It has come to my attention that a photographer I criticized five months ago is allegedly offended at what I wrote.
There must be some concerns on his behalf I hope to address on this post.
I do not claim to be the smartest tool in the shed, my limited talent lies in researching and parsing out information for my more serious writing. This casual blog is a little place where I write “random thoughts and better organized concepts about what I see, feel, and think is happening in our fragile, dramatic, and vulnerable art world.” It is not, by any means, a deep philosophical exercise on art historical perspectives. This blog also happens to be read by a very small fraction of people and is of no consequence to someone’s big celebrated career. I am surprised he found the three-paragraph stub where I accused him, summarily, of having the arrogance of a colonizer’s lens, because Google has it hidden in its many pages. Not surprisingly, Google produces more positive, profound, informative and praising results about said photographer and his body of work. Why would he take the time to contact me to tell me off? This blog space is pretty much insignificant in the art world and for him to focus on my accusation, when there is so much good stuff out there about him, baffles me.
He and I come from different cultures and sometimes misunderstandings are bound to happen. However, for a person of mixed heritage who lives on this side of the world and has seen firsthand the damages of colonization and is particularly sensitive to what that looks like, it can be hard to pipe down and let things of this nature run me by. I take no shame in that – it is my personal experience. I also happen to live in a country that, in spite of its many flaws, is at the forefront of serious collective conversations about colonization, race, ethnicity, socio-economic, gender privilege, and cultural sensitivity.
Although, my response to the article may not have been the best or most cohesive one, and decidedly caused some stress, I still believe I have a valid point:
In the history of photography, we have seen the impact photo-journalists and other kinds of photographers have on native subjects - notably Edward S. Curtis. On the one hand, it helps document and preserve the memory of a way of life, a culture, a people. From an artistic point of view, it can be aesthetically wonderful, ground-breaking, and original. From a humanistic point of view, it shows us that we can connect and understand each other, that with enough empathy we can all inhabit this planet Earth. But it can also leave a bitter after taste.
Appreciation for a culture is a delicate line to walk and what may be OK with some members is not OK with others. Romanticized portraiture of "Vanishing Peoples" doesn’t do any favors to the generations that come after, for as cultures naturally fuse and change they will never live up to a what is portrayed by an outsider. This photographer is not the only one to go down this path, however.
I honestly do not know how this photographer supported the community or in what ways he empowered them to retain their traditions. If his point was to teach me a lesson and put me in my place, it just reinforced my original impression of him. I think we all could have learned more if he would have confronted me with the issues at hand instead of sending an ad hominen rebuke.
As my original stub expressed, I believe his photographs to be beautiful and appreciate the fact that he did not direct their poses – they appeared however they wanted to. It is not the work itself but the way the photographer talked about this culture that touched a nerve. A nerve honed to hurt when White/Western men talk about people in developing countries and their way of life to serve a personal agenda. A nerve that pricks at the whispers of Primitivism, Orientalism, Exoticism, and Otherness.