Friday, May 27, 2005

Photographic Art, or Exploitation? Ethics and Photography

Last month I was in San Diego for a week's vacation, and managed to swing by the Museum of Photographic Art for a quick look at the exhibits. The two featured artists, photographers Andrea Modica and Edward Burtynsky, cover opposite genres; the former specializes in aesthetic social photodocumentaries while Burtnysky is a landscape photographer emphasizing environmental damage and destruction. Click on the links to get a view of their work.

I found Burtynsky's work appealing, although I learned about it before on the Web in an article by photographer Michael Reichmann (the article makes for great reading). Straightforward, technically superb, and visually appealing, his "industrial landscapes" are both beautiful and disturbing; beautiful in the mix of colors and textures, disturbing in that these aren't paintings and the destruction pictured is a real, and unfortunately, inevitable byproduct of our industrial civilization. Then again, my taste runs to the realistic when it comes to photography.

Modica's exhibition, on the other hand, was very disturbing. Not in the choice of her subject, per se, although photos from the Fountain, Colorado project (covering a community of indigent and migrant workers where the primary employment seems to be an abbatoir) are graphic. I felt her photographs were unfairly exploitative.

Modica's main body of work, the Treadwell Project, concerned a young girl named Barbara, one of fourteen children in an indigent family in upstate New York. Modica spent fifteen years visiting and photographing this family, and her pictures illustrate the metamorphasis, or rather the dissolution, of this person into a grossly overweight yound adult who finally succumbs to obesity-related diabetes. Only in America can the poor die of obesity, but her preventable death really was the result of ignorance.

Does the photographer have a responsibility to intervene if she observes harmful behavior, to say "Stop!" to her subject (or her subject's parents)? Most art critics would say, "No, in this situation the artist is responsible only for documenting events, and while she should be empathetic and respectful to her subjects she owes them nothing." Modica tells us that she did not compensate Barbara or her family for allowing her the privilege of photographing them for more than a decade, nor did they receive any part of the proceeds from Modica's prints, books, or exhibition payments. Modica doesn't tell us if she tried to intervene, to get the family to modify their behavior so that it would be less self-destructive. My guess is that, given the philosophy that the photographer is merely artist-observer, responsible only for the procurement of images with artistic merit, any intervention would be seen as interference, an unwarranted influence on a living experiment that would fatally flaw the outcome.

To me, however, seeing the stages of this person's life documented was less about art and more about voyeuristically documenting a train wreck. Yes, the prints were well-done and attractive both technically and aesthetically, with detail and tonality. But I couldn't get past the idea of the photographer observing this preventable catastrophe upside-down on the ground glass of her view camera for such an extended period of time, being willing enough to communicate her ideas as to composition to the subject, but not willing to advise the subject to forego the junk food, practice decent hygiene, get exercise... or to contact the authorities about an unhealthy domicile and de facto child abuse. What is the philosophical difference between taking pictures of poor, uneducated, ignorant people who live in squalor in order to sell pictures, and taking pictures of poor, uneducated, ignorant people who take their clothes off in order to sell pictures? In either case, the subject's dignity is inevitably sacrificed despite the artists' protests to the contrary.

In the 1930s the US government funded a photographic effort to document the Great Depression and the effect it had on the lives of Americans. While many of the pictures documented people living in unbelievable poverty (to us, at least, some seventy years later), I don't feel they were exploitative because the photographers had a clear mission to document the adversity facing many Americans so something could be done about it, and they photographed what they encountered in a journalistic style that was beautiful in its simplicity. There was no artistic sentiment about "art" being more important than human lives, nor did the photographers have an underlying profit or self-aggrandizement motive. Yes, the photographers did get paid, however they worked on a straight salary and all of their images belonged to their employer—the federal government. More important, these photographers didn't spend a decade getting to know their subjects intimately, returning regularly to shanties to capture the disintegration of these families.

I find Modica's photographs as objectionable as those from an Iraqi AP stringer who, having spotted terrorists preparing an IED, sits and peers through his viewfinder as the US patrol approaches, ready to capture the ambush on film. Both parties would not intervene to protect their subjects, excusing their inaction as a calling to a higher god (be it Art or Journalism). Both are ethically deficient.

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that my opinion is definitely a minority one in the art world. I also know which of the two artists' exhibits I will recommend to others, and I hope that more artists and journalists will realize that art and journalism are but means to an end, tools meant to inspire or inform rather than exploit or harm.

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