Culture and Complacency

A little over a month ago I wrote a piece about the sponsorship of Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis, an exhibition of photographs of pristine natural wildernesses, by a  Brazillian mining giant. This company, Vale, is according to environmentalists doing a pretty good job of destroying the habitats and displacing the indigenous people that Salgado’s photography eulogises, not least with their involvement in the vast Belo Monte dam project (you can read my original piece here). After writing that piece I tweeted and e-mailed a number of major outlets, to try and get them to run with the story, none of them were interested.

Finally I noticed earlier this week that a mainstream news outlet has picked up on it, The Independent writing a piece reporting the growing uproar over the sponsorship deal, two months after they named Genesis their exhibition of the week. Salgado subsequently spoke to the Independent (something I’ve been trying to get him to do to me for a month without success) to defend the sponsorship deal, arguing that ‘The problem is not the oil companies or mining companies, but the system of life we’ve created’.

Weak as his defence is, there is also something in it. Our way of life belies not just a material reliance on large unpleasant companies, but a profound complacency, an inability or unwillingness to question the origins or order of things. A refusal which makes the activities of these companies, for example stamping on human rights and ravaging the natural world, so much easier for them to get away with.


A miner transports a 120-pound bag of tin ore in North Kivu Province. SASHA LEZHNEV/ENOUGH PROJECT

How many thousands of people walked through Genesis, looked at the promotional material, saw Salgado’s name next to Vale’s, and made no attempt to join such obvious dots? How many amongst those were professional reviewers, photography critics? The people who ought to have been questioning the show and its backers but instead were writing snivellingly subordinate reviews, some indeed even praising Vale’s involvement in the exhibition.

We consume much more readily than we question. How many photographers know where the materials for their cameras come from? If you use Nikon or Canon gear the answer is that at least some of the materials will probably come from places where illict mineral mining funds conflict and instability, these two companies are amongst the worst rated companies for transparency and conflict free material sourcing. How many of us care to ask these questions when we go out to buy a camera? At best we wait for someone else to tell us later, that’s certainly what I did.

This is also the reason that I think blockbuster exhibitions like Genesis will always struggle in their campaigning function, because they are first and foremost spectacles to be consumed, and consumption encourages apathy far more  it galvanises a sense of wanting to ask questions or change something. For all the justifiable moral outrage at Salgado’s sponsorship deal, he has a point, the companies just service a way of life that we have created. Forcing these companies to change their practices has to come hand in hand with changes of our own, not just passive lifestyle changes, the rejection of one brand over another, but a more fundamental change towards questioning before consuming.

Lewis Bush / Disphotic

Discussion (13 Comments)

  1. Alec Leggat says:

    Surely the question is about sustainability, is it not? Consumption is essential to life and development but if we can’t also develop and live by an ethical code that helps us understand and respect human rights then arguably development becomes consumption for its own sake. Glad to see that my camera supplier falls into the yellow band on the conflict minerals company ranking. I’ve also just bought a second hand film camera. That one’s less straightforward I reckon. I think it was Professor Tim Lang who said we are faced with many mini ethical dilemmas each day as we contemplate, or not, the consequences of our decisions about consumption. It requires balance between the need to consume and the need to respect people and planet to live a sane and, hopefully sustainable life.

  2. Thought-provoking post Lewis.

    A similar debate is detailed here

    And interestingly Nikon caught it recently when someone realized they make rifle scopes and it created a bit of a stir for a spell. Granted the specific advertising for the scopes in question could have been better implemented.

    That Nikon make rifle scopes is something any (nature) photographer with more than passing interest in game management would probably have known already. I’ve seen a few rifles with Nikon scopes on them over the years.

    It’s a complicated issue, as Salgado notes in his defence. But as you rightly point out, it’s vital that we question these apparent contradictions.

    • Lewis Bush says:

      Thanks for that John, good link. Yes it wasn’t news to me either that they made rifle scopes. I think Carl Zeiss used to make all sorts of military optics, perhaps still do? Something for the Leica gang to consider.

  3. Stan B. says:

    Shame on Salgado- pure and simple! His “logic” is both illogical and indefensible; he’s reduced himself to the Obama of photography. Put up a good front and hope nobody peeks behind the scene- there’s no way they can justify or finesse the treacherous actions that so utterly belie their stated intentions.

    We now have the opportunity to view a gorgeous essay of pristine natural scenic wonders that are quickly coming to an end and may soon only exist in print thanks to the destructive practices of conglomerates such as Vale, BP, etc. Never did I think that someone the likes of Salgado would actually profit from, as well as defend them.

    Sebastiao Salgado = corporate whore! Never thought I’d say the words…

    • Lewis Bush says:

      We all have to compromise sometimes to get our work made and seen, but I agree that he seems to have over stepped the line here. One would imagine there would be plenty of more tolerable companies willing to sponsor someone with such a high profile.

      • Stan B. says:

        Exactly. Being human is being born a hypocrite and a liar. Where we take it from there, what we do and the path we take to hopefully better ourselves, our environment and those around us is what will ultimately define us.

        Someone in his position would have had other options, even if they were somewhat… humbler.

  4. Kevin Smith says:

    A couple of relevant, free online publications that might be of interest to this debate:

    Not If But When – Culture Beyond Oil (critically examines a lot of the arguments in favour of controversial cultural sponsors)

    Take The Money and Run – Some positions on ethics, business sponsorship and making art

  5. Jon Love says:

    While I wonder at Salgado’s intent of the project, which I assume he would have considered, being a very intelligent man, I find it hard to join the line in condemnation, when in fact we’re all consumers of something of the planet, like it or not. Surely all those protesting won’t be driving anywhere from now on, in order to reduce mineral consumption by the world’s largest industry, motor vehicle production ? It’s not easy separating the negative elements of life when considering intent and outcomes, but surely the test is whether there is a potential positive, long-term good, for people or environment.

    • Lewis Bush says:

      I agree in part, but I think buying the products these companies sell or benefiting from them is a little different from accepting money from them to fund work which argues for the opposite of what they are doing.

  6. Jon says:

    “pristine natural landscape” BOLLOCKS no such thing!

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