Monday, March 18, 2013

The Forbidden Portraits


Well, this is one post I never anticipated writing; it is both humiliating and infuriating- another promising opportunity needlessly thrown to the gutter. I am speaking of nothing less than the portrait project I've recently alluded to involving people with developmental disabilities at the non profit where I work. I had the project approved years ago with the previous administration, but didn't have the proper equipment (came down to the right lens for the job) to make it fly. Armed and ready as of last year, I finally ran it through the new admin which made a point of emphasizing that this would not just be my project, but a collaborative one with work being contributed from the clients themselves. Yes, exactly! As we all know, should by now know, portraits out of context often reveal little- other than how we the viewer wish to read them. If anything, I wanted to elaborate on that fact, and describe how these portraits could convey or emphasize contrary or secondary characteristics that may or may not be indicative of these individual's everyday personalities- as with anyone, anywhere. Their art work, photos, interviews, life goals, etc would be a most welcome, indeed, necessary addition- wouldn't think of having it any other way! It was their contribution that would ground the overall work, provide the necessary context and background to keep it from being a single myopic viewpoint. 

And so I set out to work, I only had a couple of hours each week to photograph- was planning on getting a minimum of twenty strong portraits before I initiated phase two of the project, where I'd present each client with a copy of their portrait and set about obtaining their contributions, then helping them edit and design the layout. My "formalized" B&W portrait on the left hand side of the print on demand book, one or more pages of their work to the right. If all went well, it could possibly be completed in about a year's time...

A month went by, one single solitary month. And my fears and apprehension began to ease and dissipate; I had seven solid portraits, not bad for a couple of hours shooting each week! I decided to send out an email that would serve to explain my project to the entire staff and facilitate scheduling of clients, but first ran it through admin for approval- and got a rather puzzling response that perhaps I had not understood the terms of the project. Huh? I then received a secondary email from my immediate supervisor stating that I somehow had misunderstood the nature of the project- I was not to be making any physical contributions to said project. This would strictly be a client project, I was there just to help assemble their work and help design the layout for the book.

Now let's get a couple of things straight, I have taught photo workshops where I presently work before. And had admin approached me about leading a class solely to create a client based print on demand book, I would have gladly done so- but don't, don't, don't take my idea, a project based on all around, mutual collaboration, and then proceed to negate my contribution without explanation. Not only was this a project that had been previously approved, this is an agency that welcomes professional photographers and videographers (ie- complete strangers) each and every year to shoot publicity and promotional pictures- while a hired hand such as myself, whose clients they have entrusted into my care for over eight years is not allowed to even take their picture (with permission of the clients, naturally) for the good of a collaborative project that perhaps had the possibility to turn into something special, something that may have initiated conversation beyond the usual confines. 


A promising possibility for all concerned needlessly gutted and squandered without any real consideration. And so I'm now left with a total of ten orphaned portraits- The Magnificent... Ten; three of which I present here in their ghostly apparitions. Although I took care to get signed releases from each subject, I have no idea what the legal implications to showing the actual images are, particularly since it can now be probably claimed that I took them without authority. As proud as I am of these images, they have been as effectively gutted of their context, as they have of their details in this presentation. Maybe one day...

Right now, I do like my job, and the people I really work for- as opposed to an admin whose dismissive attitude comes without explanation.
                  
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I remember when I first saw the Diane Arbus monograph; one eventually gets to the back where she has a few photos of people with developmental disabilities, and it's as if they were tossed in at the last second, without prior thought- even the printing is terribly off compared to the rest of the book. You can say what you will about the majority of her photography (I am a fan), but you can really feel how she purposely upped the freak factor to overload on those final photos. They're bizarre, unworldly- aliens alienated on their own planet. Unlike the previous portraits, she made no pretension at allowing any of their personality into those shots; they're held at a distance, as if to be approached with caution. But then I wondered, some thirty years ago- just how would one go about "presenting" their personality? 

