WITNESS OR EXPLOITATION?
Thinking about the photography of Sebastião Salgado in New York City
"Artists give a report of the state of civilization." --Leon Golub
During summer 2001 the International Center of Photography (ICP) displayed a blockbuster exhibition. Migrations, Humanity in Transition: Photographs by Sebastião Salgado filled two floors and several galleries literally the entire exhibition space of the newly renovated center at 1133 Avenue of the Americas, precisely the corner of 46th Street and 6th Avenue, ground zero of recently gentrified Times Square. The exhibition, coordinated by APERTURE Foundation For Photography and the Visual Arts to travel to more than 30 cities throughout the world, is a documentary of mass migration on every continent, generally rural peoples to urban centers, and is a testimony that globalization is its root. He photographed the Zapatista resistance in Chiapas, Mexico, people living on top of a water pipe line in Bombay, and others struggling to survive on every continent in between. He traveled for more than six years to create this project.
Globalization is the current buzzword for worldwide free markets laissez-faire capitalism, or trade without restrictions. The boys in blue suits like the word because it smacks of bringing us all together. It conceals their motives, or that their unbridled faith in this economic philosophy has made one-fifth of the world wealthy beyond belief. They try to convince the rest of us that soon it will trickle down to us. Well, while we wait for it to trickle down many people are forced out of their jobs, their homes, and their ways of life. A growing international movement as began in Seattle in 1999 is contesting the health and validity of globalization.
Across the street from ICP are the headquarters of Home Box Office (HBO), the cable media giant. In August 2001 HBO debuted Salgado: Spectre of Hope part of its Cinemax Reel Life documentary series. The set-up is a conversation between Salgado and John Berger. Berger's work as a writer is as prolific, terrific, and complicated as Salgado's photography. He's best known as the author of Ways of Seeing, but his best book may be his collaborative documentary with photographer Jean Mohr, the Seventh Man, which depicts the lives of migrant workers in Europe. It is where he most closely crosses paths with Salgado. Berger ranges wide in his commentary. He uses art, photography, and poetry as yardsticks by which to understand economics, politics, and the clash between peasant and urban life. They sit at Berger's kitchen table in the French Alps leafing through the two books published by APERTURE to accompany the show, Migrations: Humanity in Transition and the Children: Refugees and Migrants. They each describe their impressions of the photographs. They discuss the destructive road from Renaissance global trade to contemporary globalization's devastating effect on poor and rural peoples. What, if anything these pictures can do to counter its devastation.
The perfect question: can Salgado's photography achieve his goals with so much at stake? What is at stake? The ways in which we've become accustomed to doing business, the nation state, and the dominance of the bottom line over human lives. The movement toward a more equitable life for all mankind is clearly Salgado's goal. It is written plainly in the exhibition wall text. He also stated clearly before a screening of Spectre of Hope at HBO's headquarters that we are living in one of the most terrible times of mankind caused by the free reign of corporations to maximize their profits by influencing public policy across the globe. Yet, the ICP exhibition, by extension the books and film, are financially backed by British Petroleum, known in this context by its less imperialist initials, BP. According to Adriana Marques, Travelling Exhibition Coordinator for APERTURE, each of the more than 30 institutions exhibiting the work is responsible for raising its own funding. BP is not overtly sponsoring any other of the shows. Yet, the show is the same in every venue. It stands to reason that the costs would be similar across currencies and locations. Equivalent funding must be risen from someone or where else with equally deep pockets. Few corporations as powerful as BP would fund the work of an artist whose goal is to criticize their methods of business, unless of course they wager the criticism will be ineffective. It's a public relations gamble but if it works then the funding source comes off less treacherous than its competitors. I would venture that BP's goal is to create plausible deniability for global warming or aiding the destruction of the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge. Ultimately to persuade the viewer to pull into BP-Amoco next time one needs to fill-up their automobile.
