An email from Stan Banos of Reciprocity Failure notoriety (see links) titled ‘uh .. oh’ can only mean one thing

Either Stan has finally challenged Joerg of Concientious to a game of Twister , or someone, somewhere is kicking off.

In this case its a typhoon of a post by Sebastien Boncy that can be found on Amy Steins blog.

When Sebastien pretty much opens with these words you know punches won’t be pulled:

‘Let’s take it for granted that Pieter Hugo is a talented and conscientious photographer and assume he has not a racist bone in his body. Somehow, that isn’t enough and I’m still disturbed.’

Good. Because I watched a promotional video by another multimedia outfit the other day that contained the lie that ‘the photography world is like a friendly family. We all support each other.’


People in privilege and power don’t like it when others ask questions.  They do a Pieter Hugo and attack their accusers by calling them “condescending” “white liberals”.

Some of us know better and some of us ought to know better.

Picture 2

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (18 Comments)

  1. Stan B. says:

    Jeez Benjamin, that’s not a scenario my currently flu addled brain wishes to conjure up, let alone appreciate. However, I do hope I recuperate in time for the Conscientious report on the minority experience in photography promised last June…

  2. Stan B. says:

    I just posted my third response on Amy Stein’s blog. I tried, really, really tried on that one. Only to read the post immediately following it…

  3. It’s about time. I just read Boncy’s full comments and think that he’s right on point.

    Too many “documentary” photographers talk about art and fail to mention responsibility. Photographers like Hugo exploit their subjects at the same time that reinforce negative stereotypes. This sometimes has to do with race (Hugo) and sometimes not (Shelby Lee Adams photos of poor whites in Appalachia and Roger Ballen’s photos of poor whites in South Africa).

    But as DR says, it always has to do with power and privilege.

    The people who are being documented understand this dynamic very well.

    In his introduction to “Dorothea Lange: Photographs of a Lifetime,” Robert Coles talks about a conversation he had with an African-American preacher in Mississippi, in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement. If you were black and an activist, you couldn’t move without tripping over a photographer. The preacher told Coles that he worried…

    “…about who’s doing the ‘documenting,’ and what a person has a mind to see…. I say to myself: will they ‘document’ our tears, but not our smiles? Will they ‘document’ our rough times, but not show us having a good time, now and then–no matter how poor we be…? I know we need outsiders to lend us a hand…. But if people come here… and try to help us–but they end up thinking of us as only in trouble, and only in pain, and only persecuted–then we’ll end up with the world getting the wrong picture about us. We’ll end up appearing the way the [Klu Klux] Klan people want us to appear–as bad off as animals, and all the time whining, like a cat or a dog.”

  4. Pete Brook says:

    I find it interesting that Boncy’s piece used the most common derogatory term for a black man. He used it twice. Now Boncy may think he is re-appropriating the term, but to the average reader his use of that word could be misread and misinterpreted as he insists Hugo’s images are.

    Daniel Cuthbert at Text.Hmmmm posted this in response to Jim Johnson’s original piece which of course doesn’t speak to Boncy’s later criticism.

    And, it looks like Joerg is thinking about race in photography again. If Joerg can’t muster a response, can any of us?

    The trend would seem to be that discussions about race (at least for the online photo community) are a short scramble to get your point heard. Isn’t it time we organised a RACE IN PHOTOGRAPHY CONFERENCE?

    Oh! Joshua Spees (formerly of Fraction Mag) just added his piece.

    It seems the desire to communicate our politics toward the image is only matched by our desire to insist not one single reading can ever top another … and this might be because we want to presume audiences as diverse and thoughtful. But what if they are not?

  5. Pete Brook says:

    Meanwhile, the clever Qiana [ ] at Dodge & Burn is preoccupied with other stories about race.

  6. Stan B. says:

    Pete- Love your Race In Photography Conference idea! The problem, as always, is in the details. Who will sponsor it? Regrettably, even those few photographers of color who are in relative positions of power within the phototgraphic community were noticeably reticent to join in the conversation last time round. For pretty obvious reasons. Perhaps this is where leading members of the online photographic community can really take the lead…

    “If Joerg can’t muster a response, can any of us?” I think that just testifies to the “limitations” of his audience, and his own lack of effort. Did he reach out to any of the photographers of color that responded previously? Did he contact the person who originally initiated the conversation? Did he so much as contact En Foco, who could have put him in contact with dozens, if not hundreds of photographers of color?

  7. Pete Brook says:

    Carla Williams would be my vote for Conference organiser. Although we don’t know each other and I expect she would like to have some part in the discussion. She’s outspoken, consistent and a real community leader online and for minorities in the art world.

    You could have a point about the limitations of Joerg’s audience.

  8. Mark Page says:

    Go on stick them Nollywoods on the gallery wall they will do a bundle, They can sit next to Ballen and his “Heart of Darkness” shit……..

  9. Mark Page says:

    On a personal level if I had a choice between a colour piccy of a big proud looking geezer with a bloody great Hyena on a chain or a black & white one of a rabbit wrapped in barbed wire while being held by a skinny kid in a blanket I know which one I’d choose…….

  10. Daniel says:

    “Too many “documentary” photographers talk about art and fail to mention responsibility.”

