In an article called Capitalist Realism or Poverty Porn?, Jason Huettner discusses the work of Shelby Lee Adams. The body of work in question has been debated many times, and as far as I know no consensus been reached, yet. I thought I’d throw a curve ball into the debate: That whole hand-wringing about “mythologizing,” the (supposed) “branding effect that exploits the poverty of others for profit” - do we see these kinds of commentary about similar photo projects about rich people? After all, anyone can be exploited, right? And if you look at, for example, Martin Parr’s photographs of rich Russian - isn’t that also “mythologizing”? (more)
What I’m trying to get at here is that for the debate abound Shelby Lee Adams to make sense, we have to be able to apply large parts of it to photographs of people who occupy the complete opposite spectrum of wealth.
Unless… Unless the problem is not really the “mythologizing” or the “exploitation” or whatever other aspect of photography we’re having trouble coming to terms with. Let’s face it, it’s a very obvious statement to say that photography exploits its subjects - but making that statement does not automatically lead to any insight. It’s almost like saying that if you print out a photograph it will be a flat piece of paper. Any real insight can only be gained by taking matters further, by exploring that exploitation, by questioning it, etc.
Staying on the surface won’t solve anything. And the fact that we’re seeing objections to photographs of poor people, while we’re happy to ogle at rich people, might just indicate that the real problem is not necessarily a photography one.
What I mean to say here is not that the people in Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs might not suffer from hardships that are unknown to the rich people Martin Parr loves to photograph. That’s not my point.
Instead I think it would help us a bit to realize that our hand-wringing about these photographs ultimately won’t have any consequences - unless we spring into some sort of actual action. Telling Shelby Lee Adams to lay off obviously isn’t going to help anyone but ourselves: It is us who can then feel better - no more photographs of poor people to look at. No more guilt - while the people depicted in his photographs continue to live in poverty. Is that what we want?