A new democracy of photography
McCurry’s latest post is on the photography of students who live in a Buenos Aires slum. One of the reasons that post interests me, apart from the photographs themselves (I particularly like the 4th and 5th on that page) is that it underscores a point I made recently concerning Susan Sontag’s On Photography.
Sontag, writing in the mid-1970s, identified photography as the pursuit of the western middle classes, and its sensibility as essentially bourgeois. Similar complaints are leveled against McCurry, who has been accused of an orientalist sensibility. This is largely thanks to his reliance on colour, which encourages us to find his pictures exotic. But considering the amount of time McCurry has spent in south Asia, this complaint seems shallow and unfair — especially when we consider that it normally springs from students who once spent a week in Thailand, and therefore know all about it. I’d be willing to wager that no western photographer has spent as many days in south Asia as has McCurry; it seems silly to suggest that he doesn’t know the culture.
In any case, Sontag’s complaint was debatable in 1977, but it’s nonsense now. Cameras are no longer the property of a western elite. They are everywhere. The students whose work appears on McCurry’s blog are the exception, I think, working in traditional black-and-white; with the rapid spread of cell phones across the developing world, everyone is now toting some kind of digital camera. Photojournalism is increasingly the product not of Magnum and the like, but of local stringers. Witness the coverage of the Chilean earthquake, in which all the early photographs seemed to be from Chilean shooters.
This new democracy of photography should, one supposes, enlarge our understanding of the world. Now we can see the cuidad oculta through the eyes of its own residents, rather than from the perspective of National Geographic. And this should be a good thing.
But, of course, we remain vulnerable to manipulation, and to our own prejudices. When we consider the recent World Press Photo flap, it’s legitimate to ask if the word “collaboration” would be so heavily in play if the photographs in question were the product not of Farah Abdl Warsameh, but of a guy from Birmingham named Joseph P. Smith. It matters little whose eye produced the photograph, if we insist on seeing it through our own.