Friday, August 15, 2014

Orientalists of New York

In admitting that I don't like the wildly popular Humans of New York project, I feel like I'm vindictively telling a room full of children that Santa doesn't exist while kicking their puppies off my lawn: curmudgeonly.

That said, I don't like Humans of New York.

The web site gave great publicity to a cause that's important to me when it published the photo of one of the leaders of the Save NYPL group:


However, I don't think that the guy who runs the site is a great photographer from a technical perspective. And so many of his photos are in the same locations, and so often is that location Washington Square Park, a veritable mecca of one certain type of New York weirdo that one gets the impression that he's hardly trying and that he's never going to catch a cross-section of New York. Perhaps that's too great a demand to put on one photographer, but it's a mantle he's assumed for himself.

On the one hand, somebody said of Henri Cartier-Bresson that anyone who took that many photos was bound to get a few good ones. But on the other hand, part of what makes August Sander's archive of man project so great is its clean technical aspects. That is all to say, you might get good photos by sheer volume, but being good at it, having a good eye, and having a broader vision all help.

He's also not a great interviewer or editor. He gives a snippet of conversation that he had with the subject that sometimes is sufficient but more often comes off as cryptic and vague. They're intriguing soundbites that don't tell a story.

He's now on a world tour sponsored by the United Nations, and his work has moved from a little irritating with occasional flashes of insight to deeply discomforting. It's not the good, productive kind of discomfort that should come from art that you can sit with and develop and contemplate. Rather, it's the discomfort of being made an uncomprehending voyeur as an accomplice of the gaze of the artist. It's photography of the obscene circumstances of human suffering without the kind of self-critique that Pasolini applied to it.

There is so very much wrong with this image, shared on the HONY page on Facebook, and the snippet of interview that accompanies it:

You can't simply waltz into a place and expect people to open up to someone coming from the country that so directly contributed to the current mess and from the wider culture that created the circumstances of the broader historical mess. It reflects a weird sense of entitlement without any kind of meaningful cultural understanding or engagement. The photographer ruined an old man's day for what? What does this photo accomplish? What's more, the interviews are obviously mediated through a translator, and there's something off about the translation; the phrase "I don't think I can do this" is so very Anglo-American sounding that it's hard to trust the accuracy of the "reporting."

The conceit that street portraiture in New York City is the same as photojournalism in a war zone is so breathlessly naive and simultaneously dehumanizing. Because his subjects are not identical to those he knows at home, all they can be is victims of war and nothing more.

Additionally, because the trip is being sponsored by the UN, it's not journalism but instead fundraising and/or publicity for an NGO; and I'm of a mind that NGOs that work with vulnerable populations shouldn't use photos of them in their publicity materials.

So far he has been in Iran and Iraq, and the images and captions he is sending back are a grand project of neo-Orientalism starkly in the tradition of nineteenth century portraiture.

He gives a helpful lecture to one of the benighted natives to inform him that he shouldn't feel ashamed because taxi driving really is a noble profession. Subtext: a noble profession for savages that maybe the next generation can escape.

He subsumes all of these people into the sentiment of a single one of them, without identifying whose aspiration it is that he is transmitting; in giving a voice nonspecifically to one of them he does worse than depriving the rest of the same.

A lot of the comments left on the photos are from people saying that they never realized that people in the Middle East didn't all live in dusty tent villages and that this is the first time that they are seeing people in the Arab world and Iran humanized. That's all the more reason that it's important that this project not happen through such an Orientalizing lens.

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