Last year, in the article Photographing the Prostitutes of Italy’s Backroads: Google Street View vs. Boots on the Ground, I compared the work of artists Mishka Henner and Paolo Patrizi both of whom were making images of prostitution on the back roads of Spain and Italy.
I argued that the photographs by Patrizi, due to their physical and emotional proximity had more relevance. Patrizi actually went to the roadside locations whereas Henner, making use of Google Street View, had not.
Shortly thereafter, Mishka Henner emailed me and mounted an impassioned defense of his work. Henner felt he had been “thrown to the cyber-lions.” Not wanting to see anyone with his or her nose bent, I offered Henner a platform on Prison Photography for right of reply.
PB: What was your issue with the commentary on No Man’s Land?
MH: There’s a section of the photo community judging No Man’s Land according to a pretty narrow set of criteria. So narrow they’re avoiding one of the elephants in the room, which is what role is left for the street photographer in the age of Google Street View? Comparing No Man’s Land to other projects on sex workers could be interesting but the way it’s done here is resulting in a pretty narrow discussion about whether it’s valid, ethical or just sensationalistic. I don’t see how that helps move documentary forwards. All the projects you mention, including mine, assert themselves as documents of a social reality. But in your discussion, this is secondary to how they make you feel and Colberg even argues Patrizi’s approach makes you care. My motivation isn’t to make you feel or to care – it’s to make you think.
MH: No Man’s Land uses existing cameras, online interest groups, and one of the subjects interwoven in the history of photography. And I think the ability to combine these elements says something about the cultural and technological age we live in. In some photographic circles, that’s the way it’s being discussed and I’m surprised Colberg and yourself have dismissed it in favour of more reactionary arguments that seem to hark back to what I see as a conservative and nostalgic view of the medium.
PB: Well, if preference for boots on the ground and a suspicion of a GSV project is reactionary, then okay. Why did you use GSV for No Man’s Land? Are you opposed to documentary work?
MH: This is documentary work, how can it not be? And what’s this suspicion of GSV? Would you have been suspicious of Eugene Atget walking the streets with his camera? I’m sure many were at the time but that suspicion seems ridiculous now. And your response is reactionary because it validates and dismisses work according to quite spurious and nebulous criteria. What does it matter if I released the shutter or not? A social reality has been captured by a remote device taking billions of pictures no one else ever looked at or collected in this way before. You’re only seeing this record because I’ve put it together. The project is about the scale of a social issue, not about trying to convince a viewer that they should have pity for individual subjects. Yet in these circles, the latter uncritically dwarfs the former as though it’s the only valid approach.
MH: Paolo Patrizi’s Migration is evidently an accomplished visual body of work, as is Txema Salvans’ The Waiting Game but to argue they offer a deeper insight into the plight of sex workers is, I think, generous to say the least.
MH: The assumption underlying much of the critiques of No Man’s Land (in particular Alan Chin’s) is that there’s no research and it’s a lazy, sensationalistic account of something fabricated. But what if I told you it was researched and took months to produce; what basis would there be then for dismissing it? Doesn’t research inform 90% of every documentary photographer’s work (it did mine, maybe I wasn’t doing it right)? What’s left unsaid in these critiques is that No Man’s Land doesn’t fit a rather narrow and conservative view of what one community believes photography should be. The fact we’re drowning in images and that new visions of photography are coming to light are a scary prospect to that community, hence the reactionary and defensive responses. But there’s more to these responses than simply validating boots on the ground. You’re prioritizing a particular way of seeing and rejecting another that happens to be absolutely contemporary.
PB: I think we can agree Patrizi is accomplished. I was deliberately lyrical in my description of his work and I meant it when I was personally moved by Patrizi’s work. That is a personal response.
MH: That’s fine, but what does Patrizi tell us that is missing from No Man’s Land? Is the isolation and loneliness of a feral roadside existence and the domestication of liminal spaces really that much more evident in one body of work than the other? Surprisingly – given your sympathy for Patrizi’s’ approach – even the women’s anonymity is matched in each project. No captions, no locations, no names, and no personal stories. Just a well-researched introductory text that refers in general terms to the women’s experiences. I think you’re viewing the work through rose-tinted spectacles.
PB: I can’t argue with your point about anonymity. There may be an element of gravitating toward [Patrizi’s] familiar methods. This might be because reading the images resultant of those methods is safe for the audience; they find it more easily accessible, possibly even instructive in how they should react?