All this mainstream attention makes Salgado one of the few, if any, documentary photographers to have gained superstar status. Perhaps Robert Capa, the famed war photographer and brother of Cornell Capa, the founder of ICP, was more popular and sexy in his day. Hitchcock did base Rear Window on him and Jimmy Stewart played him. In America, to have a genius director fictionalize your life and be played by a superstar makes one more venerable than to be the star of a documentary about one's own work, i.e. we are more comfortable with fake life than real life. We prefer the official culture's interpretation to the folk culture tale; it's more digestible, less complicated. It enables us to sleep at night and get to work on time the next morning. In the fake life the black person always dies first, the nice white family triumphs adversity, real poverty is non-existent, and only rogue nations hurt their citizens. In the folk life, bad things befall good people and we all have our day of reckoning and most are mired in stifling poverty. Furthermore, superstars sell, even anti-capitalist, ethical, unpretentious, down-to-earth superstars. Dig the Che Guevera paraphernalia all over America, the country that's stood most adversarial to Cuba during its 40-plus years as a revolutionary government. Recently I overheard some loudmouth at a bar in Soho tell his date over a martini-up, the price of which is about double the average minimum wage in the U.S., about his cool Che t-shirt.
The corporate makeover of Times Square is just the latest stage of a longstanding tradition of official culture subsuming marginal culture. Times Square, long known as a tenderloin district, where one could exit Port Authority bus terminal or ascend the subway, blend anonymously into the masses of people on the street, seek and find illicit pleasures is now known for clean, safe fun for the whole family.
The timing, location, and style of this blockbuster exhibition are uncannily apropos. The American summer is all about blockbusters and theme parks. Hollywood blockbusters, for example, are all about cooperative marketing, cross-pollination. The movie sells the book, characters become action figures, maybe a t.v. spin-off is developed; there's generally a soundtrack, always t-shirts, and some sort of crossover advertising campaign. It's worth all the risk, and generally there's no risk anyway. If the movie loses at the box office the parent company absorbs the loss, because when it wins the parent company wins big, our entire culture's conscience is invaded, sales are rampant. It's an evolved and far-reaching strategy built on that of the theme park. Get the suckers inside with a promise of a death-defying roller coaster, or a bearded lady, then charge whatever you can for a Coca-Cola, the sky's the limit. Suckers are truly born everyday. It's a shakedown, a rigged game. In this case, the exhibition sells the book and the movie, the movie sells the exhibition and the book, and the book sells the movie and the exhibition. It is the current mode of marketing and promotion. If this show is a flop only Salgado suffers. Aperture, BP, HBO, and ICP will forge ahead. If the show is a success then the real success is BP's. It's a public relations coup, and we barely see it. That cute little green flower logo next to letters BP just barelylingers in the conscience, but it lingers.
Times Square represents the superstructural theme park that we all live in everyday, everywhere. It's more than a physical location, it is the current state of being, the epicenter of multi-national media consolidation and a billboard for the triumph of globalization, cheap clothes, endless entertainment, and rising stock prizes, at least in the long term. Stand just two blocks west of ICP, between the Army recruitment center and the bronze statue of George M. Cohen, the real live Yankee Doodle Dandy, and look up. See the giant digital stock ticker, get advertised in a big way, see a two-story crotch in tight Levis, see the Disney and Skechers Store, walk over to the microbrewery, the latest phenomenon in commercial family dining. Around the corner you can see Broadwaythe flagship theatre district of official cultureLion King, Rent, Les Miserables, the Producers. Throw a rock in any direction, you'll hit a major media corporation: Reuters, New York Times, Daily News, Fox/Newscorp, and NBC. Walk up to 57th Street and back down to 42nd Street. It is a corridor of tourism, news, entertainment, shopping, movies, and media. Run into Bergdorf's, check out Rockefeller Center, mug for the Today Show, pop into Radio City Music Hall, check your stocks, get Disneyed, stop in to see the pictures of starving refugees and immigrants by Salgado. After such a multi-national corporate onslaught can a viewer really take a critical look at what Salgado depicts, migration by peasants to over-crowded, under-funded cities due to the takeover of their land by big business. Can even the clued-in viewer go to the exhibition without thinking there's absolutely nothing she can do to change the conditions that have caused the situations that Salgado documents, that it is impossible to try to think outside or live beyond the god-forsaken theme park called contemporary life? British Petroleum wins. We're outraged yet dumbfounded. All we can say is how beautiful his pictures are instead of how horrific the places are he depicts, or ask ourselves what we can do to change the policies that create these conditions so we no longer have to see humans degraded the way they are in these photographs.