A friend of mine recently asked, "What are they like?" What an ignorant, insensitive question I thought. And then, immediately, my next thought was- that's exactly the same question I'd ask. "They're all individuals, " I replied. And I think that is the only course you can take when relating to anyone, no matter their background. In the past century we have gone from portraying people with developmental disabilities as freaks, to portraying them as super heroes, constantly overcoming life's difficulties with relative ease- and always with that big wide grin planted rapturously on their face. In other words, we have gone from one dismissive stereotype to another. Perhaps it is a necessary intermittent phase. Perhaps... It just strikes me all too much of the ever happy Negro of Yore, way down South in the land of cotton when all their misery was of naught concern. Theyz just always happy!

The little project I proposed might have been a wee step in the right direction- no smiling faces on one side, a small glimpse behind the curtain on the other...

7 comments:

Stan B. said...

Stan,

It's another example of the "no photography allowed" mania that has infected society. Even though your supervisor may have the right to limit what you do in your job, it's still repressive in nature, and it suggests a patronizing attitude toward the clients, who need to be "protected." As with other examples of "no photography allowed," it is often an arbitrary decision, unevenly enforced, and ultimately illogical. As cameras become more ubiquitous, used by anyone and everyone, there seems to be a puzzling targeting of those who have serious intent.

My publisher Bill Diodato did a book of interiors of the abandoned mental hospital that was used in One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest, and was the location of Mary Ellen Mark's Ward 81. I have always had ambiguous feelings about that work. On the one hand, she was exposing a hidden world that we as a society would rather not look at. She was also concerned about the conditions that these women were living in, and I know she went to great lengths to express the women's individuality and humanity. Nevertheless, there's something exploitative about the project, in my opinion. Even though she lived with the patients and worked to gain their trust, the inevitable inequality between her and them is hard to transcend, in my opinion. Of course, like Arbus, Mark is an extraordinarily gifted photographer, and that may be what counts the most in the end. No way she'd be able to do such a project today.

How do you feel about this kind of thing?

Brian (Rose)

Stan B. said...

I never thought of Ward 81 as being exploitative- no, MEM would never be able to do it today, but interesting to think how it would differ and be done ("more responsibly") today.

It's also been interesting to note how responsibility on the part of the photographer (particularly photojournalists and documentary makers) has been changing and evolving throughout the years. More is now expected of the photographer to create a more balanced, representative and responsible representation of their subject matter. Drive by photojournalism, although still the rule of the land as far as daily news coverage is concerned, is becoming increasingly harder to take seriously (and rightfully so) when it comes to longer term projects. And yet, the temptation to cut corners (as most recently exemplified by Paolo Pellegrin) via technology and/or ethics is alive and well.

Fortunately, more and more people are also becoming more and more knowledgeable, demanding professionals live up to their own standards. Their work, and work ethic, are being held to account- if not by the organizations that sponsor them, then at least by the members of the audience their work is aimed at. The free pass era seems to be over. And that's a good thing.

Some of the most recent posts on the above:

http://politicstheoryphotography.blogspot.com/2013/03/what-do-prizes-do-for-photography.html

http://duckrabbit.info/blog/2013/03/your-camera-is-not-a-toy/

PS- FWIW, my portraits would have been downright exploitative if I didn't present them alongside contributions from the subjects themselves for balance, contrast and context.

Eric Rose said...

So sorry to hear the suits co-op'd your project. Now they will get nothing. Or more likely they will bring in someone and have them do it thus taking credit for the entire idea. Bastards!

Stan B. said...

They have every right to put the kibosh on it, but at least see what it amounts to first- especially since it was... already approved!

Brian hit it straight in the smiley face nose in his first paragraph.

colin pantall said...

Shame - you should do the project with the faces blanked out. It would say something...

Stan B. said...

Unfortunately, I can only take the photos during work hours- so I can't really continue it. So I'm left with seven strong portraits of a minimum of twenty that would have made that half of the project viable. And without the client input, which I now can't collect, even those portraits (while visually striking) are exploitative at best. Perhaps sometime in the future I'll be able to salvage someway to present them responsibly...

Noah Beil said...

Well written, Stan. This story bummed me out.