Monday, October 6, 2008

Development Pornography in my mailbox, yet again




Trying to catch up with my normal "aimless surfing" reading. Like most of my friends and associates, I have become a political junkie and waste hours and hours on the minutia of our ongoing electoral process, based on the ridiculous assumption that if I just know more and more about it, I will have some degree of control of the situation. Typical academic bullshit. More knowledge=a greater degree of control=peace with a world which is clearly fucked-up.

Anyway, digging through my mailbox and raking up the sticks and leaves piling up in the gutters, I ran across the TED campaign against "extremely drug-resistant TB" (XDRTB). I ran into XDRTB back in '94 in Tanzania; very scary. But, of course, the campaign must team up with an (ex-war) photographer who can create the poignant images for us to respond to. As he states,

“I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it, in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age.” James Nachtwey

So, in all 50 states, his photo essay was projected last Friday night. At least, that is what my email said. You can view the essay here:

37 pictures the world must see.

They are very beautiful pictures. They are very heartbreaking pictures. And the question lingers: should heartbreaking be beautiful? I remember the now-famous picture of the Sudanese child struggling to make it to the feeding station while being stalked by a vulture. I pass on reproducing it here. The photographer, Kevin Carter, committed suicide after having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the disapprobation of most of the free world after the information was spread that he had not tried to save the child . His daughter says she has come to view the picture, differently, seeing the vulture as the press who hounded her father and the child as her father "the victim". A tragedy so painful to contemplate that is rates its own recently-added Snopes entry.

There is a pretty good (non-academic) article, outlining the difficulty of the contextualization of the "victim image" and the ethics of "selling" international aid, so-called "development pornography here. One response of the awkwardness of "white-controlled" images of "black poverty" has been to promote the efforts of indigenous photographers. Majority World (love the name) is one such organization.

What would I say to my students? In any Bruce Springsteen song, from his years with the E-Street Band, despite the tragedy of the words and the mournfulness of the sound, will be the moment I wait for, the lilt of optimism in the music. Bruce threads it in just about every song; often announcing the bright moment by the sound of Clarence Clements sax ripping and soaring, cutting through with the rising wail of optimism. I seek that moment. In 1936 (published in 1941), James Agee and Walker Evans produced that unforgettable work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The images and narration are of cotton farmers in Central Alabama during the Great Depression. A gallery of the images is available at my Alma Mater here.

I have a well-worn copy, given to me by the father of my much-beloved daughter, as he shared with me the story of his family who are represented in the book. Not a source of pride in his family. A source of shame. Time and distance cannot, always, successfully, dampen down the shame of victimization. And, yet, world's away, among the people who were kind enough to share their stories with me back in Tanzania in 1986-87, are another group of cotton farmers who experienced the Great Depression. Can we not share in the moral outrage of an economic system that can not, does not, will not insure the same developmental potential for every human being, for every human society?

I leave you with the words of James Agee, those both playfully tongue-in-cheek and those powerful:

....this is a book about "sharecroppers," and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats... Above all else: in God's name don't think of it as Art.... Get a radio or phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony. But I don't mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are in it; you body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music. Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.

1 comment:

larry c wilson said...

Before we try to help someone we need to ask them what help they want and give it to them, rather than telling them what they should want and will get from us whether or not they want it.