was guilty of leading up to my question of meirelles.  it reaches for a
    criticism that simply doesn’t apply as much to the artist, as it should be applied to the viewers’ own notions. which, is a primary point in making this kind of work: to try to prick synapses of assessment, or reassessment, of what we’re seeing. and projecting that “need to question” onto the artist’s intentions instead of simply digging into our own reactions and thoughts and what they may have to say about us the viewers, really misses the point.

    • http://twitter.com/BooChradley Chris Adler

      The topic of “over-intellectualizing” is an interesting one, indeed. 

      I agree with you Jason, the viewer should be fully aware of the “notions” that he or she projects onto a given work. After all, in today’s “creator economy” (in the words of Paul Saffo) the viewer is charged with the vast responsibility of relaying these “notions” to an online audience that is much larger than that which could possibly have primary access to the work. . . Hyperallergic itself (and my ability to write this comment) is a smashing example of this.

      However, the question now is if the same can or should be said of the artist. It’s an age-old question, really. Should artists be held accountable for the social concepts that they explore and for how these ideas or “notions” are proliferated? I say absolutely!

      With degrees in both Sociology and Art, and as a working artist myself, I can tell you that this is a major issue when it comes to the type of participant-observation that Adams employs in his artistic praxis. Like it or not, Adams is a sociologist, and he should damn well act like one.

      What bothers me is that Adams is exploiting (even bastardizing) the role of “artist” by posing as some sort of mystical conduit of social truth. Claiming that his photos are not “objective documents” – although it is a step in the right direction – does little to hide his attempt at marketing them as such (his new book is titled Salt and Truth). Even if Adams is not trying to present his work in this light, Huettner does a good job pointing out that viewers are lead to read it as such due to the lack of descriptions included and his questionable marketing strategies.

      Suffice it to say that different approaches to making art come with different responsibilities in regard to presentation. Since Adams is a major source of public exposure for this Appalachian community, he should be charged with the task of representing them in a sociologically sound manner. This means disclosing and thoroughly considering what one’s role is in relation to the community being represented, how that representation is impacted by those social dynamics, and most importantly how it relates to the established paradigm and the present/past social structures and institutions that uphold them. 

      It’s a problem found in all forms of media today – even user-generated content. Media sources (including artists) hold massive sway over the politics of social interaction and yet they are not held accountable for the impact of their biases. Again, whether he likes it or not, one of Adams’ artistic roles in this community is as a photo-journalist and we as viewers have the right – the duty – to hold him accountable for his work and its broader social implications. 

      Don’t get me wrong, I respect Adams aesthetically as an artist who has great control over his medium. But it pains me to see the contemporary art world celebrate work that relies on such an archaic approach to anthropological study. Reflexivity is key! 

      With all due respect Jason, I must disagree with you. To shirk the responsibility of addressing the real social implications of a work of art for fear of “over-intellectualizing” it is not sound logic in my book. 

      Fantastic article. (forgive me for the lateness of this response, but I felt it important to voice) and Thank you Mr. Huettner!

      Cheers!

      • http://profiles.google.com/parkersmithphoto Parker Smith

        “we as viewers have the right – the duty – to hold him accountable for his work and its broader social implications. ”
        This seems rather silly to me. Should we hold Avedon “accountable” because his “In the American West” series showcased drifters and drunks? How do you hold an artist “accountable” anyway? Would you hold Bill Burke “accountable” for his pictures of the same Appalachian communities? They weren’t very flattering, either.

        Adams’ pictures have that friction that makes great art. When you look at these images, you question everything; the main question being that of exploitation. It’s exactly what he wants. He wants you to feel uncomfortable, to feel awkward, to question the veracity, the appropriateness. He’s playing on the PC mindset: “geez, he really shouldn’t photograph poor people this way. It’s not respectful.”

        Socio-political art in general sucks. It’s simply PC conformity disguising itself as “transgressive.”

        Take Andres Serrano and his lame “Piss Christ.” Notice there was no “Piss Muhhammed?” That’s because Serrano wanted to make money, not, you know get killed. Like, duh. Not very brave when you think about it. Just reeking conformity.

        Adams clearly loves his work, and it shows by being infinitely more interesting than most of the conceptual, over-intellectualized photography being pushed by the major galleries. In this sense, he clearly has NOT gotten his props. I suspect Shelby’s print prices are a lot lower than most of the brainiac, art by the pound “photographers.”

        Shelby’s subjects people represent true material poverty, not the phony “poverty” that we hear about on the news, the kind with iPhones and food stamps. People are simply uncomfortable looking at REAL poverty, shown with such unwavering clarity and alacrity. The truth is, no matter how they may be posed or staged or whatever, you know that at the end of the day THEY LIVE IN THAT HOUSE. Yes, it’s horrifying to imagine, but it’s true. And that is the inescapable truth underneath the artist’s narrative.

        Jason had it right: “City of God” is a masterpiece of cinema, and the duty of an artist is to create compelling art, not to conform to the PC sensibilities of academics.

  • http://www.jackejett.com Jack E. Jett

    as a big fan of his work i am conflicted now.  i remember the hog killing scene well and the fact that it was staged put a different light on the entire concept.  now there is nothing to separate this work from “the bachlorette” or some sh*t like that.  bummer.

  • Danny Echevarria

    “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.” The author should consider that many of Riis’ photographs were also posed, with Riis paying his subjects with small amounts of money or cigarettes. The “documentary tradition” is a bit more complicated than what’s proposed by this disjointed essay.

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