The Guardian reviewed Carlos Spottorno’s new work Wealth Management and claimed “…that there is enough mischief here to prove that Carlos Spottorno is one of the most serious political provocateurs currently operating in photography.” There is no doubt that Spottorno is a very smart photographer, but I disagree with the thought that this work is anything provocative. Unlike previous efforts, such as his project PIGS, this one falls within the same confines of the predictable and unimaginative.
The fact of the matter is that it has now become quite banal to document the profligate life-styles of the super-rich. In fact, Lauren Greenfield was an early pioneer of documenting the bizarre and deviant priorities and interests of the American elite society. However, since the 2008 crash, there have been a whole host of works that try to speak about global inequality and do so from the perspective of the hyper-wealthy. In fact, there are so many works that Time Magazine’s associate Photo Editor Myles Little could put together a massive global exhibition of works that bring together a visual potpourri of the lives of the super-rich.
In fact, so much so that Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes even went so far as to point out recently that:
More and more, I’m seeing wealth and power — in specific photo stories, and even more so, in the increasingly random presentation of news photos — as not just a recurrent theme, but as connective tissue….If hyper-capitalism is becoming the issue of our time, however, I’m tempted also say that more and more images…are presenting a moral counterweight.
And has anyone looked at Paolo Wood & Gabriele Galimberti’s two year long focus on tax havens of the super rich?
But here is the rub: these images are not provocative, and nor are they controversial. One can in fact argue that they are images of wealth-porn, and act as forms of arousal for most who wish to belong to the 1%, or are pushed to desire their lives when they see these beautiful exhibits, these magnificently produced books, and these glossy and fantastically colourful photographs of incredibly sexy, carefree, frivolous and unburdened lives. Given that the rest of the world – the one that these project claim to be morally speaking for, can’t afford most all of what is being show, these projects do little nothing to challenge the structure of inequality, or communicate the price of it. They simple act to celebrate the theft of those who took from the majority and spend for the minority. These exhibitions, and books, these publications and photo-essays, are themselves aimed at, and end up in the cultural circuits, of the wealthy – the one community that frankly could not care two-hoots about inequality, about their ill-gotten gains, about their corrupt ways, about their cronyism and criminality. They know about it already.
In fact, Spottorno is himself someone who works in the world of the wealthy, and is most likely comfortable there. His walks through the world of finance and luxury are probably only possible because he already belongs to a class of people who can actually walk through these corridors. As the article points out:
The photographs in Wealth Management sit somewhere between corporate advertising and reportage, while playing with the stereotypes of both. His monochrome images reflect the sites of global financial power – the City of London, Banque de Luxembourg, iTunes Headquarters in Luxembourg – and the attendant luxury industry that caters to the vanities of the wealthiest: the Louis Vuitton shoe factory, the Four Seasons Hotel in Geneva, exclusive ski resorts in St Moritz. The captions are all taken from actual corporate websites and advertising campaigns: “In private banking, one philosophy works best; assume nothing” (HSBC); “You’ll never actually own a fortune. You merely look after it for the next generation” (Patek Philippe Swiss watches). The language of exclusivity, Spottorno reminds us, is central to the ideology of elitism.
Furthermore, the article argues that, there is something hidden or ominous about the work, and that it reflect the ‘secret’ nature of the lives of the super-rich:
The book has an oddly ominous undertone, not least because the faces of the wealthy people he has photographed are pixelated out, as are those of Swiss border guards and bank security staff. This technique, though done for practical reasons (the fear of being sued), makes a metaphorical point about the secretive nature of global finance. Sometimes, as with a figure glimpsed in a parked car at a border checkpoint or a man walking down the Boulevard du Théâtre in Geneva, the images have a noirish tone; they could be stills from a political thriller. This too adds to the sense of mystery – and unaccountability – that shrouds the financial dealings of the super-rich in the age of global capitalism.
