The eye of the beholder

One of the most renowned photographers of people on the margin was the American artist Diane Arbus (1923-1971). She took pictures of those who were deemed ‘not normal’: dwarfs and giants, circus performers, nudists, and transgender people, trying to show worlds that other people do not see. But whose world is pictured in a photographer’s work?

I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them”, Diane Arbus once said. She saw the misfits in society that others closed their eyes for. Rather than voyeuristically taking their portraits with a hidden camera, as some street photographers did, Arbus interacted with her subjects. “Actually, they tend to like me”, she said.

Child with a toy handgranade in Central Park
Diane Arbus, 1962, Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park

One of her most famous photographs shows a boy in a park, playing with a toy hand grenade. With his hands clenched, the boy looks into the camera. He appears about to explode. The striking pose of the kid has been interpreted as symbolizing the closeness between child’s play and primal violence. It is a photograph of something that we would not ordinarily see. It is a disturbing picture that triggers our emotions. It allows us to access – or at least be aware of – a different world.

But whose world are we experiencing in the photograph of the boy with the toy hand grenade? Critics of Arbus’ work have pointed out that in the contact sheet that shows the whole series of images Arbus took of the boy, this is the only disturbing image. On the others, we see an ordinary boy fooling around in a park. The choice of printing this image of a disturbing and disturbed kid is Arbus’ own.

A Jewish Giant Home with his Parents in the Bronx, 1970
Diane Arbus, 1970, A Jewish Giant Home with his Parents in the Bronx

Another Arbus image shows an extraordinarily tall man visiting his parents. Their faces are slightly shocked as they look up at him. According to one commenter, this image shows Arbus’ devotion to represent the underrepresented. “A viewer may not infer that this is a family photo without the help of the title. Yet, at the very core of Arbus’ photo is a picture of a mother and father with their child in a typical family home”, writes a contributor on The Art Story website.

I wonder if this is what we see. Do we see in this image how a giant has a normal family life, just like we do? Or do we see a freakish man who would fit better in a circus? To put it boldly: Do we see the man or the monster? The answer to these questions lies in the viewer of the photograph, of course. But it is also influenced by the photographer who takes the picture. Does Arbus help us to experience and share the world of the people she portrays, or is she enforcing stereotypes?

The philosopher Susan Sontag would say it is the latter. According to Sontag, Arbus is not an empathetic observer, but a pessimistic anti-humanist. She writes: “Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not ‘one.’” Her images do not make Sontag feel compassionate about the life and fate of Arbus’ subjects.

Arbus is not like the ‘poverty porn’-photographers who excel in portraying people in the most horrid circumstances with the aim to raise pity that can be bought off by giving a donation. But avoiding that pitfall does not raise her photography beyond dispute. On the flip side of poverty porn there is an equally objectionable place of othering, where people are reduced to freaks.

What does this mean for my quest to be an ethnographic photographer? Navigating between the undesirable poles of poverty porn and freak shows might be a tough challenge for a photographer portraying the lives of ordinary people in Africa.

Author: johannekekroesbergen

I am an anthropologist of religion and photographer, currently living in Pretoria, South Africa. I wrote my PhD-thesis on narratives about Satanism in Zambia. Currently I am preparing a new research project that uses photography as an ethnographic method. In my free time, I love hiking, safaris and enjoying nature through photography.

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