Worth a read: Before they resurrect the noble savage

Africa is a Country - Before They Resurrect the Noble Savage
Africa is a Country – Before They Resurrect the Noble Savage

The message found there is this: let us, the tainted citizens of modernity, bask in the beautiful simplicity and cultural purity of these exotic people of color before they become corrupted beyond redemption by the burdensome complexity of our lives. While you’re at it, make sure to take special note of the photographer’s unique ability to tame these mysterious and wonderful tribes with his inexhaustible charm. -Zachary Rosen, Before They Resurrect the Noble Savage

I’m disappointed I missed this post by Zachary Rosen at the excellent Africa is a Country blog when it was published in late 2013, just as photographer Jimmy Nelson’s Before They Pass Away project was getting a lot of press. The work shows members of tribes from around the world in unspoiled landscapes decked out in their traditional garb. CNN lamented the disappearance of “tribal beauty.” The Daily Mail was worried about people “disappearing forever.” Time Lightbox introduced the work with the odd phrase “Portraits of Authentics.” If those headlines don’t scream postcolonial gaze or white guy photography to you, the project website certainly will.

Rosen’s critique of the work, titled Before They Resurrect the Noble Savage, is a strong and well reasoned indictment of the project and its approach. Referencing the “noble savage” and salvage ethnogography, Rosen argues that the work doesn’t show the people of these tribes but rather the photographer’s (and the West’s) vision of what they should look like. The people are presented as exotic; they’re pure and uncorrupted by modernity. There’s an argument to be made for photographing all sorts of people and cultures around the world, but an unquestioned romanticizing of “the natives” is an approach long since written off as specious and condescending. Rosen also points out the breathless praise of Nelson’s work as it was published around the world late last year. It’s surprising that this idea of the exotic “other,” which seems to be the impetus for Before They Pass Away as presented by a photographer qua explorer and reality TV star, was so widely accepted and acclaimed.

By the way, keep your eye on Africa is a Country, the blog that is not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama, if you’re interested in a critical look at the way the African continent is represented in contemporary media and culture.

Must read: Jörg Colberg on How to write about your photographs

“For the love of God, please don’t tell me you’re investigating or exploring something with your pictures! You’re not. You’re not a scientist (unless you are literally one, in which case you publish the work in a scientific journal). ” -Jörg Colberg, How to write about your photographs

If you’re like me, you struggle writing about your own photographs. But it’s an incredibly important skill. Just about every call for entry on our deadline calendar requires a written component, whether it’s just a story summary or an artist statement or a full-blown grant proposal. Jörg Colberg just posted a great guide to writing about your pictures that focuses both on practical advice–start writing while you’re photographing, don’t just describe what’s in the pictures–to more abstract approaches to the task–write using your voice. Ultimately, he thinks that your writing should answer one question: “Why should I, the viewer, care about your pictures?”

There’s a lot more to Colberg’s advice, and I don’t want to summarize it here. Head on over to Conscientious and read it for yourself. And while you’re there, spend a little time perusing his recently completed Index of the site…there’s so much there if you haven’t checked back in a while, and now you can browse by subject. The conversations with photographers are not to be missed.

National Geographic launches photography blog

With the inspirational video above featuring a diverse collection of National Geographic photographers talking about why they take pictures, the magazine has launched a new photography blog called “Proof.” There’s not much there just yet besides a welcome message, which says the blog will feature behind-the-scenes looks at National Geographic’s storytelling process, and an odd little post called “Musings: Bonnie Briant.” It’s not clear whether Proof will publish long-form journals like what John Stanmeyer has written on and off again on his personal blog or shorter snippets like what many National Geographic photographers have been posting at the Photo Society blog. Nevertheless, it’s a space worth watching.