Mishka Henner has a new project on the Panos Pictures website, made with Google Street View, called No Man’s Land. It purports to be a series of pictures of women who “appear to be soliciting sex”. We knew there were going to be a lot more of these Google-based projects coming, following the controversial World Press Photo award given this year to Michael Wolf. But this one impresses me a lot, though in pushing more boundaries raises a new set of questions.
About his project Henner says,
No Man’s Land explores the margins of our urban and rural European environment as experienced by what appear to be women soliciting sex in liminal, post-industrial and rural settings, captured by Google Street View cameras.
Occupying liminal spaces in post-industrial and rural settings, the focus on these women also casts a critical eye on the Street View project itself and on photography’s indelible link to voyeurism and surveillance.
The Street View project heralds a new age of street-level cartography that offers a vast, regularly updated archive waiting to be mined by documentarians seeking to make sense of our contemporary condition. …
I think the project is terrific, especially in the visuals, and it is interesting to hear how Henner contextualizes the issues of using Google Street View immediately in the introduction to the work. I’m still working through some of the implications of the work, and I’m curious about your reactions. For example, these blurred faces imposed by Google itself… I’m sure there are legal implications for displaying peoples’ likenesses but in this context of possible illegal activity, it adds something else. It draws some parallels, in that fine line of documenting accusations, with Donald Weber’s project Interrogations, and many of the same issues of consent and imposition.
Overall I’m struck by the consistency of this project, photographically and conceptually: 64 images (on Panos’ site) with remarkably similar compositions. An amazing, consistent collaboration between Google’s ‘unseeing eye’ and Henner’s curation. The banality of the scenes is so strongly undermined by the repetition, the ubiquity and the scope of these images across Europe. I’m also struck that it would be nearly impossible for a photographer on his or her own to create such a project. Can we really imagine someone driving around and capturing as many scenes, as consistently, on their own?
Henner is showing me that sexual trafficking (as he implies, or maybe just a phenomenon of women sitting by rural roads) has a particular pattern consuming Europe; I am not accustomed to seeing anything like this with my full eyes nor before in an arts project. That is useful I think. This is perhaps journalism in a new form, it is informing us about something after investigation and we can likely rely upon it. Screw the medium, this is showing us something new in our communities and in an eloquent and democratic manner.
Passing this link to some friends I heard some very interesting, and critical responses. Ranging from the idea that a photographer should really just go out and make their own pictures (ideally, sure, but I think that it is clever to use the mass resources of Google photographing more places in less time than an individual could) to the very serious issue of Henner painting all of these women near the streets as street-walkers. Does he have any evidence to make such an accusation? Is this project interesting only because it is voyeuristic and speculative? I don’t have the answer, and Henner does not really give any firm answers in his own words about the project .. so again, I suppose we’re just asking questions but not coming to any conclusions. Interesting questions, but still troubling.