The Right to be Counted

07
Ginger Bob, 2007 from Titz, T. (2010). Right to be Counted. Retrieved from http://tobiastitz.de/projects/

 

The Australian referendum in May 1967, while legally minimalist, is considered a important point in the recognition of Indigenous Australians. The referendum, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Australian public, 1 approved two amendments to the Australian Constitution. These changes gave the Federal Government jurisdiction to make laws for all Australian people (previously people of “the aboriginal race in any State” were excluded from Federal law), and included Aboriginal people in determining the population of Australia (this was specifically related to calculating the population of the States and Territories for the purpose of allocating seats in the lower house of the Federal Parliament and per capita Commonwealth grants). 2

The Constitutional changes cleared the way for several significant developments. These included the initiation of several Federal programs specifically aimed at satisfying Aboriginal needs; the enactment of acts related to land rights, discrimination and native title; and the development of a new administrative and practical definition of ‘Aboriginality’ that was based on community and self-identification, not the blood-quantum classifications of the past. 3 4

As a topic for a contemporary photo series however, it was always going to take some imagining to impact an audience over 40 years after the fact. Regardless, from 2007-2009 photographer Tobias Titz made it his endeavour to bringing this pivotal moment in Australian history into a current cultural landscape. Partnering with the Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre, and collaborating with members of West Australian indigenous communities including Port Hedland, Roebourne and Warralong, he worked to create a body of visually moving photographs that articulate the participants thoughts, opinions and experiences of the 1967 referendum.

 

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Tracey Monaghan, 2007 from Titz, T. (2010). Right to be Counted. Retrieved from http://tobiastitz.de/projects/righttobecounted/14.html

 

To create the Right to be Counted 5 project, Titz photographed each participant with a large-format polaroid camera in a space of their choosing, then photographed the same space without the person. He worked directly with the project participants (with the assistance of translators from Wangka Maya) to teach them the hands-on skills involved in making the photographs. This included processing the negatives, as well as scratching their reaction or feelings about the referendum onto the negatives with leather awl. 6

His intention for the collaborative project was to give “a voice to stories.” 7 It is an intention people who utilise collaborative or participatory techniques in their practice, are doubtlessly familiar with (that unsettling unease of ‘speaking on behalf of people’). But, arguably even more important than making the photographs, the collaborative process allowed younger members of the communities involved to learn about their histories. Like the photographer himself, many of them had little or no knowledge of the referendum prior to taking part in the project.

I came across this project in mid-2010 when another project by Titz was published in the Australian newspaper The Age, and followed it to his website. The inscribed polaroid portrait is a method he has used across a range of projects, but even years later the image I found in this series of Kelman Tullock (below), next to his text “Black people are realy [sic] kind when you get to know them.” still has that simultaneously wonderful/terrible/powerful quality that makes me stop in my tracks and think.

 

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Kelman Tullock, 2007 from Titz, T. (2010). Right to be Counted. Retrieved from http://tobiastitz.de/projects/righttobecounted/10.html

 

Although I already was interested in the ways that handwriting explicitly expresses authorship within photographic works (having been a fan of Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor (1985) 8 and Raised by Wolves (1995) 9 for years) Titz’s work had a particular resonance for me. Perhaps because, as an Australian, the subject was closer to home than the often very far away photo projects that land in my reading tray, or perhaps it was the punch-in-the-face of the visual-text combination (there is something so haunting about the presence/absence of the subject and the way the emptied space references towards the devastation visited on Indigenous Australian people and culture by white settlers). Regardless, I have taken influence from both his and Goldberg’s use of text, and used handwriting in several of my projects since (both inviting participants to write in their own hand, and writing my interpretation of their stories in mine to acknowledge my presence in the storytelling process).

Of course when Goldberg starting using text some critics “saw the union of pictures and subjects’ words as a betrayal of photography as an art form at a time when the medium was still struggling for acceptance.” 10 A New York Times review at the time (1986) said the decision showed “a sad lack of trust on Mr. Goldberg’s part in both the power of his photographs to speak for themselves and in his viewers to understand them without comment.” 11 (Certainly, when I start teaching a photography class 12 I refuse my students any text, wanting them to conquer the nuance of the visual language and its impact on the viewing audience, rather than letting them resort to the ease of word-based communication.) But I believe that handwriting incorporates something of our personality and something of our humanity—a literal ‘personal touch’. 13 And when grappling with the way in which to express the participatory and collaborative nature of photo-based social practice projects it feels like a useful tool. In Rich and Poor the most interesting images are when the subjects contradict the mood of the photograph Goldberg has put forward as representative of his portrait subject—a direct challenge of the kind of inbuilt editorial choices that are usually hidden from us in photo-based projects.