Ironically, the hyper-wealthy are not so stealthy about their lives, nor about the methods of their gains. They may hide their accounting books in off-shore accounts, but they do not hide their life-style. And most all on Wall Street or Fleet Street, do not hide the criminal practices that allowed them to become so rich in the last decade as the rest of the people were being impoverished. The fact remains that from Goldman Sachs to Barclays, bankers have gleefully pushed the rules of finance to the limits, but it is the government that loosened the reigns, and encouraged the gold rush. The rich do not have to hide, and they do not hide. They brag, they spend, they gloat, their celebrate, their do charity, and they are more and more visible in the key metropolis’ of the world – from New York to Hong Kong. There is no shame in this criminal practice and not the least of it because the law, and the powers to be, have simply looked away realising that it was the law, and acts of government, that permitted so few, to suddenly become so rich.
The politics of this work is strange. The video for the work begins by stating ‘The richest 1% of the population own more of the world’s wealth than the remaining 99%’. Seriously? Who needs to know this? In what world is this an interesting and provocative statement, given that it is only the most cliched representation of global inequality we know. Besides, remember Occupy Wall Street? Now that was provocative.
Spottorno is a smart photographer. I preferred his earlier work PIGS which was funny, and actually worked against conventions. It was also ahead of its time. This work fails on many accounts. It is behind-the-times, conventional and repetitive. Furthermore, it has been done, and a lot better, in a lot of other places. In fact, strangely, so many of its images are similar to the ones Paolo Wood recently made for his project on tax havens.
I suppose there are only so many ways you can reveal the rich. There are many more ways to not make connections or reveal the mechanisms and rationality that has led to these divisions. Gawking at robber barons is always more seductive – it of course creates more ‘sellable’ images, and these images fit perfectly into the pages of the corporate publications and their corporate sponsors. It’s more acceptable to launch a ‘critique’ with beautiful images of beautiful people, because they can sit comfortably next to the Gucci advertisements and the BMW offers.
Of course, there are also many more ways that you can simply ignore the supposed 99% on whose behalf you claim to be mounting the critique in the first place. Those projects – the ones that really disturb have been relegated to ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘uninteresting’ because they break the beauty of the world of the magazines, and act as killjoys. My point isn’t that we should be doggedly focusing on images of poverty and deprivation instead. In fact, I would argue, if I had more time, that projects that simply give us poverty-porn, and poverty statistics, are equally prevalent, and equally limited. Our challenge today is to produce projects that cut past the cliches (1% own more than the 99% blah blah blah), and in fact reveal the policies and decisions that are creating these situations. And perhaps, more challengingly, reveal lives, peoples, communities who are speaking out against these horrifyingly unjust social arrangements that are emerging. We need not evidence of the obvious, but insightful evidence of the mechanisms that have created them, and examples of lives and actions that are turning them back.
We are not just talking about inequality. And we are not just talking about wealth. There has always been inequality, and there have always been the super wealthy. This is why I find some of these projects rather limited in their thinking. Its not really relevant, despite the fabulousness of the images, to photograph young Arab boys driving around Harrods in their Maseratis. The wealth that people have, the corruption that the super-wealthy may indulge in, are not new, nor inexplicable. But what we are facing today is something entirely different: it is the fact that we have put in place institutions, policies and preferences i.e ideologies that fundamentally deprive the majority of access to resources (financial, social, welfare, etc.) and unusually benefit the financial class. That is, this isn’t just that a few rich people are stealing, but that our governments, our politicians, our bureaucrats and our administrators are making seemingly rational, considered, mature, and widely supported policy choices that are then creating these vast inequalities of resources and rights. In fact, Saskia Sassen has suggested that we no longer use the word ‘inequality’ because it is keeping us from seeing the underlying, seemingly invisible facts of what is taking place.
The political logics at work in today’s economy are not, in my view, adequately captured by the discussion about inequality. Inequality has always been with us; inequality is a distributional question. I want to situate that distributional process, which inheres to all complex social forms, within a larger, systemic framework. I find that language like “growing inequality” or “rising poverty” ceases to be helpful at some point. For my latest book, I came up with the term “expulsions,” which I distinguish from the far more familiar “social exclusions,” in the sense that social exclusion happens inside a system. It’s an internal distortion. When I talk about expulsions, I argue that we’re seeing a multiplication of systemic edges in our society—edges of economic systems, political systems or simply “the system,” so to speak. Once you’ve reached that systemic edge, you’re dealing with an extreme condition, and in that sense an edge makes something visible. But at the same time, when you cross that systemic edge, you are expelled from the system completely, and you become invisible.
