The debate on whether the photographic elite is predominantly made up of a white monoculture rages on at lightstalkers. Gary Knight is the latest to dismiss issues of race and gender in what can only be described as a very defensive post. No surprise since less than twenty percent of his agency are female. That said plenty of people of color at his agency V11, its just that they’re in the pictures getting shot (dead). duckrabbit recommends that Gary reads Lisa Hogben’s thoughts below followed by this post by the brilliant John Edwin Mason
Australian photojournalist Lisa Hogben has been one of the photographers on Lightstalkers brave enough to name a problem for what it is. duckrabbit contacted Lisa and asked her if she’d be happy to expand her thoughts. In return I received a passionate and intelligent essay which we’ve published in full below.
Before that though Lisa also kindly agreed to let duckrabbit play with a set of her photos. We’ve created a mash-up of her work with Stevie Smiths seminal poem ‘Not Waving But Drowning’. My mate Moby also kindly agreed to let me use one of his tunes.
My thanks to Lisa for her words and photos. Both are a gift and we hope that she keeps contributing to the blog.
(Please note unless on a slow connection this slideshow NEEDS to be seen fullscreen. To do that click on the little four arrow icon in the bottom right hand corner of the player)
We live in ‘Internet Times’
It is a wonderful diverse, encompassing, sometimes exigent and taxing, but truly extraordinary medium embraced by the denizens of the twenty first century.
And it has ultimately changed the face of human relations and created niches for everyone, no matter how varied. It has provided a space for a multitude of voices to be heard.
It is the face of a world of change and landmark moments captured and translated with a rapidity that is breathtaking and a variety that is astounding.
So it seems wondrous indeed that the group who are the most capable of harnessing the power of this new technological vehicle, the ‘media’, have seemed to have completely failed to address the problems regarding a lack of diversity and relevance in the photographic industry.
When an esteemed media outlet such as PDN puts together their keenly awaited Photo Annual and the 24 people that have presided over the choices of photography that is to be displayed represent only one part of the world community, the white power elite, you have to think, but what possible relevance does that have to an Indian photojournalism student on the other side of the world? And why would he/she be able to relate to any of their choices?
The embracing of diverse viewpoints by those that generate and influence the tastes of the greater public seems to be strangely remiss, particularly in a new Obama dominated world cultural landscape. Within the ranks of judges in popular photographic grants, awards and competitions there seems to be a replication, world wide, of the types of judges, folk with one sort of experience from one sort of cultural background which can then impose a fairly narrow parameter on ‘how’ they are viewing and hence selecting photographic work as exemplars to be disseminated by the general public.
Perhaps this is not a conscious decision, but what would a typical white western male photojournalist who sports a detached persona and a credible yet distant stance in their photographs comprehend about wearing a burqa for instance? Or a western woman museum curator understand about a culture that seems intent on destroying itself unless they had lived within that culture and understood the nuances that find it to be other than widely portrayed?
And herein lies the conundrum. As Steven Mayes, the current Managing Director of VII Photo Agency and past Jury Secretary for WPP for the last six years, famously quipped at a speech given at this years WPP awards ceremony, the ‘best chances of winning (World Press Photo) is if you are American, male, white and shooting in black and white’ He continued to say that ‘being familiar (to the jury) sensitises the jury (to the work)’
So again we have the power elite of the photographic world imposing its paradigms for what is considered to be the best of the best of press photography for the year, firmly based within its own cultural mores and prior intelligence of the work.
Steven Mayes then continues to elucidate that whatever was chosen to exemplify the ‘best of press photography’ for the year was stylistically often slavishly repeated by other photographers in the following years.
These processes contribute to a continuation of the one unchanging paradigm which creates a kind of exotic romanticism about the world, that of the good guys and that of the ‘other’. These easily definable categories where the world view of Black/Coloured, and/or Islamic/Arabic/Asian people, is always delivered with some sort of problematic reference, merely continually reinforces the dominant paradigm of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Perhaps creating this visual divide was always a good way of selling newspapers in the past but such a simplified and narrow strategy is irrelevant given the nature of the changing geo-political-technological landscape that is the early twenty first century.
I agree with Steven Mayes assertion that what is missing from much of the work that is presented to be defining a ‘new’ world order is an in depth and intrinsic knowledge of a subject, from a more personal and intimate stance than from a removed and approximated gaze. I believe that this can be attributed to the manner in which a photograph is framed and through whose eyes it is viewed.
All of us that read visual material read it from our own level of life experience and our basic belief systems. Yet some of the most sophisticated statements about what defines our place in life come from the photographs of young children, perhaps as a result of their enormously self centered world view. These photos are often a powerful reminder that we can only speak with real authority about what we know on a personal level.
For instance, the movie (which won this years Camera d’Or at Cannes) ‘Samson and Delilah’ from Aboriginal film maker Warwick Thornton, could only have been made by someone who has an enormous comprehension of Aboriginal traditional law and character. As he has said,
“ I make films that have a reason for me. I have to have a passion for it to do it. I need to own the story, know the subjects really well… and believe in it. I have to laugh, cry and get angry about the idea before I even make the film. I’m not a filmmaker who would make a film about a subject I know nothing about. For me I know I have to soak myself in it in order to make a film.”