 

Goldberg
Goldberg, J. (1985). Rich and poor: Photographs. New York: Random House

 

Goldberg’s next long-term project Raised by Wolves builds on his previous text-based participation, heralding more complex collaborative process—experimenting with visual methods of inviting participation from his subjects and additionally exposing his own working processes as a way to democratise voice. 14

The work is the culmination of ten years photographing and interviewing homeless teenagers on the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles. He uses a number of visually effective ethnographic techniques, in addition to the evocative images that examine the often-grim reality of these street-kids. This includes excerpts from field notes and interviews (also with social workers and family of the children he photographs), as well as getting subjects to write about their own lives in their own hand. He obviously shares the work with the subjects as he goes, showing images to us with annotations and comments written on them. This commentary helps us, the secondary audience, to understand the work, and see the kids’ lives from their own perspective. We are able to make sense of the visual output, which is at times chaotic and jumbled (a perfect reflection of the conditions in which it was produced), because the process is not obscured from us. 15

 

jim-goldberg_raised-by-wolves-composite
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Goldberg, J. (1995). Raised by wolves (2nd ed.). P. Brookman (Ed.). Zurich: Scalo.

 

Raised by Wolves, which seems like a genuine attempt to include participant voice in a way that still retains the emotional agency of the photographic product, was a critical point in expanding the scope of Documentary Photography’s increased focus on process. The relationship between photographer and participant are clearly strong, and participants play a clear role in contributing to the product.

The value of the collaboration to the participants is less clear (and perhaps here I am talking about the long-term value—in the short term Goldberg certainly is engaged in a relationship of some reciprocity—in the book he reveals loans, collect calls and his role far beyond that of just documentarian). Sociologist Eric Margolis’s criticism of the work is that while Goldberg made a good job of his ethical mandate to respect his subjects, he needed to employ newfound ethnographic understanding to develop practices that go beyond observation to social action (my emphasis). 16

American artist, writer, and curator Dan Graham says “All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative and more real than art.” 17 And practices that go beyond observation, attempting to instigate social action, are the foundational tenet of Documentary Photography (such as the legislative changes pursued by Jacob Riis 18, Lewis Hine 19and the FSA photographers 20). However Margolis is arguing here for more—that with a greater degree of participation comes a greater responsibility of social action, manifesting this desire for change in more tangible ways (i.e. what is Goldberg going to do for these kids other than record their lives?). Indeed, Goldberg clearly cares about the lives of the young people he chose to become involved with, and about the difficult decisions of how to capture and render the substance of their lives—but, as the primary audience of this work they help create, what benefit them? 

Raised by Wolves sets the stage to understand other contemporary semi-collaborative photography projects such as Scot Sothern’s Lowlife, 21 where he pays street-based sex workers to pose for his camera (mostly naked, for whatever price he can afford), to Tony Fouhse’s photo-diary like collaboration (that leans on the conventions of both documentary and anthropological photography) with Stephanie MacDonald, a young woman with a life controlling drug addiction, in Live Through This.  22

Here we have an almost direct comparison of a genuinely coercive (and frankly, refreshingly honest) participation, and a project bound by the long-term relationship between collaborators, instigated by Fouhse, but designed to allow both him and MacDonald to co-author the work. This comparative analysis is enabled by the similarity of the subject—subjects that are explored by photojournalists very frequently—and allows an almost abridged demonstration of a spectrum of traditional photographic practice evolving to include collaborative elements at the core of the working methodology.

image11_1024x1024Live_Through_This_4

Fouhse, T., & MacDonald, S. (2012). Live Through This. Ottawa: Straylight Press.

 

Live Through This is a more deliberate work employing a more traditionally flattering and tender language of portraiture, compared to the stark, though expertly composed, realism of Sothern’s flash-lit black and white images—and a more accessible altruistic intent (Fouhse helps Macdonald get through rehab in exchange for her participation in the project). In this sense it meets Margolis’s aim to go “beyond observation to social action.” 

