The Dissenting Photographer Or How American Photographers Turn To Intelligence In Times Of Intransigence

The image showed little, and yet said so much that it made me laugh. The first time I saw it I did not know who the photographer was, but some quick research revealed it to be no other than Tim Davis. The image, called Nixon Monument was sheer genius:

'Nixon Monument' from the series My Life In Politics by Tim Davis

And that is perhaps what defines Tim Davis’ work: a quiet, but rigorous intelligence that compels the viewer to read his images for deeper insight and critical commentary. The entire series called My Life In Politics (the title alone is so lovely!) is a searing look at the caricature of democracy that is the American political machinery. It captures brilliantly the public spectacle and the hollowing out of the intent and meaning of a democratic enterprise, and its reduction to theatre, and facade.

'One Nation...' from the series My Life In Politics by Tim Davis

An European photo editor I met at Visa Pour L’image some years ago pointed out that there was very little in the way of dissident and critical photography in America. Recently the same question came up in a conversation with students at a social science institute in India. I think that this is too simplistic an argument. American photographers have been speaking out and offering resistance to the mainstream radicalization and militarization of the American public and political space. Tim Davis’ work of course is an example of a photographer confronting the dimensions of America as he sees it, and pointing out the dangers of its slide towards extremist consumerism, war and comic book political dialogue.

We are living in times where dissent is understood to be treason, a conflation that of course serves the interests of the powerful. And America – despite its self-proclaimed image as a land of free speech and individual liberty, has a long history of confusing dissent with anti-Americanism, and proclaiming allegiance to the political agenda and programs  a sitting government, and its apparatchiks, rather than to the institutions and values of the republic. In particular, the American media has repeatedly chosen to adopt the prejudices and rhetoric of populism rather than fight to maintain a determined adherence to the values of free press that challenges power, protects public interests and maintains a near-fanatical independence from the influence of the powerful. Instead, we have a media today that is absolutely beholden to power, so much so that its practitioners actually prefer to ‘represent’ the perspectives of power and ‘protect’ their idea of American values over all else. And so in this space American photographers concerned about the infantilism and militarism that continues to plague our nation have had to adopt subtle, tangential means of dissent which can create some wonderfully clever and complicated works. They can’t scream, but whisper ominously.

Mitch Epstein has offered his dissent in his new work American Power. Epstein is another favorite of mine – smart, individual and focused and his new work offers a critical look at American life, lifestyle and presumptions of consumption that underpin its dependence on oil, coal and other extractive, environmentally destructive and politically distorting energy resources.

From Mitch Epstein's series 'American Power'

Mitch Epstein and writer Susan Bell have even gone so far as to create a website dedicated to asking the question What Is American Power? and as they state:

…heighten awareness of the toll that energy and consumption and production take on our economy, security, health and natural resources.

Anthony Suau’sFear This remains one of the few works that attempted to speak out against America’s build up to the invasion of Iraq. I remember first seeing this work in a second-hand bookstore in New York and wondering if anyone would ever notice it. This was back in 2006 and those were dangerous times when even the fact that we knew our leaders were lying could not stop us from standing alongside them. Those who spoke out were marginalized as cranks, called anti-American, and simply ignored. To produce a work that showed us our ugliness, and the ease with which we were hypnotized towards violence by our politicians, military leaders and our mainstream media, took some courage. Given the crass jingoism and near-violent patriotism that has gripped the nation since the 9/11 attacks – an event that has become the justification for so many domestic and international injustices and criminal actions that it simply defies the mind, one can understand the need for prudence. However, the very meaning of dissent, the very necessity of loud criticism, is most clear when it is most dangerous.

From Anthony Suau's work Fear This

I also think of Paul Fusco’s quiet, but angry project called Bitter Fruit. I had the pleasure of speaking to Paul Fusco about this work when I met him for lunch in Perpignan in 2006. I remember him carefully explaining the anger that drove him out onto the streets of USA and towards family funerals in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and where else he could find information about them. I remember him telling me that it was the military who always prevented him from speaking to the families of the killed, though it seemed to him that the families in fact wanted to speak to him.

From the series Bitter Fruit by Paul Fusco

Nina Berman’s recent work Homeland on the militarization of the American public space, is another example of a photographer attempting to offer criticism and dissent, but doing it in her own quiet way, and turning out eyes towards things we ought to be concerned about.

From the series Homeland by Nina Berman

American photographers have to deal with a very American public and media environment which is largely conservative and non-confrontational. There are no mainstream dissident publications and certainly none that would offer the American public a critical viewpoint on issues that touch our very ideas of our selves and our patriotism. American photographers producing works that question the American way of life – the very way in the defence of which we justified the illegal invasions of other nations and the mass slaughter of other peoples, have to do so carefully. After all, much like those who confront religious fundamentalists, these photographers are questioning ideas and individuals who are equally unquestioning and intolerant of debate – the American patriot.

In the end it is producing some very intelligent and very interesting work. It is the work of thinking individuals, produced by creatively re-working the conventional ideas about how to cover our conflicts (no embedding here!), our politics and our demise as a nation that adheres to values that are universalist and human.

Sadly our most well-known photojournalists have completely failed to offer such perspective, preferring instead to offer simplistic, misleading and ultimately propagandist productions from behind embedded positions with the US military. Some are even busy as we speak documenting Middle East dictators, recasting them as ‘modern’ and ‘liberal’, at a moment when millions across the regions are reaching out to topple regimes of repression and violence. For most it has just been too easy to adopt this stance, to go along with the flow, to stop thinking and then veil the inherent laziness and intellectual cowardice of this approach under a language of ‘bearing witness’ or some other such inanity. It reminds me of what Mark Slouka said in a piece called  Democracy & Deference

What kind of culture defines “maturity” as the time when young men and women sacrifice principle to prudence, when they pledge allegiance to the boss in the name of self-promotion and “realism”? What kind of culture defines adulthood as the moment when the self goes underground? One answer might be a military one. The problem is that while unthinking loyalty to one’s commanding officer may be necessary in war, it is disastrous outside of it. Why? Because loyalty, by definition, qualifies individualism, discouraging the expression of individual opinion, recasting honesty as a type of betrayal. Because loyalty to power, rather than to what one believes to be true or right, is fatally undemocratic, and can lead to the most horrendous abuses.

As some of these ‘greats’ now celebrate their achievements on the platforms of world press awards or even at gala cinema events in Los Angeles, we citizens would do well to remember the other photographers who have chosen a more difficult, and more courageous path and are reminding us, in creative and intelligent ways, what in fact it means to be a citizen of a people’s republic.

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