Art

Photographs that Aestheticize Human Suffering

The people in Alex Majoli’s strobe-lit images are treated as metaphors instead of themselves.

Alex Majoli, “Scene #0525, Pointe Noire, Congo” (2013), archival pigment print, 90 x 120 cm (all images © Alex Majoli, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery)

Once you get past their alluring chiaroscuro, you might notice the problem with Alex Majoli’s documentary photographs at Howard Greenberg Gallery: they aestheticize the misery of others. Amazingly, Majoli appears either uninformed by or uninterested in years of academic scholarship and considered discourse on how the aestheticization of human suffering is, in itself, a way of dehumanizing the subjects of images. In light of this critique, the people in his photographs become stand-ins for some universal crisis, essentially metaphors instead of complicated, difficult human beings. Majoli doesn’t even shy away from acknowledging the artifice he uses to make these presentations: the title of his exhibition, SKĒNĒ, refers to the structure that served as the backdrop in  ancient Greek theater. There is no shame in his game.

Installation view of Alex Majoli’s SKĒNĒ at Howard Greenberg Gallery

The photographs were taken in Congo, Egypt, Greece, Germany, India, China, and Brazil between 2010 and 2016 — location choices that hint at exoticization (Majoli is Italian). The images are theatrically lit by Majoli’s portable strobes to make them sentimental and even poignant. In “Scene #0525, Pointe Noire, Congo” (2013), for example, the light sweeps across the faces of a crowd of crying women who are clearly distressed. A number of them reach out to touch something or someone beyond reach, but the viewer never finds out what causes their anguish. These images are cliché and hackneyed, because there’s no specificity beyond location — just an opportune moment to display poor subjects needing divine intervention. This is precisely what photography in this moment needs not to do. It needs to be more generous and less exploitive. We who care about photographic portraiture should recognize that Majoli’s approach stimulates our appetite for insight, but doesn’t feed us.

Alex Majoli, “Scene #0308, Lesbos, Greece” (2015), archival pigment print, 90 x 120 cm

Alex Majoli: SKĒNĒ continues at Howard Greenberg Gallery (41 E 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 1.

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