The powerful nature of the film is exemplified by the clarity of voice and personal comprehension of the subject matter which is heartfelt and cleverly translated to the audience because Warwick Thornton is an Aboriginal man.
This alternate view shown of Australia, belies the ‘Bondi Beach, fair dinkum Aussie’ image often associated with this nation. Outside of the common world view of Australia exists a more poignant, nuanced and unrecognised country.
These kinds of works have significance to the worlds greater population in not only explaining little known or understood cultures, but in redefining our world view.
So where are the photographic examples of this phenomenon so keenly described by Warwick Thornton’s experience? Where are the images of Afghan people by Afghani photographers? Who are the people that will champion the photographers that will rarely be awarded grants or be competition winners, because they operate outside the common photographic power elite?
And why is there no diversity amongst that photographic power elite?
My suggestion that perhaps a conscious ‘positive discrimination’ can be practiced is often met with howls of derision. It would seem that the controlling interests of sponsors safeguarding their investments in grants, competitions and awards compromises those very ideals of presenting as broad a view as possible within the visual art of photography.
With PDN’s Photo Annual jury as an example one can only say that the current photographic market can be seen as white images for white people. In the photojournalism section the statistics are interesting indeed. Only two images were shown of an American story, that of Barack Obama, while roughly half of the photographers were American. With only one photojournalist hailing from Indonesia, one from Israel and one woman and all of the others being American or European the rest of the award winning images were of Asia, Russia or Africa.
While I personally know several of the winners of the photojournalism categories and there is no doubt that all of the photographers are very fine photojournalists, one must wonder why this limited pool of interest has been presented as the best of photojournalism as chosen by the PDN jury? In the case of one of the winners I believe that the agenda with entering the photographs in this competition was to further publicise an important story to the public, but some of the choices seemed merely as landfill for a jury with a desire to award the photojournalists for the exotic and romantic images that could in no way be misunderstood as being photographed in America.
Ultimately it is easy to lose oneself in a romantic and exotic world view but very hard to hold a mirror up and gaze into the reflection.
I believe that without the edging open of the doors to the multitude of voices in the world that the photographic industry will become moribund and repetitious, where little in photojournalism will reach beyond stylistic concern. And while wealthy white patrons might assure their investments in groups of people that are hand picked for ‘greatness’, the incredible, continuous and extraordinary story of humanity will be addressed in a relatively shallow manner.
The power of these awards, competitions and grants to change the face of how we read the world is great, and it is a responsibility of the jurors and sponsors, the power elite and arbiters of taste to look closely at the processes and to challenge the current paradigms.
um.. a media author’s race, gender or background is not the first thing, nor the second, or even the last thing you learn about when you experience their work: typically you ‘never’ know this before you form an opinion on the work you see.
Ask any film festival judge, or entrant, or member of the audience; it’s essentially anonymous. There’s no reason to think this doesn’t hold true for photography as the barrier to entries with the gear required to make it happen is less prohibitive than moving pictures and the web makes photographs even easier for a willing provider to come in contact with a willing audience.
Photography is essentially less susceptible to unfair ‘play’. If good work is not finding it’s way in front of our eyes by the people that Lisa wish to see it by, people like her?, it is probably because it’s not being produced at all, or not being produced to the quality that the public finds appealing.
This whole tantrum seems an absurd extrapolation of Steven Mayes sentiment, a sentiment already flawed because it suggest the WPP is the judge and jury of important photojournalism. We all know what some Magnum photographers think of WPP and their voice is no less strong than VII. I hope WPP gets found out someday. This year’s selection screams scandal as the ‘people’s’ choice was the real winner as discovered later. (Palestine Gassing)
Anyway, This whole article screams of a photographer-affirmative-action. It screams of a disgruntled substandard photographer blaming some incidental statistic for the reason her work is not better received? It’s really cringe worthy, really. I hope I’ve got this all wrong.
Good Stuff Duck Rabbit, keep in coming! : – )
Hmmm, dear Joe, seems your general lack of erudition about, well much really, is the greatest problem with photographic pundits like yourself.
I would like to ask you a question Joe and think very carefully before you answer it-
If you are in a room full of deaf and mute people at a party would you
A/ Try and strike up a conversation with one of the deaf/mutes to find out where the beer was?
B/ Wander around aimlessly until you stumbled on where the beer was kept
C/ Or wait around until someone brought in someone that could tell you where the beer was?
I am curious to see your answer, as I am curious figure out how you surmised that I am some kind of ‘disgruntled substandard photographer’
duckrabbit nips this one in the bud
Joe appeciate you taking the time to comment but your logic is a little flawed. Surely the status quo suits Lisa? That fact that she is willing to speak up has nothing to do with her photography and everything to do with her as a person, the experiences she’s had and her desire to live in another world.
So once again the argument gets deflected from the real issue, to the personal.