graphicpush

Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

A Comedy of Parallel Dilemmas

The recent photography annual published by Communication Arts brings to light many international, critical issues in their editorial section. As a detached American, I find it difficult to understand the full impact of these images because of the lack of context in my own life.

I’ve been meaning to write about the new Communication Arts photography annual for a few weeks, but I kept getting side-tracked by the new book. I think it may be one of the finest annuals CA has ever published, and not just in terms of content (the photography is brilliant, as always), but in subject matter as well.

Because it aggregates photography from a number of disciplines, the subjects, themes, and styles are myriad, from airbrushed fashion models to black and white portraits of America’s Midwest. However, I was most happy to see an unapologetic and earnest look at some of the world’s most desperate situations, especially from an international (as opposed to a U.S.-centric) outlook.

CA could have filled their editorial section with celebrity pics and snapshots of troops in Iraq, called it a day, and not have a single critic blink an eye. Those topics are covered (they are inevitable, I suppose), but are balanced by some truly visceral photography of the dire situations millions of people confront every bloody day of the week. Here are some of the subjects, many of them more than once:

  • The Darfur conflict, and specifically images of those that have been displaced by the fighting.
  • The Lebanon conflict, and the ongoing fight for Palestinians to achieve the same rights as Lebanese natives.
  • Life in Niger, where hooded guerrilla fighters are a common site, and young girls (the one in the photo is nine) survive through prostitution.
  • The aftermath of Katrina, which is no longer a fashionable cause, but whose power still resonates in the thousands of empty, molding, rotting houses in the southeast.
  • The obscene poverty in India, and the children who scavenge landfills.
  • The aftermath of Chernobyl, and not just the decomposing plant, but also the severe genetic problems of children and the epidemic of thyroid cancer.

Struggling to Connect

As a fat, white American male, these ideas and images are alien. Yes, as a human being there is a certain base level of compassion, but the brutality and desperation are such abstract concepts that I have hard time empathizing because I have nothing in my life with which to compare. I have never been displaced from warfare, or fired a gun at another living thing, or witnessed a militant occupancy, or have to fight for my representation in government, or sold my body to buy cigarettes.

Where others do not have any clean drinking water, I’m whining because I have to call a plumber to fix a leak; where others are dying for the right to participate in the government, I am questioning the merits of a minor tax increase to fund new schools in my vanilla, suburban neighborhood. What an insanely unbalanced world. What a comedy of parallel dilemmas.

Sharing

My three-year-old son and I sat on the couch and flipped through the annual. The only images I censored were those of dead people. He looked at every picture in silence, occasionally asking a simple question. It was a very quiet moment.

What I found most interesting is the far smaller frame of reference he employs to understand pictures. He looks for bright colors, trucks (he is three, after all), and babies. In one instance, he looked very hard at a photo of a bombed landscape, but in the end he was most enamored with the blurry school bus in the background, not the 50 caliber machine guns in the foreground. Later, we was fascinated by a cluster of balloons in a window, completely missing the fact that the building was a decomposing derelict outside of Chernobyl.

He talks about what he understands — the details that have meaning — and ignores the rest. Although my frame of reference is certainly wider (I think), I wonder if I am similarly blinded. Are there details I fail to see, context that I do not understand, a painfully obvious foreground that remains hidden? I don’t know for sure, but I worry there is.

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commentary + criticism

Thorri

wrote the following on Monday September 10, 2007

This reminds me of a picture of 3 fish, each one bigger then the one before, with gaping mouths, ready to eat the fish in front of them. (I think the frontmost fish was going for a hook).

Your post made me feel like the fish in the middle. Made me want to look behind me. I like that feeling. It awakens me :)

David Brooks

wrote the following on Tuesday September 18, 2007

A very well written article, you definitely made me think. The thing that always impresses me about photography is not when someone has simply taken a beautiful picture of something but has also conveyed a message. Maybe the message is something like “this landscape is gorgeous,” that’s a completely legitimate message. But to me, the most powerful ones are the complicated ones that show the big issues. After thinking through all that it hit me that I had never thought about it from the prospective of a child, that maybe there’s something to be said for finding that element of recognition and peace in a tragic image.