There is obvious benefit to MacDonald for participating, that goes beyond what Goldberg offers his homeless youth—tangible assistance rather than a platform with which to share the stories of those people who don’t often get a chance to. And Fouhse and MacDonald’s reciprocal arrangements are clear from the first moment they meet:

“The first time I met you was the picture in the bikini top/shorts. I walked up and asked you what was up? what are you doing? you said that you were taking pictures of the crack addicted and Heroine [sic] addicts and you asked to take my picture and I said yes.” (MacDonald, p.2)

“You have to understand. We started this thing, Stephanie and I, as two people who just wanted something from each other. She wanted help getting clean and I wanted to take pictures of her.” (Fouhse, p.1) 23

The central theme of much of Fouhse’s work is the ethics of representation, and the impact that representation has on the relationship between photographer and subject; “When I ask a person if I can photograph them, the subtext is, Will you give me power to reinterpret you or interpret you or to represent you or misrepresent you?24

In this instance the authorship of the work rests predominantly with Fouhse, although MacDonald is obviously a collaborator in the creation of the images. MacDonald authors sections of text, including captions and a booklet that narrates her own experience, which is sleeved in the back of the book. Though eloquent, for me there is a sense that this project doesn’t fully examine the parameters of physically manifesting participant ‘voice’ by letting both parties produce photographs (though of course this isn’t a necessary component, just something I would have liked to see). This visual conversation between MacDonald and Fouhse is notably missing an image of him—but then, nor does Raised by Wolves have an image of Goldberg.

 

scot sothern
Sothern, S. (2011). Lowlife. London, England: Stanley Barker.

 

Comparatively Sothern’s work has a less visible ‘social action’ intention—it predominantly acts as no-holds-barred, unflinching and unapologetic account of his own drug addiction and use of sex workers­­—cathartic perhaps, and achingly poetic despite the stark visual language and ethical ambiguity. This does not exclude it as an explicitly collaborative work. To find a contemporary art practice compatriot to Sothern, one only has to look towards Sierra Santiago, an artist whose works are intended to shock the viewer into recognising inequality and unbalanced power relations. 25 His works include hiring heroin-addicted prostitutes for the price of a shot of heroin to give their consent to be arbitrarily tattooed with a line across their backs. 26

 

sierra160cmline
Santiago, S. (2000). Línea de 160 cm tatuada sobre 4 personas (160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People), El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo, Salamanca, Spain

 

We see here a clear parallel of practice—albeit one that may arouse different critical responses because of the frame of reference (the art world as opposed to the photo world). It is worth looking to Santiago to see how repositioning this coercive work outside of the ethical parameters of Documentary Photography may allow it to be understood as a process and not just a product. Documentary photographers generally operate within the same ‘code of ethics’ applicable to Photojournalists, and this kind of financial transaction, paying for posing, faces severe industry criticism. 27 As do images which deliberately rely on the visual language of exploitation.

Santiago’s ‘collaborators’ don’t have any agency to speak of; they simply perform or arrange themselves in response to his choreography; they’re raw material. His efforts to shock or provoke the audience is where the most interesting ethical questions arise. 28 Santiago is at pains to make the details of each payment part of the work’s description, turning the economic context into one of his primary materials. 29 Santiago, though definitively controversial, is able to retain agency in his medium, whereas Sothern is more infrequently maligned.

Perhaps it is that Sothern is implicated in the world he photographs, lacking the critical distance of Santiago—“Men are evil fuckheads who don’t deserve the brute strength they have over women; I’d like my photographs to punctuate that statement. But that doesn’t negate the fact that I’m having fun taking pictures of a naked hot chick.” 30 But in person (we met once in a Starbucks in 2012 to escape the dry heat of a long Los Angeles day and talk about his work) he is charming, and clearly engaged with the idea that the exchange of money for images is of some benefit to participants.

Though not entirely negligible, and absolutely tangible, this monetary transaction, a part of the process that occurs outside of the images themselves (like Santiago, but different from the other photographers who attempt to have their subject make some mark on the visual) leaves his images open to being read only as the easy coercion of people with less agency to make active choices about how they are visually represented rather than a collaborative work.

And though I am not necessarily arguing that all photo-based projects must go “beyond observation to social action,” I think it is crucial to look to the impacts, purposes and intents (ameliorative or otherwise) of working with people to produce works about themselves. Particularly when we, as photographers, and people who coordinate collaborative and participatory photographic projects, are focussing our attention of the same people and topics as we have traditionally done as photojournalists and documentary photographers.

