by Mary Mattingly
June 26, 2014
'Artists on _____' is a new essay series where artists are invited to write about any topic they choose.
Photography is often lauded for its ability to be ambivalent within narrative traditions. My work focuses on the framework surrounding photography as a subject, and collage as a method for describing webs of interconnections between geographies. I’m unable to separate a picture from the tools used to make it—including the cameras, computers, chemicals, inks, and papers—and the networked supply chains involved in their manufacture and distribution. From forensic photography to protestors recording police brutality, a photograph can operate as a form of justice, but the captured image is just one step in a process wrought with injustice.
In 2010 I received a grant from the Art Matters Foundation to travel to Bangladesh and study architecture in coastal areas that flood annually. It’s difficult to get in and out of Bangladesh, and for most people it’s nearly impossible to obtain or afford an exit visa. Many end up with company-sponsored documents, which are often linked to abuse and slavery. I was able to obtain a visa through a friend of a friend with a brother in Pakistan, whose uncle worked for the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI). The BEI had to approve my project and then lobby on my behalf. While in Bangladesh I interviewed people about living with flooding in an effort to bring ideas back to New York City. I went to Chittagong, a city known worldwide through the ship breaking industry. Along the way I met Mithu, a man who had assisted photographer Edward Burtynsky ten years earlier when he was documenting workers demolishing giant ships.
Mithu told me kind stories about working with Burtynsky. When Burtynsky’s photographs were exhibited in San Francisco, he invited Mithu to the opening. Of course it would have been nearly impossible for Mithu to get to the USA. Even if Burtynsky could have secured a visa on his behalf, Mithu would have had to give up his job in Chittagong. That gesture meant something, though. When the photographs sold, Burtynsky sent money to the shipyards that he was able to photograph so they could purchase improved safety equipment. I’m familiar with the neutral position Burtynsky takes with his photography, so for me this story added some decisiveness to his work.
Burtynsky of course understands that a photograph means something different to every viewer, and he rarely shares his own stance publicly. This position makes sense. It has been defined through centuries of oppressive, authoritarian state ideologies that utilize mass media and propaganda to demoralize, control, sell wars, enforce racism, sexism, and fascist regimes largely by appealing to emotion through campaign. Justified fears of authoritarianism have led to strong opposition to a positioned subject, and the neutral observation became the voice of reason.
The impartial document, now called “democratic” media, has a strong history of presenting perspectives that diverge from the dominant discourse and give a larger audience access to these counter narratives. Over time though, making and viewing images impartially has augmented a more liberal personality that is focused less on a common political sphere and more on independent consumer pathways. This impartial personality played a substantial role in a neoliberal, free trade ideology and illusions of consumer choice. Point being, pictures without a position have become purely product. One can argue that Burtynsky’s pictures have many positions, but when he doesn’t take one, we have greater license to conveniently choose what we want to see and what we want to ignore.
We know that neutrality is nonexistent. For instance, none of us can look at a digital camera (with nickel most often sourced from Russia’s Kola Peninsula; carbon harvested in Inner Mongolia; PVC made in Guangzhou, China, lithium mined in Chile, Bolivia, and Guangdong, China; aluminum smelted in Tanzania; coltan for Tantalum mined in the DRC or South America) never mind a drone (Burtynsky’s current choice gadget), and believe that these tools—with their recent histories of social, political, and environmental oppression—can usurp that injustice because they are used to document. Can anyone truly claim neutrality today, and is the neutral position still a desirable one?
The jury may still be out on whether Burtynsky’s photography is art, but it doesn’t matter. Today we find ourselves inside of an authoritarian “democracy,” where so many have been disenfranchised for so long that they have given up the value of being heard. When I see someone in Burtynsky’s position of influence and power standing comfortably on a gold mine of self-proclaimed impartial, reflective pictures, I’m discouraged. When those who have power don’t take the challenge to let themselves be heard, then they end up further exploiting the exploited.
Mary Mattingly is an artist based in New York. In preparation for a burial of her belongings, she is currently photographing them and writing obituaries at Own-It.us. Mattingly is getting ready to launch a partially submerged home, WetLand, on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.