ON PHOTOGRAPHY: SUSAN SONTAG, EDWARD S. CURTIS, AND THE ETHICS OF REPRESENTATION

Now that we’ve discussed Susan Sontag’s chapter from On Photography, let’s look at the work of  two photographers to analyze the social constructions of power that lie behind the image, behind art and representation –  i.e., what it is to be the one looking versus the one being looked at. This is integral to conversations about the ethics of how we represent a person, or a population. In both of the following projects, the photographers were outsiders going in to photograph disadvantaged populations.

EDWARD S. CURTIS: REPRESENTING NATIVE AMERICA

Edward S. Curtis (February 16, 1868 – October 19, 1952) is a controversial photographer who worked at the beginning of the 20th century to document Native American people and cultures. In 1906, J.P Morgan paid Curtis $3,000 to produce a series of photographs on the North American Indian. All in all, he took some 40,ooo photographs of 80 different tribes. While his photographs were largely responsible for shaping the way Americans came to think of American Indians – including the belief that Native cultures were disappearing/extinct – his documentary practices have been criticized as unethical. Many, however, still see his work as culturally and historically important.

View some of Curtis’s famous photographs.

Watch a clip from the documentary Coming to Light on Curtis’s work:

ONE BIG SELF: ART AS ACTIVISM

Photographer Deborah Luster and poet C.D. Wright collaborated on the project One Big Self: An Investigation as a critique of the U.S. penal system. Wright was motivated by the idea that “art is not apart, but a part of,” that poetry is not isolated from social discourse. Luster wanted to make the “invisible population” of those incarcerated in Louisiana prisons visible to the outside world.

Project Background

“Louisiana incarcerates more of its population than any other state in the Union.  The United States incarcerates more of its population than any other country in the free world.”       -Deborah Luster

 The Prisons

East Carroll Parish Prison Farm, Transylvania: built in 1935; a minimum-security parish facility; houses app. 200 men with short terms for parole violation and drug possession.

 Louisiana Correctional Inst. for Women, St. Gabriel: a minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security facility housing about 1,000 women, most serving out sentences due to drug violations; Luster stated that St. Gabriel “more closely resembles a campus than a prison. The grounds are immaculate, and elaborate hand-made decorations are rotated throughout the year to acknowledge the changing season’s celebrations.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola:a maximum-security facility built on 18,000 acres of Delta farmland that was once used as a slave-breeding farm; the facility houses over 5,000 men: 87% of the inmates are violent offenders, and 88% of those incarcerated at Angola will die there.

Collaborative Representation

Luster let the inmates who volunteered to be photographed decide how they wanted to represent themselves; she did not pose them, but let them pose themselves. Some dressed in their prison rodeo outfits while others donned the costumes they wore for their prison’s Easter, Halloween, or Mardi Gras events.  Others showed off tattoos or held photographs or signs. Each inmate who participated received several wallet-size prints to send to family or friends outside.

View Luster’s One Big Self exhibit at Tulane:

 

View Luster’s photographs from One Big Self.

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