    I’d say many documentary photographers are trying to be art photographers. Responsibility is a massive part of why I take the images, and choose the projects, that I do. I’m still unsure why Hugo’s images are seen as racist.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I think I have a pretty good foundation when it comes to racism. A white kid growing up during Apartheid. That was racism, every day and idea was racist. Living in fear of the black man, getting twitchy when you see a group of black men walking down the road. These were all fears that were propagated by the National Party.

    Thing is, and I’m really not sticking up for Hugo, he has taken images of how he sees life around him on this continent. People can jump up and say “colonial approach to displaying his subjects” but I don’t see that. I see life in Nigeria. I see subjects on the fringe of society (sorry, but you spend time around hardened drug dealers, you tell me if you think they are being exploited by you being there!).

    On the case of Vogue and it’s utterly despicable shoot, racism is rife in the fashion industry yet it’s all seemingly accepted by the buyers. Fashion is king, don’t you dare question it.

    • @Daniel

      You say: “I’m still unsure why Hugo’s images are seen as racist.”

      Because they reproduce and reinforce racist stereotypes about African exoticism and otherness.

      Because he does nothing to challenge or subvert these racist understanding of Africa and Africans.

      Because, in fact, he chooses to show _only_ the odd, the weird, and the frightening–those, as you say, “on the fringe of society.”

      You also say: “Responsibility is a massive part of why I take the images, and choose the projects, that I do.”

      Then you should accept that Hugo has a responsibility to be aware of the ideological context within which his images will be seen. He has a responsibility to be aware of the ways in which notions about African violence, corruption, primitiveness, exoticism, and decay are created daily by the images that we see in the news and the popular media.

      He has a responsibility to be understand the prejudices and negative stereotypes about Africa that his viewers carry around in their heads (very much including his hipster gallery-going, Aperture-reading viewers).

      He then can make a conscious choice about whether to reinforce or challenge these ideas.

      Challenging these ideas does not necessarily mean avoiding the odd, the unusual, or even the grotesque. But it certainly does mean contextualizing these images–explaining them and showing where they fit into the larger scheme of things–because photos do not speak for themselves. In fact, it’s much more the case that the viewer, left to his or her own devices, speaks for the photo.

      Hugo also has a responsibility to his subjects–and not only the ones that show up in his images. His larger responsibility is to the communities within which his photographed. And it’s here that the quote from the Mississippi preacher is right on the money (see my initial comment above). To do otherwise is to reproduce the colonialist mentality.

  11. Pete Brook says:

    How about a face-to-face conference about issues of race in photography?

  12. Daniel says:

    “Because, in fact, he chooses to show _only_ the odd, the weird, and the frightening–those, as you say, “on the fringe of society.””

    so if i show images of white people, the odd, the weird and the frightening, that’s not racist but the moment i document people of colour, it is?

    • Daniel, if you’d bothered to actually read what I’ve said in my previous comments about this post, you’d know that I certainly do find it objectionable that photographers such as Shelby Lee Adams and Roger Ballen create decontextualized, stereotypical images of poor whites.

      The heart of the issue, as DR said and I seconded, is power and privilege.

      The problems are three-fold: (1) the reproduction and reinforcement of damaging negative stereotypes, and (2) the inability or unwillingness of the photographers to critique or challenge these stereotypes, and (3) the lack of context, which makes it difficult for viewers who are not familiar with the communities in the photos to offer their own critiques.

      This matters. Photos shape, to greater and lesser degrees, viewers’ understanding of the world. Why else would we bother with photojournalism and documentary photography?

  13. Daniel says:

    A good friend, Thato Mogotsi, talented picture editor for a large South African paper had this to say:

    This is the first time I’ve even heard of any dissent regarding this body of work. Personally, I didn’t find the series that challenging. His technique is awesome, colour brilliant but subject is really not that probing.

    As for the argument that Hugo’s work is racist?! Come on, is this to suggest that his subjects – some of whom were actors on a Nollywood film set, by the way! – are entirely powerless in their own representation? The general misconception that Africans are always photographed without knowledge or awareness of how they are being portrayed is nonsense. You need only look at the portraiture of photographers like Malik Sedibe and if you need a white counterpoint, Jurgen Schaderburg’s Drum era images. In both instances, the persona is very much present, not in any way shying away from the camera or perplexed by its stare.

    I just think Hugo’s detractors are seriously giving him too much credit. He simply entered a world that was already staged and essentially based in fantasy and role-playing. Is anyone aware of this simple fact? Hugo simply documented characters in costume on a film set. Or in the case of the portraits of the men with wild animals as pets, he captured their self-perception, the way they see themselves within their context.

  14. @Daniel

    “As for the argument that Hugo’s work is racist?!….”

    I’ve just reread all the comments to the post, and I can’t find a single one that claims that Hugo’s photos are racist. Photos, in an of themselves, have no meaning. They need viewers and context to acquire meaning. You’re reducing my argument and the argument of others to a caricature.

    To say that Hugo reproduces and reinforces negative stereotypes is to talk about the way in which the photos operate within a particular cultural context–in this case, the culture of the affluent westerners who make up the vast majority of his audience, a culture in which Hugo’s photos interact with those that we see on CNN, BBC, Oxfam’s site, newspapers, Hollywood movies, etc. and so on. It is within this context of images of Africa that we question his photos.

    If you’re going to dissent, you need to do it more carefully.

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