Salgado understands the problems of documentary. Is it witness or exploitation? He says in broken-English in Spectre of Hope, "the book, the film, the photographs may not be the right solution, but we must accept responsibility for our actions, I feel compelled to provoke a debate about our economic policies." He realizes that most of the people who will view his pictures have little experience with the scenes depicted. That many will aestheticize the work, call it beautiful, say that it has heroic, universal qualities that bind all of mankind together, thoroughly miss the point. Shouldn't we be outraged by what Salgado depicts? Should we recognize that we are culpable, yes, especially those of us who, for example, know nothing of carrying all of our belongings over a South American mountain range to find a city in which to live and work?
Salgado's pictures depict extreme suffering. One beyond anything with which I am familiar. Families are displaced by war, by economic expansion. They come to crowded cities looking for work; live in homes so tiny sometimes the ceiling is only higher than a sitting-adult. Berger says, "The worst element of globalization is its bigotry. How it pretends that no other choice is available. That is a lie." We can change our policies, the way we do business, we create fair lives for all instead of manufacturing lifestyles for those with expendable incomes. Salgado's professed hope is that his pictures will instigate this change. He photographs the four out of five people who suffer unnecessary poverty due to globalization. He was trained and worked as an economist before becoming a photographer. He understands that statistics are manipulated to excuse the greed that has caused so much profit for the few and so much suffering for the many. Not only does he understand the numbers, the motives, he has witnessed its worst effects. Something most people completely ignore, or pretend does not exist.
The question remains, is his witness testimony for the prosecution of the devastating effects of globalization on the world's poor or is it exploitation of those victims? Are his subjects depicted for his own gain and the titillation of the one of five in the world who enjoy prosperity? To salve their greedy souls? Perhaps Times Square is one of the best places, a place rich by globalization, in which to critique its effects? It is the eye of the storm, it gets the traffic of those benefiting the most by globalization and major media outlets are in the neighborhood. Yet the obvious has been ignored in the past.
At the end of the week that I viewed Salgado's exhibition I attended an exhibition of the paintings of Leon Golub. Like Salgado, Golub's most powerful and famous paintings depict horrific acts of state-sanctioned violence. He paints merceneries torturing innocent victims. He paints American soldiers murdering gangs of civilians. He once said that historically embedded forms of figuration retain a radical edge more than non-referential painting, which is the freedom of escape rather than action. He chose to paint state run terror to inform the viewer, to remind the viewer that many of the bad things going on in the world are sanctioned and can be put to an end. In other words, while we investigate and critique documentary we must keep our cameras pointed at the world in which we live, we must report on the state of the civilization in which we live.
The burgeoning independent
media movement has shown the importance of pointing the camera outward.
The Independent Media Center's goal is to report the stories that go
unreported, the ones that do not fit the company agenda. MediaChannel.org's
motto is "while the media watches the world, we watch the media." Are
APERTURE, BP, HBO, and ICP subsuming the international anti-globalization,
pro-democracy movement? ICP's and Cinemax Reel Life producers' goals
are not very different than Salgado's professed goals. Yet, the cost
of mounting and producing such shows is so expensive that we often must
accept contributions from those that are potentially part of the problem,
BP, specifically. Salgado and the institutions that support him would
do well to reveal their funder's missions, policies, and political milieu
to deepen the viewers understanding of his work.
--for Clamor Issue July/August 2001