And this is where I think these projects fail. They are misreading the facts, sweepingly focusing on any signs of any sort of ‘wealth’ and in fact playing to the gallery of growing populist anger towards the well off. All that is fine, and it makes for good photos, but it does not make for good insight. I feel that we are still missing a genuinely critical, and provocative project that reveals how wealth is actually working, and the kinds of inequality we are seeing today is fundamentally tied to so many of the ideological beliefs we all in fact hold: free-market capitalism, globalisation, technology centric life solutions, individualism, freeloader behaviour of welfare recipients, inefficiency of unions, uncheck competition, small government, privatisation and more. That is, none, as far as I can tell, of these projects connect the state of our deprivation to the rigidity of our neoliberal idealism.
The popularity of hyper-capitalism as photo projects comes from its voyeuristic and fetishistic focus on the toys and playgrounds of the rich. This is Hello! magazine or Vanity Fair! masquerading as critical documentary work, or provocative commentary. It isn’t. These images, these lives, these luxuries, their pleasures, these 1% are presented every week in the pages of Vanity Fair, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Hello! and dozens of other publications. In fact, when contrasted with the crassly honest revelations offered in these rags, these carefully designed and ‘provocative’ documentary projects appears ridiculously naive and rather boring. They seem to not even quite understand the scope and exuberance of the lives of the super-wealthy!
And have you even looked at Instagram!
This stuff is all over the place. There are over 30 magazines in English alone that specifically cater to the life-style demands of the super-rich. And you can find most of them at any airport magazine stand. My point is this: photographic works that continue to crawl after the high life of the super rich are merely following in well-trodden territory. These images of wealth, luxury, excess and profligate lives, are all over the internet and in ways so vulgar, explicit, in-your-face, that they make these carefully curated projects seem…well, naive and shy. And I will not even get into television and its desperate chase of the super-rich and their gossip avenues and shopping centers. Seriously, this stuff is so common that I am shocked that documentary and editorial photographers are not trying something different.
For projects to be provocative, they have to incite anger, not envy. They have to challenge and disturb. Not seduce and inspire. With our media saturated with images of ‘the good life’, and our super-rich robber barons celebrated in the corridors of society and politics, we will be hard pressed to ‘provoke’ but instead simply add our voices and photographers to the stream of millions that are already out there showing, speaking and repeating the celebratory words and lives. You can’t provoke by joining in the melee and shouting the same slogans. Cynicism, caustic commentary, or aloof disdain, are not enough to give a project an edge. In fact, there are even entire projects on global inequality that absolutely refuse to speak about the Elephant In The Room – Neoliberal Capitalism and its role as the principal cause of reason for growing inequality in nations around the globe.
It seems that we are simply afraid of speaking about Capitalism. But of course, there are those who are not. Saskia Sassen is one. Her works have documented in detail the direct relationship between Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the World Bank and IMF on nations around the world, and the devastating impact they have had on societies. From growing inequality, poverty, displacement of rural populations, growth of slums, environmental destruction due to greater resource extraction, loss of social security, evisceration of public services (education, health care to name two) and more. And of course, the creation of an elite 1% that enjoys the pleasures of the programs and gloats it over the majority that are simply reduced to holding on.
Global inequality is being designed and achieved through specific economic arrangements. It is not a mistake of history.
The most provocative projects related to global inequality and the processes of theft that have enriched the few over the lives of the rest, speak directly to the mechanics of these thefts. They reveal how political decisions, inside-access, criminality, collusion, and the usurping of democratic institutions by corporate and wealth interests, have contorted our societies. They reveal the normative rationality of neoliberalism, and its impact on lives and structures of our society. They show us lives that challenge our assumptions about our options – lives that confront power, that refuse to be discarded, that reject the idea that ‘there is no alternative’. Lives of courage, intelligence and determination that can show us how we have gotten into this mess, and how to undo it. Provocative is to demand a dismantling of neoliberal rationality in government, politics and society. Provocative is to produce works that gather people together to act against power. OWS was provocative.
Documenting the lives of the super-rich today is merely more advertising.