Friday, August 5, 2016

I'm thinking of. . . exploitation




This is just a little parable, but it is a poisonous one. It illustrates how artists take advantage of their subjects, trying to convince people they're "helping" them with their attentions when in truth, they are sucking the lifeblood out of them.

Artists, writers, creative types are ruthless. They get the story at anyone's expense. I've seen it time and time again. If you do not have this ruthlessness, you will not become famous.

It is a kind of law.




Migrant Mother, taken by Dorothea Lange. 

The photograph that has become known as “Migrant Mother” is one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo, California. Lange was concluding a month’s trip photographing migratory farm labor around the state for what was then the Resettlement Administration. In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (From – Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).





Dorothea Lange in 1936. Source

Lange’s photo became a defining image of the Great Depression, but the migrant mother’s identity remained a mystery to the public for decades because Lange hadn’t asked her name. In the late 1970s, a reporter tracked down Owens (whose last name was then Thompson), at her Modesto, California, home.

Thompson claimed that Lange never asked her any questions and got many of the details incorrect. Troy Owens recounted:

“There’s no way we sold our tires because we didn’t have any to sell. The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.”

Thompson was critical of Lange, who died in 1965, stating she felt exploited by the photo and wished it hadn’t been taken and also expressing regret she hadn’t made any money from it. Thompson died at age 80 in 1983. In 1998, a print of the image, signed by Lange, sold for $244,500 at auction.





The second parable freezes me in my chair. This is a photo of what people assume are inbred Deliverance-type hillbillies from deep in the backwoods. As with Dorothea Lange, Roger Ballen photographed these twins in an impoverished rural setting - not anywhere in the United States, but in
South Africa. The photo is considered a joke on the internet, often believed to be "fake" or photoshopped. It isn't. But it is so easy to locate that I only had to google "hillbilly twins" to find it (the first picture on Google images).




But the description I found on a site about Ballen and the twins (excerpt below) made my hair stand on end. Strange-looking as they are, and no doubt mentally-challenged, these are human beings, farm labourers cared for by their mother. No doubt their status isn't up to par for some people, which makes them feel free to compare them to chimpanzees or side-show attractions.

The twins and their family became world famous, but they had no knowledge of it because Ballen never told them he was a professional photographer and intended to display their pictures. They never saw one cent of remuneration, though the brothers are still groaned over and ridiculed on the internet as monstrous products of inbreeding.




For better or worse, one image more than any other has come to define South African photographer Roger Ballen - the photograph of adult twins Dresie and Casie taken in the Western Transvaal in 1993, an image distressing and unforgettable.

The twins have misshapen faces, necks as thick as bullocks', ears that protrude like chimps', bluntly cut spiky hair and prominent lower lips. Ballen has photographed them with a long thread of drool dangling from their blubbery mouths, their shirts wet and stained with dribble.

The image provokes an uncomfortable rush of thoughts and emotions: curiosity about the twins' genetic make-up, intrigue about their story, concern that someone could so brutally point the camera and shoot - did the twins understand the ramifications of that moment?

That photo, and others he took in the poor white rural areas of South Africa caused great controversy and resulted in Ballen being shunned by the South African arts community and death threats being made against him. His unsentimental and grim depictions of weird-looking people living in squalor and chaos, immortalised in the 1994 book Platteland: images of rural South Africa, were seen as cruel, denigrating and exploitative.







Hey! Listen! I beg to differ. I think this person's ATTITUDE is grotesque, particularly the assumption that anyone who is physically "different" is shameful, embarrassing, and meant to be hidden away.

I grew up with this sort of attitude. Anyone with mental illness was inherently shameful and usually "put away". Children with Down syndrome were called "mongoloid", and parents were routinely told it was the kindest thing for everyone if they institutionalized the child, forgot they ever had it and just had another baby.

Taking and even exhibiting photos of people who are outside the societal norm doesn't bother me, so long as it's done with full permission, full disclosure and a healthy degree of respect. More than anything else, the subject has to be aware that this is a professional photographer who is going to be doing all sorts of strange things with the photos, including becoming famous with them.




Publishing these photos doesn't automatically mean denigration or ridicule. Hiding people away or treating them as if they are inherently hideous and frightening isn't respectful. Is it completely taboo to show the world that some human beings look and even act radically different from the supposed norm? TLC wouldn't exist without breaking this taboo daily, but they do it in such a disgusting manner that I can't approve of it.

But I definitely disapprove of the viewpoint that says, for God's sake, don't take a picture of people with "misshapen faces, necks as thick as bullocks', ears that protrude like chimps', bluntly cut spiky hair and prominent lower lips". And if you MUST take pictures of such apelike, subhuman creatures, for God's sake, don't let anyone see them!

Is there a responsible, ethical way to do this? What about respectfully asking the subject, or in this case the twins' mother, if it would be all right to display these photos as part of an art exhibit? And what about admitting that the photos he exhibits tend to be dark, sensationalistic, even creepy, and that he has made a name for himself from them? But then, surely, she would protest and say no.

Though I am sure he would go ahead and do it anyway.




Dorothea Lange became enormously and permanently famous, famous for the ages, for her Migrant Mother pictures - but she did not even know the woman's name! She didn't know her name because she never asked, and didn't ask because she wasn't interested. Surely this subject matter was more powerful (and better for Lange's career) if she was a sort of generic Mother Courage figure. A name would just take away from all that, wouldn't it? The photographer knew a good thing when she saw it, maybe a great thing, and greatness is usually achieved by stepping over (or stepping on) someone else whose status is lower.

But the most screamingly awful part of all this is Lange's assertion that they had somehow done each other a favour:

There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. 

There IS something that might have helped this woman out. Ms. Lange should have opened her wallet then and there, given her the contents, gotten her address and made a promise to send her a cheque at regular intervals. Even a very modest amount would have made a huge difference. A portion of the proceeds of her exhibition would then go directly to this woman and her family. Thus she wouldn't be starving to death for someone else's entertainment, making the photographer into a celebrity at her expense.




People are strange when you're a stranger 
Faces look ugly when you're alone 
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted 
Streets are uneven when you're down 

When you're strange 
Faces come out of the rain 
When you're strange 
No one remembers your name 
When you're strange 
When you're strange 
When you're strange 





People are strange when you're a stranger 
Faces look ugly when you're alone 
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted 
Streets are uneven when you're down 

When you're strange 
Faces come out of the rain 
When you're strange 
No one remembers your name 
When you're strange 
When you're strange 
When you're strange 

When you're strange 
Faces come out of the rain 
When you're strange 
No one remembers your name 
When you're strange 
When you're strange
When you're strange







POST-SCRIPT. This post threatens to go on and on. But I did want to share something I found: Dresie and Casie, the much-ridiculed "hillbilly twins", now live comfortably in a nursing home in South Africa. As you can see, they're people, they laugh a lot and aren't scary. They live simply and have serious mental disabilities, but appear to enjoy life and are well cared-for.

For their sakes, I am glad that particular story ended happily.





Artwork by Krysantemum

2 comments:

  1. What a beautiful piece this is, Margaret. I've read before about the Migrant Mother feeling exploited, but hadn't known about the twin and what happened to them. Good to know they, at least, ended on a happier note. The photo of the migrant mother, and others she and other Great Depression photogs took, are haunting and sad. I often wonder how they could have just left those people behind once they'd heard their stories and taken their pictures. It could be they were as shell-shocked by what was happening as the people whose stories they were telling.

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    1. I was shocked, but not surprised. Famous artists can be ruthless. It's always disappointing to find that out. I think their gain matters more than the wellbeing of their "subject matter". Thank you for commenting!

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