Prison Photography‘s started a great conversation on the possibility of holding a conference on the subject of race and photography. I think Pete may be on to something. We’ve had no shortage of discussion on the issue in the past, and it’s flaring up again as the conversation erupts around Pieter Hugo’s work. Prison Photography brings up a problem I have with this critical response to Hugo’s portrayals of Africans. I understand the concerns, made quite clear in Sebastien Boncy’s treatment of the pictures on Amy Stein’s blog. However, I am fanatically interested in these pictures. They have shown me something, an aspect of culture, that I didn’t know existed. So long as the photos are not completely contrived, and Nollywood and other works might be completely contrived, I have learned from these pictures.
Sebastien Boncy’s central concern with Hugo’s imagery is that its purpose is to allow white people to look at “weird, highly stylized, meticulously crafted images of crazy looking niggers doing crazy looking shit.” Toning down the accusation, he accuses Hugo of “othering” black Africans. That, I can see, and it isn’t a good thing. But I’m not convinced that the opposite is any better. Would Boncy have us look only at pictures of subjects with which we are familiar? Photography is at it’s best when it forces the viewer to confront and understand (or start to understand) the unfamiliar. Perhaps that’s where Hugo’s work is most deficient. The viewer confronts the strangeness, but has no invitation to understand those differences. The importance of diversity lays not solely in the concomitance of disparate cultures or ideas, but in what teases out from their mingling. But in their concurrence, differences must be preserved and celebrated, if cultural diversity is to provide any value. Only pointing a finger at those differences, as in Hugo’s work, does little to achieve that goal.
The discussion surrounding his work, though, is of real importance.
A conference might do well to provide structure and gravity to the debate. A conference on the subject may be ambitious at first, so perhaps the organizers of the New York Photo Festival or PhotoNola or the next Look, could integrate a panel discussion on the subject. Invite curators to create an exhibition addressing notions of race in contemporary and historic photography (both from the developed world looking to the developing world and from the developing world looking to the developed). Involve influential photographers, editors, and curators, from varying genres of photography; photojournalism has much to discuss, but so does commercial photography and fashion photography (especially after Vogue’s blackface…) and art photography.