To go back to Titz’s work, and his mandate to give “a voice to stories,” 31 which can be interpreted as a desire to get participants to inject some of their selves into the product made from the collaborative process. In Right to be Counted, produced over years, but rather less intensively than Goldberg’s or Fouhse and MacDonald’s works, this desire manifests itself in a visually compelling way, that has some unexpected and positive repercussions for the younger participants. Perhaps though, too little attention is paid in the evaluation, or the presentation of the work to the ‘side benefits’ of participants (who really are the primary audience for the work) learning about their own culture and history. The crux of this being, of course, the conundrum of how we present these complex processes, and the often hard-to-follow threads of the unexpected or unplanned impacts a project can have (which can be almost impossible to trace and articulate) in a visually compelling way. Particularly when the image, and our ability to use it to attract a viewing (and paying) audience, is our stock in trade.

Secondary to this, is the question of what any of these photographs themselves have done to serve the people represented within them? In my own work Red Light Dark Room (2011) 32, I worked with street-based sex working women to document their own lives (both handing out cameras and photographing them myself). The project was completed over the course of a year (and in the pursuit of a complex and more finely nuanced work, could have done with significantly more time), and a huge amount of the photographs that the women produced were of their children—utilising the service I offered of a camera and as many rolls of film developed as they cared to shoot to fill their family albums.

At the time I fought hard to steer these women into producing photographs that were perhaps more compelling for a viewing audience, pushing them precisely towards the kinds of quasi-sensational images I was trying to move away from (while in the earnest pursuit of breaking down some of the stereotypes about women who sex work). Anecdotally it was the images of their own children (some of which were included in the book and exhibition) that had the most value for those participants who produced them. The images of their clients, or themselves injecting heroin, or waiting on the corner did not have the same use-value for the participants, though doubtlessly were more revealing for the secondary audience who came to the project seeking more than just snapshots of someone else’s kids (no matter who that ‘someone else’ was).

The project spurred me to examine this point of tension between process and product in my own PhD research, but these kinds of projects (including the ones outlined here) raise more questions than that. They speak to moving beyond art to social action; to the value of duration (would my own work have benefitted from the ten years that Goldberg took?); the value of visual language as a tool to reveal process (would any of these projects have benefited from the participants and collaborators themselves taking up the camera, and turning it also on the usually unseen photographer?); the innovative ways in which we can acknowledge collaborative authorship within the product (if we rely on handwriting, or the snapshot to be our predominant indicator, how can we avoid the exhaustion of visual repetition?); the development of relationships specifically for a ‘project,’ and whether this pursuit of specific groups of people compromises the core of the collaborative relationship (can intentionality about who you make work with negate the collaboration?), and; the maintenance of those relationships beyond the project parameters (does ‘social action’ mean that the photographer, who now shoulders more roles and responsibilities than in a straight documentary project, has an obligation to maintain relationships after the project is ‘finished’? Like Fouhse and MacDonald?).

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the questions raised herein, but I’m treating this site as a place to gather some of my ongoing thoughts about these kinds of topics during the course of my PhD research (and I hope I am not compelled to end each of my posts with this caveat), so read these thoughts as the start of a conversation, rather than a statement of finality. As I unroll and unravel each of them, and many more besides, and look at more artists who are experimenting with the boundaries of socially engaged photographic processes, these posts will stand as a record of my own research process, to be prodded at in the future, and examined afresh.

 

NB: By that same token, all of the photographic projects I have discussed were chosen because of the way they have pushed my own practice, and because I value their contribution to pushing the parameters of socially engaged photography. I have not explored Goldbers’s, Sothern’s or Fouhse and MacDonalds’s with the rigour that they deserve in this post (because of brevity, and because I am traveling and each of their well-thumbed books are homed in my study in Australia). I will endeavour to present a more finely detailed account of each of their projects more extensively here in the future. I beg thanks for their and your patience in the interim.

 

Notes:

  1. Winning 90.8 per cent of votes cast and carrying.
  2. Australian referendum, 1967 (Aboriginals). (n.d.). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved July 23, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_referendum,_1967_(Aboriginals)
  3. The 1967 Referendum; Important Facts and Interesting Pieces of Information. (2007). Retrieved from Reconciliation Australia website: http://oldsite.reconciliation.org.au/getfile?id=32&file=Referendum+Fact+Sheet.pdf
  4. A majority of the High Court of Australia later held (in the case of ‘Kartinyeri’) that despite the public sentiment surrounding the 1967 referendum being explicitly focused on equal recognition of indigenous rights, it did not affect the interpretation of the ‘race power’ in section 51(xxvi)—and as a result, it was held that there was no requirement that race power be exercised only for the benefit, but could also be used for the detriment of a race, provided such use does not constitute ‘manifest abuse’. Outrageously, the Australian constitution still includes a race power and a provision that allows states to exclude a race from voting. (Danielle Ireland-Piper, ‘Chapter 16: Responsible international citizenry in the Asian century – why failure to meet international obligations adversely affects Australia’s national interest’, in John Farrer, Mary Hiscock and Vai lo Lo (eds.), Australia’s Trade, Investment and Security in the Asian Century, (World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2014).
    Thanks are owed here to my friend Danielle Ireland-Piper who fact-checked this article for me, provided links and suggested amendments to bring my text in line with the actual legal ramifications of the referendum.
  5. Titz, T. (2010). Right to be Counted. Retrieved from http://tobiastitz.de/projects/
  6. MARNTI WARAJANGA – a walk together (Museum of Australian Democracy Learning Resource). (2010). Retrieved from Museum of Australian Democracy website: http://static.moadoph.gov.au/ophgovau/media/docs/learning/marnti-warajanga-resource-kit.pdf
  7. Titz, T. in Butler, E. (2010). Right to be Counted. Retrieved from http://tobiastitz.de/projects/righttobecounted/%20right%20to%20be%20counted%20catalogue.pdf
  8. Goldberg, J. (1985). Rich and poor: Photographs. New York: Random House.
  9. Goldberg, J., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, & Addison Gallery of American Art (1995). Raised by wolves (2nd ed.). P. Brookman (Ed.). Zurich: Scalo.
  10. Kennedy, R. (2014, July 24). This Is What Wealthy Looked Like Jim Goldberg Hopes His Pictures Still Make a Difference. The New York Times [New York]. Retrieved from http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/arts/design/jim-goldberg-hopes-his-pictures-still-make-a-difference.html?src=twr&_r=2&referrer=
  11. DePietro, T. (1986, March 30). A Touch of Two Classes. The New York Times [New York]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1986/03/30/books/a-touch-of-two-classes.html
  12. I teach an introductory visual communication subject at The University of Queensland in Australia. http://www.courses.uq.edu.au/student_section_loader.php?section=1&profileId=67083
  13. Isaacs, D. (2013), Handwriting. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 49: 609–610.
  14. Robinson, A. (2011). Giving Voice and Taking Pictures: Participatory Documentary and Visual Research. People Place and Policy Online, 5(3), 115–134. (p.18)
  15. E. Margolis, Arizona State University, Humanity & Society, Volume 20, Number 2, May 1996
  16. Ibid (p.100)
  17. Graham, D. in Bishop, C. (2006, 02). The Social Turn: Collaboration and its discontents. Artforum International., 44, 178-183.
  18. Wells, L. (2009). Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge. (p.77)
  19. Rosler, M. (2004). Post-documentary, post-photography? In Decoys and disruptions: selected writings, 1975-2001. Mexico: October Books. (p.219)
  20. Light, K. (2000). Witness in our time: Working lives of documentary photographers. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press. (p.6)
  21. Sothern, S. (2011). Lowlife. London, England: Stanley Barker.
  22. Fouhse, T., & MacDonald, S. (2012). Live Through This. Ottawa: Straylight Press.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Moakley, P. (2013, July 30). Live Through This: Documenting One Woman’s Struggle with Heroin – LightBox. Time. Retrieved from http://lightbox.time.com/2013/07/30/live-through-this-documenting-one-womans-struggle-with-heroin/#ixzz39kUmB5PU
  25. Finkelpearl, T. (2013). What we made: Conversations on art and social cooperation. (p.119)
  26. Santiago, S. (2000). Línea de 160 cm tatuada sobre 4 personas (160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People), El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo, Salamanca, Spain.
  27. Indeed item 7 on the National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics states: “Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.” NPPA Code of Ethics | NPPA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://nppa.org/code_of_ethics
  28. Kester, G. in Finkelpearl, T. (2013). What we made: Conversations on art and social cooperation. (p.119)
  29. Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. London: Verso Books.(p. 223)
  30. Sothern, S. (2013). Curb service: A memoir. New York: Soft Skull Press.(pp.240)
  31. Titz, T. in Butler, E. (2010). Right to be Counted. Retrieved from http://tobiastitz.de/projects/righttobecounted/%20right%20to%20be%20counted%20catalogue.pdf
  32. Turnbull, G. (2011). Red Light Dark Room: Sex, lives and stereotypes. St Kilda, Vic: G.Turnbull.
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