Arrest 1 (1965) by Bridget Riley
Arrest 1 (1965) by Bridget Riley

I’d like to propose an alternative method to discuss issues of race in visual culture and the photographic industry, but first some preliminaries.


Necessary discussions about photography and its intersection with race are occurring once-more. Earlier this year, the criticisms were unambiguous – that the PDN failed to reflect the diversity of society on it’s jury panel. Now however, the discussions stem not from critique of the photographic industry, but off the back of Pieter Hugo’s work and all the readings viewers have heaped upon Nollywood and latterly The Hyena and Other Men.

The confusion between the two series doesn’t help as they have very different purposes; you won’t see Nigerian movie actors in zombie costumes on the street, but there is an outside chance you’ll see animal-handlers in Nigeria because they actually travel, actually perform and actually have large, wild animals as pets.

To borrow a term from M. Scott Brauer, the ‘blog echo-chamber’ has been rumbling – Jim Johnson (interestingly all the way back in July); Amy Stein; duckrabbit; Daniel Cuthbert; and Joshua Spees

I will be clear here. I like Hugo’s work. I don’t think he exploits his subjects. I disagree with Jim Johnson when he says that Hugo’s work is ‘unexceptional’. I didn’t know that Nigeria had a thriving movie industry nor that Hyenas could be ‘tamed’ and kept on chains. To deliver new information is the least we should expect of photography, and yet often not achieved.

Sebastian Boncy and Stan Banos are absolutely right in that Hugo’s work can be used by viewers to confirm their existing racism, but Daniel Cutbert is also right in that Hugo is making interesting photos of interesting people in Africa.

Any work can be misinterpreted and to criticise Hugo for the potential small-mindedness of his viewers is to cut of debate prematurely. If we took this logic to the extreme then we’d all stop making pictures. I am glad to see names as famous as Walker Evans mentioned in the cultural relativist argument – that being that we don’t all get up in arms when photographers aesthetisise the rural (white) poor of Appalachia or beyond.

John Edwin Mason emailed me. He focused on the photographic product as it is consumed, and drew parallels between Hugos’ fine art work and that of the idiots at French Vogue:

“If Hugo’s viewers are the sort of folks who hang out in downtown galleries and read Aperture, wouldn’t there be considerable overlap between them and Vogue readers? Aren’t Hugo’s photos high-end consumer goods – in the same league as a designer dress, a Rolex, or a Merc? And like them signs of wealth, taste, sophistication?  Even if we only aspire to own these kinds of [luxury] items and consume them via the magazines we read, the aspiration alone moves us away from ordinary people.”

The territory of art as commodity is perhaps where the richest investigations of inequalities can occur.

World #13 2006, BY Ruud Van Empel, Cibachrome, 33 x 36.5 inches

World #13 (2006) by Ruud Van Empel, Cibachrome, 33 x 36.5 inches


I wonder if this hotly debated topic were fleshed out elsewhere our results would be different? Instead of PDN answering to the inequalities of an industry, instead of comments being lost in wordpress/tyepad archives, instead of calls to extend the discussion being missed/ignored and instead of suspicion and frantic typing prevailing … could we try something different?

I am sure most photographers have a lot of common ground to stake. But unfortunately, the web (or at least typing on the web) is no substitute for discussion. It takes too long, the moments pass, emotions deflate and you’re not even sure if you’re being heard/read.

So could we not back up our convictions with a commitment to meet in person. I am not talking about a coffee and a quick chat. Could we the photoblogosphere-peeps not arrange among ourselves a “conference”? It doesn’t need to be a massive production but the invite could be open. If photo-collectives, companies, magazines want to join then all the better. The agenda is ours to set.

Don’t panic. It’s just a proposal. We could hold it anywhere; New York,  San Francisco, Santa Fe, New Orleans, Toronto, Chicago. We could do it next spring or summer … and plan.

San Quentin Giants, by Emiliano Granado

San Quentin Giants, by Emiliano Granado

Obviously, discussion of race is impossible to ignore within the Prison Photography project.

The American prison system cages a disproportionate number of Black men. Other minorities are subjugated. Accusations of misogyny and gender prejudice can only gather traction given recent sentencing pollicy.

Issues change as one moves between domestic and foriegn sites of incarceration, but are no less important.

I’ve got much to say. Will you join me?