My recent post
on Edward Burtynsky generated a number of longish, thoughtful replies, at least half of which disagreed pretty vigorously with me. Instead of adding to the comment thread I figured I would write another post. I guess the replies suggest why discussions at or about the intersection of politics and photography often seem mostly like a train wreck to me. I appreciate the comments because they are pushing me to try to be clearer. So, here goes ...
Joerg Colberg, with whom I have disagreed on this before, writes: “I simply don't see why Burtysnky would have to climb on a soap box and rant about waste and pollution when his photos show just that.” Nolan Smock agrees, saying: “Allowing these images to be associated with didactic rants would be a disservice.” And Miki Johnson herself also seconds Joerg’s assessment. (Arcim & Ed Nixon largely agree with Jeorg, too.) I don't think I could disagree with this convergence of views more strongly.
First, it is important not to identify “politics” - especially critical or progressive politics - with “rants” or “preaching.” If we do we’ve given up the battle, we’ve succumbed to the conservatives or the merely complacent who insist that we should stop “complaining” and simply be thankful that we are here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Dissent involves discussion and debate, speaking up and speaking out. Politics is about speech. And it is about using ideals and principles and commitments in ways that might shape the future for the better. We demean ourselves, we evacuate the public terrain of citizenship if we automatically characterize political speech reductively as “rants.”
Even if one thinks most of what passes for political speech in fact amounts to little more than ranting and preaching perhaps it is possible for photographers (and other visual artists) to alter that in big or small ways. Consider Salgado and Nachtwey, to take two photographers of Burtynsky’s stature. When they discuss the political implications of their work would you say that they “rant?” Are they up “on a soap box?” No. Both do, however, see themselves as engaged in politics in the broad sense I’ve been depicting. They both repeatedly proclaim that they hope their work will promote discussion and debate about political problems. Burtynsky, as we will see below, abjures even so restrained an aspiration.
Second, is environmental degradation of the sort that Burtynsky depicts less lethal, less of a humanly created catastrophe than war or famine or massive forced displacement? Would it be acceptable to simply remain non-committal (and, as I suggest below, that is precisely the stance Burtynsky strikes) about the latter sorts of events? Again, think of Salgado or Nachtwey. How would we judge them if they adopted so non-committal a stance regarding the political and economic implications of their photographs of devastation and mayhem? Why is it easier to let Burtynsky off the hook here (in say his pictures of large dams in China like the one I've lifted above) than it would be to allow Salgado or Nachtwey to remain analogously silent regarding, say, their images of corpses of cholera victims in Zairean refugee camps? I simply do not get this.
If you think it sheer hyperbole to compare the construction of big dams to refugee camps created in the wake of genocide, perhaps you should read Arundhati Roy’s essays on the topic (find her essays on "The Greater Common Good" at Outlook India
) where she documents both the true technological idiocy of such projects and the way they target vulnerable populations. Perhaps you will think she is ranting and perhaps she ought to be. I actually find her writing on the topic pointed and reasonable and often extraordinarily funny. And lest you think it unseemly for photographers to speak up about such matters, please read the essay on Elliott Porter in Rebecca Solnit’s new book
. Or read Robert Adams's
interviews and essays. Neither Porter nor Adams seems remotely to be a ranter or preacher. Neither was an activist - the prospect of which seems to worry other commentors - Ed & Arcim. But neither refused public comment as Burtynsky seems to do.
Since the other commentors essentially endorse Joerg's remarks I will take issue with some of what he says. In particular I want to contest the notion that it is "obvious" what Burtynsky is up to. In so doing, I will set aside a disagreement I have with him about the relative impact of small vs large scale items in the creation of our carbon footprints.
To start I will recommend this brief audio clip
of an intriguing 2005 interview with Burtynsky that's been posted over at lensculture
. The interview is about Burtynsky's recent work in China. In it he addresses some of the themes (e.g., matters of gaining access to China) that commentators raised in the comment thread oon my earlier post. It also offers, I think, insight into why Burtynsky affords so provocative an example for discussion. I want to make it clear that I find his work incredible in visual terms. I also think that, as the interview makes clear, he has pretty firm sympathies with those for whom environmental degradation is, as he puts it, "a global concern." On his account - which I have no reason to doubt - he was quite straightforward with high government officials in China about that concern. Burtynsky claims to have warned the Chinese not to repeat the environmental errors that we in the west have made in our pursuit of progress. In that sense he provides a commendable example.
But let's pay attention to how Burtynsky talks about his photographic work. It is (I think, and as I already have intimated) fair to say that he is pretty much entirely non-commital
. Here are some passages from the interview (with apologies for minor transcription errors I might've made):
"I like to keep the work - and I think visual art is particularly suited to kind of keeping the reading of it somewhat open. To make it overly political, and say 'this is wrong,' is too simplistic . ..."
"[T]he work could be seen as a critique or it could also be seen as what they're celebrating in terms of their transition ... because they could look at that and say 'look we've joined the rest of the world' ..."
Earlier on, discussing the industrialization and urbanization he depicts in China, and the displacement caused by large dams in particular, Burtynsky suggests "one can read both good and bad in that" and rationalizes this by noting "there's a consequence to progress." [I could not have made that up except I suggested something quite like it in my initial post.] As with the images in his earlier project Manufactured Landscapes
he very strenuously resists the notion that his photographs are "an indictment." My point is that Joerg is infering from the photographs something that their maker, at least, hardly thinks they portray. Joerg is perhaps correct (I personally would like to think that most folks saw what Burtynsky depicts as "waste and pollution." I simply don't think they do.) But, if we are to take Burtynsky at his word, what Joerg thinks is "obvious" is not quite that. If Joerg is correct, Burtynsky has failed.
In this interview Burtynsky operates with a sort of dualistic view of politics. Either it is a command driven, top down enterprise of the sort practiced by totalitarian regimes or it is characterized by a "cacophony" and "anarchy" of views, as under capitalism. This too seems a caricature of politics. Perhaps democratic politics can shape and constraint the cacophony of views in ways that are less objectionable than coercive techniques deployed by dictatorships? That would allow Burtynsky, like Salgado, Nachtwey, Porter or Adams, to speak out in ways that might address fellow citizens. But that brings us back to where I began.