photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.25: The politics of the individual against the white backdrop

How should complex economic and political issues be represented visually?

In telling the story of how Chinese labour produces so much of the world’s manufactured goods, Lucas Schifre opted for a well-known formula – individualise the issue by making portraits. They are all interesting and many are compelling, none less so than this photograph of Wang Jan who works at the Artissmo Designs factory in Zhejian province.

Schifre’s rationale was clear:

“Looking at a human face mobilizes more brain cells than looking at anything else,” said Mr. Schifres, 39. It was a simple idea, meant to present a new dimension to the story; to put a face to labor in China…

Putting a face on a story – or, in the words of the Lens blog – “looking directly into their eyes” is a staple of humanist photography. These images embody a specific way of being human that Hariman and Lucaites call the “individuated aggregate.”[1. Robert Hariman and John Lucaites, No Caption Needed (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 21, 88-89.] In this understanding, the individuated aggregate, although appearing in a photograph as a singular person or persons, instead depicts collective experience metonymically by reducing a general construct (such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic) to a specific embodiment (the patient, caregiver or health practitioner, for example). The individuated aggregate has to be personal enough to convey the details of a particular life, but equally impersonal so those details do not derail a larger generalization. The end result of this is that, as Hariman and Lucaties argue, “the figure of the individuated aggregate fuses individual and collective reference to create a symbol; the iconic representation becomes the event itself.”[2. Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption Needed, p. 90.]

The individuated aggregate also serves another double function, one related to the work photographs do as opposed to the things they represent. Photographs prompt structures of feeling historically present in audiences, using the face and body of the person pictured to not only display the subject’s emotions but to place viewers in an affective relationship with the subject. Such photographs activate a humanitarian structure of feeling, calling forth established humanitarian modes of response. As such, the individuated aggregate allows the figure of the individual to embody a larger social and political context “in a manner that fulfils both the need for collective action and the primacy of individual autonomy in a liberal-democratic society.”[3. Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption Needed, pp. 21, 35-36.] However, given the way it secures liberal individualism, the collective action inspired by the individuated aggregate will be a humanitarian kind and will not contest the fundaments of liberalism at home or abroad. So, as much as people might want portraits of this kind to prompt a political response, their aesthetic strategies undercut that possibility.

A second component of Schifres visual strategy reinforces the liberal approach – his use of the white backdrop to remove people from their immediate surroundings. As Colin Pantall wrote last year, this approach has a long history and many incarnations. We might even date it to August Sander’s famous work, though it is perhaps best know via Richard Avedon’s In the American West (1985), James Mollison’s Hunger (2002) and microcredit (2008) campaigns, Paul Close’s Snakebox Odyssey (2009), and Rankin’s Congo series for Oxfam (2010).

In Avedon’s work, the removal of people from their immediate background to be photographed against a white backdrop was a politically disruptive ploy, because it repopulated the landscape of the American West with people who had been obscured, in part by the dominance of landscape photography in representing that area.[4. This case is made in Michael J. Shapiro, The Politics of Representation (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), pp. 156-162.] Whether the continued use of this particular visual strategy remains politically disruptive is open to debate.

Photo: Copyright Lucas Schifres