Something that struck me this week in looking at Sebastião Salgado’s work, is the idea of having to choose between aesthetics and method, and between aesthetics and the integrity of the message being conveyed. Can an image be “too beautiful” to convey a message?
There seems to be this idea that images can’t be beautiful, or aesthetically pleasing, in order to affect change (social, environmental, political, etc.)
Sischy’s 1991 article[i] condemning Salgado’s work claims he is “too busy with the compositional aspects of his pictures – with finding the “grace” and “beauty” in the twisted forms of his anguished subjects” (Sischy 1991) and that this anesthetizes the viewer to the horrors being shown in the image.
I disagree with this – I think the beauty in his images elevates the subjects from the condescending Western view of the poor impoverished natives that need charity, to allow them to be viewed on a more equal footing to the (likely) more affluent Western viewer. Sischy’s overall criticising of Salgado’s work, in my opinion, is mostly to do with how his photographs are interpreted by the viewers. She herself comments on the “disparity” between the “intentions and results” of his work. But the results, how the viewers read his images, very much depends on the individual viewer. Sischy makes multiple, disparaging, references to the Judeo-Christian religious overtones in his images. However I am not of the Judeo-Christian belief and my initial thoughts about Salgado’s images are not of religious iconography or similarities. My background and upbringing don’t instantly lead me to think his images are attempting to be comparable to religious imagery.
I look at Salgado’s work and I am struck by the beauty of his images, like many people. But the beauty of them makes me look at them longer, it makes me really interrogate the subject matter being shown. I look at the work, at the people in his photographs, and I don’t see them as charity cases that only illicit feelings of pity, or worse – superiority. But the beauty of his work makes me see the people as contemporaries, in a terrible situation, that need aid and resolution. With “harder-hitting” photographs, those with so-called “shock-value”, I personally am more likely to turn away than really look at the image, as I would feel it is gratuitous and patronising. However, again this is due to my background, my upbringing, my personality. To blanketly say that Salgado’s work does a disservice to the subject’s because of how the images COULD be read, doesn’t take into account the many different people and their own individual minds and how they MIGHT interpret and react to his work.
It cannot be expected that the photographer can, or should, be responsible for controlling every single person’s responses to their work. I think every photographer has a responsibility to their subject, but it is not necessarily possible to be fully aware of how that is realised by the photographer (e.g. whether that responsibility is felt by the photographer to be reportage or straight documentary photography, or whether it is felt to be capturing beauty in a more aesthetically pleasing style of photography). How those images are later interpreted by the viewer cannot always be predicted. Some, like Sischy, may look at Salgado’s work and dismiss it as too beautiful to affect change. Others, like me, may see it as inspiration for the change that needs to be made. People are different and just because some respond more effectively to “beautiful” images over “gritty” images, doesn’t mean there isn’t a place, or a market, for both.
In my own practice, I am trying to show who female UK surfers are. For me personally, I feel the way I can do this, in terms of who I am, is to show a form of beauty in who these surfers are. I don’t think it would be respectful to my subjects to take “gritty” pictures just to communicate who female surfers are, and I don’t think it would be reflective of who they are either. The women I have met through this project are beautiful women, inside and out, and that is something I want to show. I don’t feel that the only work that can be considered good work are the gritty images. Images can show something authentic whilst still be considered aesthetically pleasing. On the other hand, I feel I need to be careful to not create work that is “beautiful” at the sacrifice of images that show something authentic, even if it is a bit “gritty”.
Joni Sternbach’s “Surf Site Tin Type”[ii] images of surfers I feel are very beautiful, with their very retro vintage feel, but don’t necessarily show who the surfers are, or what their lives are like, with complete authenticity. For example this image, whilst lovely, doesn’t really communicate anything about the subjects of the photograph:
Whereas photographs by someone like Richard Sandler I would consider not as aesthetically beautiful as Sternbach’s, and are more on the “gritty” side of the spectrum:
For me the grittiness of Sandler’s photographs matched the New York streets in which they were taken, and Sternbach’s allude with the natural beauty of the beach and ocean. For my work I feel I need to find a balance between these two areas – the beauty of the natural world and the women in my project, and the “grittier” aspect of surfing in the UK, where there aren’t palm trees and tropical weather, in order to show the more authentic reality of what it means to be a female UK surfer. Patrick Trefz’s work Surfers’ Blood[iii], for me, balances the beautiful imagery with more documentary style photographs, as well as combining a variety of images, for example action photographs, portraits, and landscapes. These combined present a more rounded insight into the lives of some surfers.
I hope, as a creator, that viewers of my work see the message that I am trying to communicate. Although as above, I cannot control how everybody will react to it and how their lives and experiences, will influence their reading of my work.
I can use the method of sharing my work as a way to guide how I am intending the photographs to be read. For example a gallery display or photo book implies the work has a certain status, over only being printed in a magazine or only being shown online, for example. The latter two methods imply the photographs are transient, whereas the first two imply longevity and a permanence of value. Of course this would not prevent anyone from reading the work in a negative way, but would perhaps help a viewer to understand what I am trying to create and communicate.