Posted in On Documentary, Photography Criticism, tagged Africa, documentary, martha rosler, ncad, paul seawright, photography, sebastiao salgado, stereotyping, urban african photography, visual culture on March 16, 2010 |
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This post is part two of an essay on Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities project. You can read part one here.
Invisible Cities clearly must be considered as part of a tradition of documentary photography and as such it raises a number of interesting questions that I will now turn to. The first of these is the problematic issue of a photographer from outside a particular culture or environment trying to make meaningful work about, or within, it. Martha Rosler has been deeply critical of the documentary tradition, particularly when it involves a privileged outsider shedding light on marginalised or disadvantaged communities. She would see this practice as merely reinforcing existing power relations and doing little to address any of the root causes of the situation. Similar difficulties are identified by Stuart Hall: he describes how stereotyping is used to maintain power in a society or culture by marginalising certain groups, and how photographic representations, whether intentionally or not, play an important role in this (Edward Said has also written persuasively of how Western representations of the Orient have played a pivotal role in maintaining the power relationships between East and West). As a white European working in Africa, with its historical and contemporary difficulties with colonialism and post-colonialism, Seawright runs the risk of falling into this trap, a situation he is by no means unaware of:
Until I accepted the Imperial War Museum commission in 2002 to respond to the war in Afghanistan, I’d never considered making work that extended beyond my sphere of direct experience. I wrestled with the problems that making work in another country presented, not least that I have been critical of non-indigenous practice in Northern Ireland
(Paul Seawright quotation from interview with Russel Roberts)
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This entry discusses an extract from the book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. In it, Stuart Hall examines stereotyping and how this practice is employed to construct negative representations of people and groups.
We routinely make sense of the world using types – broad categories of things with common characteristics. This allows us to categorise things in a meaningful way, and in turn draw conclusions and extrapolate information about something based on previous experience of things of the same, or similar, type. This is commonly done with people and is not by definition negative. For example, we assign certain traits to roles such as parent, businessperson, pensioner and so on. Stereotypes on the other hand, while classifying people in a similar manner, reduce the person to those simplified and exaggerated characteristics, admit no possibility of change, and insist that these characteristic are natural. Any complexity is ignored and denied, and it is implied that everything that is necessary to know about the person can be known by referring to the traits of the stereotype. In essence a stereotype declares “this is what you are, and this is all you are”.
Stereotyping also deploys a strategy of splitting – where those who do not fit society’s norms are excluded, and their exclusion is copper-fastened by fitting them to a set of stereotypes deemed unacceptable – the ‘Other’. This denies the possibility of any meaningful discourse about them or with them, and ensures their continued exclusion. This proves most effective when gross inequalities of power allow the dominant group to employ the strategy without challenge. (more…)
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