I hate ethnographic photography. Everywhere it’s full of these competent little photographers — and of incompetent ones too — who spend their relatively big budgets or the big budgets of some affluent media outlet on travel tickets to the realm of exotic to collect extraordinary faces and situations. The photos they produce are so patronizing and mundane, yet the tiny eye of the avid public never tires of them. They go “wow” over the trinkets and the fancy costumes — or the lack of them –, over the different shape of the noses and ears, over the dirt, the smoke, the deviance of situations, over the strangeness of animals, buildings, over ruins and unheard of food, and so on and so on. And it’s not only the obviously exotic, the remote and the bizarre; poverty and destitution fall into the same category most of the times. They constitute a very special kind of exoticism, often closer to the maker and to the viewer spatially but not conceptually. It may be that my curiosity is terribly warped, but looking at these images I cannot stop myself from yawning inwardly.
You put a stranger in a situation where he is a hopeless alien, culturally, emotionally, but also intellectually, and you expect him to produce a lifelike portrayal of something he doesn’t even know how to read with his own eyes. Even the sharpest mind cannot comprehend everything at first glance, it’s not a matter of bad will, but rather of lack of instruments to decode, to feel instantaneously. It’s also the urgency of the visitor, who wants to fill his travel bag quickly and is already projecting his whole being on the comeback, too engrossed in these and other preoccupations, even if not entirely consciously, that he has no time to open up fully to the new surroundings. Given the circumstances, the photographer makes a neat set of postcard pictures, or, in the best cases, a sensible and even semi-artistic visual sample fit to accompany some entry on the National Geographic. It’s not necessarily their fault, but the photographers have no real empathy for their exotic subject, and no understanding as well. They are more or less after producing literal illustrations and the viewer likewise scans these images like a catalogue of novelties, like those albums full of figurines all dressed up in their regional costumes that were popular many years ago. The camera, however sophisticated its elaborate collection of knobs and buttons, is just a recorder, and as such it only records a vacuum of incomprehension.
The celebrated and the committed, those that in the course of time have been making and will make the relevant photos, the masterpieces, often have a tendency to take this kind of pictures too. I’m looking at a number of photographers who won their respect with their skill and perspicacity. Take Cartier-Bresson’s portraits of people — writers and painters, but also common folks — in environments closer to his personal experience and sensibility and look at the difference with his photos of China… This is particularly evident when you give the same photographer a subject he knows well or can feel for. Most of what is labeled as “reportage” is a record of the photographer’s lack of comprehension in a given moment and situation, more than it is a document about the subject’s truths.
As a comparison I am thinking about the exoticism in the paintings of Paul Gauguin. Yes, a painting is a different artefact from a photograph, and one mediated rather than immediate, thus it bears a different message in itself and it is likely born for a different purpose. However, Gauguin is the example of a man who needed to penetrate the subject by feeling not only outer but also inner proximity with it before giving his portrayal such an emblematic and humane depth. His paintings are not about the quirky folkloristic side of the natives and their environment, they are not patronizing, because Gauguin feels a sincere kinship with his subjects and knows them as well as he has command of his art. The subjects in his paintings can afford to become universal symbols because they are so close to the artist’s particular way of relating to the world, intellectually and emotionally. The artist here is not looking at a specimen. And that’s exactly what I find so aggravating about the ethnographic photos, that even when they are so cleverly made they remain a voiceless specimen deprived of any identity. As Berger would put it, I feel no desire to bestow upon them a past and a future.