“Marina’s Room” (1987) by Tina Barney (via Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Noted photography blogger Joerg Colberg has responded to my piece on the work of Shelby Lee Adams. Colberg states that “it would help us a bit to realize that our hand-wringing about these photographs ultimately won’t have any consequences – unless we spring into some sort of actual action. Telling Shelby Lee Adams to lay off obviously isn’t going to help anyone but ourselves: It is us who can then feel better – no more photographs of poor people to look at. No more guilt, while the people depicted in his photographs continue to live in poverty. Is that what we want?”

Excluding the poor and marginalized from photography is not the answer. Colberg is correct when he writes of guilt absolution. There’s a strange irony when the middle and upper classes seek to shield the poor from the camera’s potential victimization by rendering them invisible. No picture can bridge class divides or rectify generations of systematic exploitation. These tasks are beyond the capacity of any single photographer. Colberg also questions the lack of critiques for photographs of wealthy people, referencing the work of Martin Parr, although Tina Barney with her directed portraits of wealthy Americans is probably a more apt example. He states that “for the debate abound Shelby Lee Adams to make sense, we have to be able to apply large parts of it to photographs of people who occupy the complete opposite spectrum of wealth…The fact that we’re seeing objections to photographs of poor people, while we’re happy to ogle at rich people, might just indicate that the real problem is not necessarily a photography one.” The problem is not entirely photographic. I agree that the rich are just as open to mythologizing. Socially charged sites, both rich and poor, attract careerist predators (take a look at the controversy surrounding Kirsha Kaechele) just as much as they facilitate work that is linked with consciousness raising and demand for reform. But let’s be real: gawking at a debutante ball is hardly comparable to the long history of rural Appalachian images being used to rationalize poverty.

Jim Goldberg’s “Untitled” (1984) (from his Rich and Poor book, via americansuburbx.com)

My hesitation about Adams stems from the characterization of his work as purely documentary. Photography is haunted by a dualism that posits the viewer between science and subjectivity. I do not contend that there exists a single objective reality which is easily captured in a picture, nor do I believe that veracity in a photograph is dependent entirely on technique or the absence of direction—snapping away randomly isn’t likely to be any more truthful than a carefully framed, thought out shot—but the degree of input Adams has in styling his subjects seems disingenuous at times. Socioportraiture given some dramatic coaxing for effect. The political dimensions of aesthetic decisions and the sensationalized narratives they suggest should not be overlooked. I say this as an admirer of his work. I’m not just concerned with images that portend to be “truthful,” but with how those images are situated politically, how they function as commodities. Admittedly, some of that situating resides with the audience and is beyond the role of the photographer.

My “real question,” in response to Colberg, is whether documentary photographers working should work beyond pure aesthetic concerns and structure their practice so that it incorporates more radical analyses of social ills. If so, what would such a practice look like? The work of Jim Goldberg comes to mind, especially his Rich and Poor. Goldberg pushes the boundaries of “straight” documentary by incorporating text and anecdotes written by his subjects into his image-making. Is it possible to produce a Barthesian “just” image, “an image which would be both justice and accuracy,” without inhibiting aesthetic freedom?

Jason Huettner is a writer in New York.

2 replies on “Notes Toward A “Just” Image”

  1. For me the real issue here is the difference in potential outcomes that the “mythologizing” effect of photography can have on these polar populations. Lets talk semiotics: wealth is a signifier of everything from strong work ethic to beauty and intelligence. It is perhaps the most powerful source of moral validation available to an individual, and respectively only on an individual level can it be rescinded.

    On the other hand, poverty – especially rural poverty – too often stands as a signifier of cultural backwardness and moral depravity. Contrary to the notion of wealth, as a label it is applied most often to a very general population. Even the term “poverty” itself is semantically geared toward a pluralistic reading.

    It is the rich who hold domain over the realm of cultural politics, and as such it is their cultural capital which is respected on the floor of the capitalist market (workplace) and in its training grounds (school). The individualistic successes of the wealthy stand in direct contrast to the failure of the poor populous as a whole, the culturally inept. 

    Since the rich collectively render control over the definition of and avenues to success, only in an individual sense can they be disenfranchised. An exploitative photograph of a wealthy person is definitively negative only due to the fact that they are breaking a moral code of their own making. Therefore, very little damage can be done to the wealthy as a whole. By definition the exploitation of the entirety of a wealthy populous is logically impossible. However, the story is quite the opposite when it comes to poverty. 

    Functionally speaking, since the relative center of morality is located within the camp of the wealthy, the poor necessarily represent a sense of “otherness” that provides for the logical reaffirmation of the wealthy collective’s moral absolutism. This sort of group cohesion – based on similarity –  is known as “mechanical solidarity.” It’s why “poverty” is compulsorily passed off by the rich as one-dimensional and why the poor have no voice – because they are constantly being defined from the outside.

    So no, the real problem is not a photographic one, it is with how we define culture in relation to wealth. Of course photography itself can’t be blamed for the origins of the semiotics it employs, but its purveyors can be held accountable for unjustly reinforcing them to exploitative ends. Ending statement: photographic exploitation can have much more devastating consequences for the poor than it can ever have for the rich.

    Finally, I would say that yes photographers absolutely should incorporate more “radical analyses of social ills” in the production of their work (see my response to Huettner’s first article). But as for a Barthesian “just” image. . . I’m not sure that the concept of “justice” itself has even been sufficiently defined. Whose justice? Or moreover, when it comes to photography, whose aesthetic freedom?

    I do like where Goldberg is going though. . .

  2. “Of course photography itself can’t be blamed for the origins of the semiotics it employs, but its purveyors can be held accountable for unjustly reinforcing them to exploitative ends.”
    This is the kind of brain-dead, academic mumbo-jumbo that is paralyzing young artists all over the world. I guarantee you not one artist of any mention would suffer this kind of talk at an opening. “Um, sorry, I have to go get another drink…”

    Marxist/Semiotic theory, it’s soooo cutting edge. Boy, that will get you a good job in the service industry. You can chat up Marx over the fry bin and talk about how the boss man is keeping you down.

    Goldberg’s work is exactly the kind of exploitation you say you decry. He makes a photograph of some poor, pathetic youth with third grade grammar and handwriting, who thinks someone will walk up to his door and give him money, and then HE SELLS IT! Jesus! He might as well take a picture of himself urinating on the subject. 

    It’s just grotesque. And to you, it looks like justice.

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