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Old 11-28-2005, 07:03 PM
joseelias joseelias is offline
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Default Why is Poverty photogenic? A consequence of our alienation?

In my latest photo Efi Moore has indirectly raised an interesting question. She mentioned that while car accidents, illness and other situations are something hard to shoot, poverty is photogenic.

And this raised a doubt in my mind. Why is poverty considered, or felt, as photogenic, and car-crashes/illness/etc. not?

Somehow I have the (horrible) feeling that we consider real poverty (Salgado’s photos, or in TE, Maciej in Cambodia dumps for example) photogenic simply because we cannot really understand what we’re seeing there…

What I mean is that while we look at a car-crash, or someone dying of a disease photo, we can clearly perceive the tragedy and that makes us feel discomfort and even repugnance to look at; real poverty seems to be above all this and even have an certain “aura” like if we’re seeing photos of an exotic Amazonian tribe, not making the real distinction between them.

Is this because extreme poverty is so far away from most of us, and its suffering so impossible for us to understand?

How many of us stare and envy photos taken of people in extreme poverty situations, praising it, but when we cross with a homeless turn our face to the other side avoiding to see that reality?

How many of us comment on the disagreeable smell of a drug-junkie, but innocently smile at the “beauty” of a Combodia dump forgetting that if we were there we would probably throw-up just by the smell?

Is photography, in this sense alerting us of the reality or mystifying it, and contributing in a certain way to alienate us by providing just the beautiful colors and rich textures?

And if poverty and its suffering are universal to those who suffer from it (even to us if we have a bad luck in life), how much is this “beautification” of poverty “immoral”?

How do you feel about this?
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Old 11-29-2005, 05:43 AM
kinginexile kinginexile is offline
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Default Re: Why is Poverty photogenic?

Hi Jose,

I think you left out one word that explains much: emotion. This is what connects people to a photography of kids in a garbage dump, ie. exploitation of innocence, and less to a social situation pertaining to complex issues like a junkie (though a great shot or photographer can bring out emotion out of this too). You are quite correct though that there might be a gratuitous end in feeling sentimental seeing a photo, and that a photographer may play upon this sentimentalism or maybe not be able to control it in many of his viewers for a particular shot or photo-essay. I think you are touching upon very basic human responses (hence this debate being as old as published photography), which have us "feeling" from a safe distance, and indeed resort to "beauty" to process, ignore (looking at, but not seeing) or pay lip service to, the reality or pain of others.
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Old 11-30-2005, 07:17 AM
aros aros is offline
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Default Re: Why is Poverty photogenic? A consequence of our alienati

My somewhat controversial opinion is that poverty is something we can feel immune to, thereby allowing us to indulge our human proclivity to closely examine the misfortune of others.

Road accidents and disease are more uncomfortable because they confront us with a risk that we do not have immunity from.

"How terrible for them" is easy to say. "There, but for the grace of God, go I" is more difficult.
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Old 11-30-2005, 10:09 PM
MKING MKING is offline
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Default Re: Why is Poverty photogenic? A consequence of our alienati

I agree with you Adam to some extent-- there is the immunity factor which affects how we conceive of the poor at home at the poor abroad.

Starting at home, at least where I live, those of low to no income and the homeless are separated from society mentally, and increasingly, physically. Immunity stems from attributing responsibility for this poverty-- a lot of blame seems to be put onto the poor themselves here. We see their stereotypical alcoholism, drug abuse, surly behaviour etc. We feel no sympathy because they *should* be like us but *aren't*. It is unlikely that the majority of us will become this poor so it's easy to sweep them under the carpet, we just can't conceive of poverty as a freak/chance thing in the same way as a car crash.

Overseas, we remain immune because poverty almost becomes a cultural icon-- it becomes part of how we interpret and understand the society. And because they're culturally different from us we also feel immune that way. That our poor don't roam around tips and smile for cameras without incentive only exaggerates the otherness and allows us to accept this poverty as cultural rather than economic. That has the danger of objectifying the whole issue.
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Old 11-30-2005, 11:26 PM
joseelias joseelias is offline
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Default Re: Why is Poverty photogenic?

Herve,

You’ve got a good point when mentioning the “Emotion” factor. The problem in many, if not most, of these cases is when the emotion passed is the simple joy, the inquisitive and beautiful eyes or the colourful rags that the person is wearing, and all that makes us forget the extreme poorness also present in the image.

I don’t want to say that all images should portrait distressed and desperate situations. My question is the small number of times where these situations are portrayed, not only in the photo but also in the notes.

I feel that I end up knowing visually a lot of places and cultures, but very few of their lives and difficulties. And this is especially important because the target viewers of those photos are invariably people from the richer countries. If we become more insensible than we already are.

I know that this may end up in the social responsibility and awareness of the photographer, but I think it’s an important question. Especially when photography is being practiced more and more by amateurs.
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Old 11-30-2005, 11:46 PM
joseelias joseelias is offline
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Default Re: Why is Poverty photogenic? A consequence of our alienati

Mike,

I think you’ve expressed in a very good way some of my feelings and what I find worrying.

My preoccupation goes now towards the social role the photographer has. As I said to Herve I feel that I know visually a lot of places and cultures, but very few of their lives and difficulties.

Sometimes I see great images here in TE, but most of the times I’ve never read in the notes something about the difficulties those people pass like lack of health care or even food. I know that TE is not the best place for political debate but I don’t see it as sterile place where daily life issues must be avoided at all costs.

Maybe it’s a blunt way to say it, but I feel that many times these people are portrayed like animals. Something like a collection of nice wildlife photos.

I would like to see their smiles rewarded more often with a call of alert for the difficulties and needs they have.
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  #7  
Old 11-30-2005, 11:55 PM
aros aros is offline
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Default Re: Why is Poverty photogenic? A consequence of our alienati

In other words... "we shouldn't just photograph it, we shoud do something about it". Even if this is just to use our photography to raise awareness of some of these issues that are too easy to ignore.

I can see an overlap here with a thread I started a couple months ago - is there a place for a "photojournalistic" version of TE? Because right now, people on here seem to favour images I'd call "postcards".

Maybe a version of this site that has as its criteria "Images to document and inform" - the critiques and merit being awarded as to how well the image communicates, rather than how nice it looks.

here is the original thread
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  #8  
Old 01-09-2006, 02:02 AM
SoOR SoOR is offline
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Default Re: Why is Poverty photogenic? A consequence of our alienati

Let us not forget the power of the picture: to make the viewer feel what the photographer felt.

I know when I see photos of "beautiful people" wearing the finest clothes, I know I am not seeing the real person.

I think, with pictures of those in poverty we are getting a more accurate representation.
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  #9  
Old 01-27-2006, 02:04 AM
ronners ronners is offline
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Default Re: Why is Poverty photogenic? A consequence of our alienati

"How many of us stare and envy photos taken of people in extreme poverty situations, praising it, but when we cross with a homeless turn our face to the other side avoiding to see that reality?"

I think that you hit the mail on the head here Jose. Looking at a photograph depicting poverty, or any other kind of suffering, allows us to be secure in the knowledge that we don't have to 'touch' it and it certainly can't touch us. You might like to say that such photography allows us to build a wall. It's not so much that we don't understand it, is that we don't have to when we're not physically presented with it.

Aside from that, there's the question of the morality of turning suffering into art, but that's a discussion that has no resolution.
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