“It is not going to be easy to look into their eyes.”
(James Agee, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men).
When Weegee exposes a kissing couple to an infrared camera that sees in the dark, it seems to me uncomfortably funny, or unfair, or both, that a photographer can take a shot of people who don’t see him or her. The power’s on the camera’s side.
Exposed’s “Unseen Photographer” snaps away with a camera hidden like a bomb in a shoe, disguised under clothing, or with a camera that can sneak a sidewards look while seeming to aim frankly ahead.
- Assuming the position of the camera lens, I look too–unseen, uninvited, invasive. Some of the photographers in Exposed’s “Unseen” section give an excuse for this lopsided exercise in power: they have to expose their subjects in order to expose the social injustices that oppress them. So goes the story on Jacob Riis, shocking immigrants in turn-of-the-century tenements with his flash, visually victimizing them so he could show the better off just how, in the words of his eponymous book,”the other half lives.”
- Two values seem to conflict, here: exposing social injustice and respecting its victims. In the case of Riis’s disturbed sleepers, did reformist ends justify the invasive means? Or did visual invasion serve the purpose of better-informed social control over slum-dwellers? And now, do we look with sympathy at these people or with a callous curiosity?
Lewis Hine’s photographic invasions aimed at factories that exploited child workers. Yet the children, trapped by the outsized textile machines they tend, seem like illustrations to a problem, their faces too far away to read, blocking connection. Even the Dorothea Lange image selected for this show seems to avoid the path of easy emotional identification, going against the grain of many social documentary photographs of the thirties; instead, she pulls back to a polite distance. Or is it an impersonal distance?
Real time brings its own distance: the descendants of Riis’s immigrants have long since been assimilated, soup kitchens have a new clientele, sweatshops have moved offshore along with child labor, while children here are now subject to a different, and more benign form of machine discipline.
How do we respond to these historic reforming photos now? Do they simply document time past and injuries no one would dream of inflicting any more, or do they carry their meaning forward into the social memory of the present? Do we look for the same problems returning to haunt us in new guises, documented with new technologies? Does the museum setting allow a new kind of relationship with these long-gone people? Or, as I sometimes uneasily feel peering into faces blind to mine, am I disrespecting the helpless, even or especially the long-dead helpless?
In spite of my vicarious intrusion, though and perhaps because they survive in these images, the unaware subjects, snapped from above, in the dark, or from the side, oddly seem to retain their dignity. A man sitting up in the center of Riis’s flophouse blinks in the sudden light of the flashgun, seeming to ward off contact, and suggesting instead some kind of beleaguered inwardness. We are unseen to each other.
The moral philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes giving respect to every individual as one of several kinds of ethical response. He points out that the right to dignity, once reserved for royalty, has been democratized, to the point where we feel it is a right common to us all, and not entirely for altruistic reasons. But at the same time, the technology of photography has developed, too. These days the democratization of visual respect goes along with the democratization of visual assault, enabled by a mobile photographic technology that can, among other effects, galvanize reform, or disseminate scorn. That’s today. What do you think?
Next time I’m moving onto the street and from compassion to curiosity.