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)
Seawright explains how his approach in Afghanistan was to “approach Afghanistan generically, using the war as a type, not engaging with the specificity of the situation” and in doing so to create a series which deals with how war “transforms and constructs landscape, creating politicised terrain”. He goes on to say how he saw the potential for applying the same approach in Africa “without falling into the trap of photographing the exotic surface of a place” and how he saw the work as a natural extension of a long-standing interest in cities.
In the context of his Afghanistan project this is convincing, as the photographs concentrate on terrain and serve as an effective examination of the effects of war on that terrain. In the context of Invisible Cities this becomes slightly more problematic. Certainly an argument can be made that these issues of urban expansion are not specific to Africa and that the African urban landscape is being employed “as a type” in order to comment on what is a worldwide phenomenon (at least within the developing world). The problem with this, is that, unlike the Afghanistan work, Invisible Cities contains many photographs of people. If they are to be interpreted also “as a type”, then Seawright runs the risk of crossing a very thin and nebulous line, the other side of which lies the minefield of stereotyping. For example, one might argue that the pictures depicting people sleeping, waiting and not doing very much, are merely perpetuating a stereotype of Africans as being lazy and not interested in work.
However, on balance, I would suggest that Seawright successfully negotiates this tricky issue, mainly by virtue of the fact that his representations are so contrary to the sorts of stereotypes we normally see. We do not get the colourful tribesmen, smiling schoolchildren, or stricken victims of hunger or violence that are the common currency of stock representations of Africa. Instead, we are presented with ordinary citizens surrounding by the trappings of an ordinary urban life, albeit one with its own very specific set of economic and cultural circumstances. For example, in Woman and Child (above) a woman waits in a seemingly deserted medical facility, presumably to receive treatment for her child. She is not portrayed as a helpless victim looking for salvation from foreign benefactors, but rather as someone dealing with a common urban situation, something that is emphasised by the towering apartment complex visible through the window. At the same time, Seawright does not shy away from the poverty, and so we understand that while there is a certain universality to the image of a mother seeking help for her child, the specifics of her situation pose challenges and difficulties far above those experienced by most first-world city dwellers. The people in the photographs never meet the gaze of the viewer, and in this way Seawright allows us to consider them as pure signifiers, and avoids the problems that arise when we are invited to empathize on a personal level with individual subjects. So, in this way we can interpret the sleeping figures as signifying a society in stasis, waiting for a better future to arrive, rather than as examples of indolent individuals.
Another question that needs to be considered is the role of aesthetics within the work. Debates have raged for some time about how aesthetics should or should not be employed in documentary (for example in writings by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Martha Rosler and David Levi-Strauss) and more often than not, representations of Africa have been at the centre of this. For example the work of Sebastiao Salgado has been widely criticised for turning scenes of pain and suffering into images of aesthetic contemplation, and thereby neutering any political message that the work might otherwise have had. Salgado’s images demonstrate a deep empathy with the poor and the oppressed, but the other-wordly character that his aesthetic sense brings to them, does little to engage the viewer in a process of questioning how their own lives, or the political systems in which those lives are lived, impact upon those depicted. If then, aesthetics simply anesthetises us against the horror, what of the raw approach of confronting the viewer with visceral images of suffering, shorn of any aesthetic embellishments? As early as 1972, writers such as John Berger, responding to graphic images of violence emanating from the Vietnam war, were claiming that such images did little to motivate viewers in a political sense either. His argument was that shock-value simply pulls us out of our comfortable environment momentarily, and that the gulf between our own experience and that which is depicted is so vast, that we quickly retreat back without really engaging in any meaningful way with what we have seen.
Seawright cannot be accused of employing such shock-tactics. He does not seek out the victims of violence, disease or malnutrition, and the photos do not deal directly with pain and suffering. The work does however deal with horror, but it is the horror of long-term societal and economic stagnation, of lives and hopes stifled, rather than the immediate effects of specific events. His pictures do demonstrate a strong aesthetic sensibility though. Most of them are beautifully composed and constructed and we can easily pick out examples, such as Untitled (Mist) (above), that can be appreciated purely in terms of classic Modernist notions of aesthetics. So the following question then arises: does his aesthetic approach serve to effectively engage us with the issues? Or does it distance us from these issues, and allow us to simply appreciate the pictures as objects of comfortable contemplation?
David Levi Strauss argues that “to represent is to aestheticize” and hence that any photographic representation employs aesthetics in one form or another. The choice is merely what aesthetic approach to employ. It is easy to imagine an alternative visual strategy employing grimy black and white, but this would encourage us to consider the work in the context of a tradition of documentary photography, stretching back to Hine and Riis, that seeks out the extremity of marginalisation and presents it as another world, a separate space to our own. Seawright is working within a different, and more contemporary, visual tradition: one that employs large-scale detailed colour photographs to draw the viewer in to the work, and encourage him or her to consider long-term causes rather than short-term symptoms. This approach is also evident in Irish contemporaries of Seawright such as David Farrell and Anthony Haughey and also photographers such as Luc Delahaye. This tradition often concerns itself with the effects of urbanisation, industrialisation and modernisation. By using this approach, Seawright is not asking us to consider urban Africa as another world, but rather as a place that faces similar difficulties to us, albeit on a larger and more challenging scale. In this context, aesthetics can function as a lure, something we can see if we return to considering Untitled (Mist). The semi-abstract mysterious air of the photograph draws on aesthetic notions from landscape photography, but closer examination reveals something quite different to what that would initially suggest. This is not a coastline wreathed in morning mist, but rather a man-made construction with overhanging power cables, possibly situated on the edge of a lake. We are then forced to consider whether this is mist at all, or whether it is the effects of pollution.
This subversion of aesthetics may succeed in engaging the attention of those immersed in the highly visually literate art world context that Maartje van den Heuvel describes, but if we accept Martha Rosler’s contention that the ultimate aim of documentary is to “effect change”, then we must consider to what extent this strategy might succeed in doing that. Key to this is the context in which the work will be viewed, and so we might start by saying that clearly this is work intended to be viewed in an art gallery, or as Michael Fried puts it, it is designed “for the wall”. Along with book publication, the gallery has become the primary forum for dissemination of documentary work, but whereas this once took the form of work originally intended for print publication being appropriated into the context of photography galleries, increasingly we see photographic documentary work being conceived and executed for display in mainstream art galleries. Stephen Bull (in his essay Documentary Photography in the Art Gallery) suggests that the key ramification of this is that the images are read less as documents, and more as expressive works. The move to the gallery also coincides with a shift in emphasis in documentary work, away from an in-the-moment attempt to show what is happening when it is happening, towards a slower more contemplative reading of events.
Viewed in this way, the gallery seems the ideal context in which to view Invisible Cities, but it begs the following difficult question. What hope is there of effecting change if these images are only viewed by a select few within the rarefied world of the art gallery? Perhaps the answer is that contemporary documentarians have abandoned the naive belief that they can change the world, or even change minds, and no longer feel compelled to reach out to the world to try and do so. Instead they are now focused on stimulating questions and debate among those who are willing to engage with them, and if they have to come to an art gallery to do that, then so be it.