MH: Working in documentary for many years, I can’t deny I aimed for these lofty aspirations. But I now consider the burden of sympathy expected from a narrow language of documentary to be a distracting filter in the expression of much more complex realities. Pity has a long and well-established aesthetic and I just don’t buy it anymore. In themselves the facts are terrible and I don’t need a sublime image to be convinced of that. In the context of representing street prostitution, striving for the sublime seems a far more perverse goal to me than using Street View and much more difficult to defend.
MH: Alan Chin’s comments surprised me because I wouldn’t expect such a knee-jerk reaction from an apparently concerned photographer. But his work is a type of documentary that I’m reacting against; a kind of parachute voyeurism soaked in a language of pity that reduces complex international and domestic scenarios into pornographic scenes of destruction and drama. It’s the very oxygen the dumb hegemonic narrative of terror thrives on and I reject it. Why you would pick his critique of my work is beyond me – we’re ships passing in the night.
PB: I quoted Chin because he and I were already been in discussion with others about the many photo-GSV projects. He represented a particularly strong opposition to all the GSV projects including No Man’s Land.
MH:No Man’s Land is disturbing, I agree. And it troubles and inspires me in equal measure that I can even make a body of work like it today. But it isn’t just about these women, it’s also about the visual technologies at our disposal and how by combining them with certain data sets (in this case, geographic locations logged and shared by men all around the world), an alternative form of documentary can emerge that makes use of all this new material to represent a current situation. It appeals to me because it doesn’t evoke what I think of as the tired devices of pity and the sublime to get its point across.
PB: It’s not that I don’t like No Man’s Land, but I prefer Patrizi’s Migration; it is close(r) and it is technically very competent work. There’s plenty of art/documentary photography that doesn’t impress me as much as Patrizi’s does. A clumsy photographer could’ve dealt with the topics of migration and the sex industry poorly. I don’t think Patrizi did.
MH: I don’t know what you mean by clumsy. If by clumsy you mean a photographer who shows us what they see as opposed to what they think others want to see then bring it on, I’d love to see more of that. No Man’s Land might seem cold and distant, it might even appear to be easy (it isn’t), but it’s rooted in an absolutely present condition. What you consider to be its weakness – its inability to get close to the photographic subject, its struggle to evoke pity – is what I consider to be its strength.
PB: The detachment is the problem for all concerned. People may be using your work as a scapegoat. This would be an accusation that I could, partly, aim at myself. Does your work reference the frustration of isolation and deadened imagination in a networked world?
MH: At first, I reacted strongly to your description of my work as anemic but now I think it’s a pretty good description of the work. And it’s an accurate word for describing what I think of as the technological experience today, our dependence on it and its consequences.
MH: I know, like most working photographers, that for all the fantasies of a life spent outdoors, much of a photographer’s workload happens online. And if you’re a freelancer, the industry demands that you’re glued to the web. It’s not the way I’d like it to be; it just happens to be the world I’m living in. And anyone reading this online on your blog is likely to share that reality. So it seems natural and honest that as an artist, I have to explore that reality rather than deny its existence.
PB: For audiences to grasp that you’re dealing – with equal gravity – two very different concerns of photography (the subject and then also contemporary technologies) opens up a space for confusion. Not your problem necessarily, but possibly the root of the backlash among the audience.
MH: Well, it’s surprising to me that few critics have actually discussed the work in relation to the context in which it was produced, i.e. as a photo-book. If even the critics are judging photo-books and photographs by their appearance on their computer screens, then I rest my case.
PB: What difference does the book format make to your expected reactions to the body of work?
MH: For one thing the book takes the work away from the online realm and demands a different reading. That in itself transforms it and turns it into a permanent record. Otherwise I’d just leave the work on-screen. I recently produced a second volume and intend to release a third and then a fourth, continuing for as long as the material exists.
PB: On some levels, people’s reactions to your work seem strange. If people are so affronted, they should want to change society and not your images?
MH: Too often, I find that beautifully crafted images of tragedy and trauma have become the safe comfort zones to which our consciences retreat. It’s something people have come to expect and it doesn’t sit easily with me. When I think of No Man’s Land, I keep returning to Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray:
No artist has ethical sympathies.
An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
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No Man’s Land will be on show – from May 3rd until 27th – at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, OR 97209. Tuesday – Sunday, 12-5 pm.