Saturday, January 25, 2020

Stark realities

Recently I read a tweet from someone suggesting that documentary photography is almost invariably "poverty porn" and challenging people to argue/prove otherwise. Grossly sweeping generalisation though it may be, the charge nevertheless got me thinking.

Martin Parr has been criticised on the grounds that he is a middle-class photographer with a patronising or superior attitude towards his working-class subjects - unfair though I think that is. He can't be alone in having faced that accusation. Isn't it potentially problematic for photographers to serve up images of deprivation and destitution for the appreciation of middle-class gallery-goers or Guardian readers? Should I be interrogating myself about what exactly it is that I enjoy or value in the pictures taken by Tish Murtha, for instance?

The answer to both questions is yes - though only to an extent. The truth of the matter is that documentary photography has performed, and continues to perform, a vital role in capturing the realities of life as it is lived and experienced by those less fortunate. Take Paul Sng's book Invisible Britain, for example, which exposes the damage wrought by years of austerity measures, or the work of J A Mortram, who has implicitly rejected the "poverty porn" charge in saying of his Small Town Inertia project that "I never meet anyone and think 'How can I make images of struggle or suffering?'" On the contrary, Mortram's focus is on giving a voice to the voiceless (which he also does through reproducing his subjects' own commentaries) and achieving positive ends - not only empowering the subjects and those who find themselves in a similar predicament but also helping others to "understand that there is great suffering happening on their doorstep": "my hope is that it will provoke a reaction of care, of empathy - and those emotions will fuel a desire for change, for solidarity with those around them and a more socially aware and conscious outlook on life."

In those terms, then, taking photos of deprivation is not something to be criticised; on the contrary, it's a matter of ethical responsibility. To hit back at the original complainant: surely it's better that such pictures are on prominent display, thereby making political, economic and social marginalisation harder to ignore, than that they were never taken in the first place?

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