Seeing without context, looking at the powerless with impact

I was sitting a Macbeth Way Community Centre, we were in a medium sized room with a high ceiling and highly-polished white-tiled floors that continuously bounced sound from one hard surface to another, no matter how many people were in the room. It was a TAFE outreach class on governance being taught in the middle of a public housing estate in Rosemeadow, a suburb of South-Western Sydney.

A group of women from Macquarie Fields and Claymore were talking about a program that ABC’s Four Corners  produced about the social housing estate in Claymore. The women were talking about how it is hard enough to come from Government housing estates and how much harder media coverage like the Four Corners program ‘Growing Up Poor’, made it for residents of the estates covered to find employment due to existing stigmas being confirmed and sensationalised. They felt by robbing them of their humanity and context the program left them to be judged as object. The residents of Claymore in my class continued, speaking of the invasive journalists who would hang out on their streets or around the shops trying to get residents to speak with them. “I wouldn’t talk to ’em,” one lady said, “I know what they want.” She’s speaking about a the portrayal of marginality that seems to be the lens through which we view poverty, the framing that forms the dominant discourse by which we discuss poverty and powerlessness.

So as public communicators, the subjectivity, lack of context and possible impacts of using the visual medium need to be explored to be employed responsibly and without undue negative impact on the subjects of the image. The image itself does not exist in a vacuum, and despite the intention of the photographer, journalist or film maker there is a world that exists before during and after the image is taken and then publicised. By using the work of Gordon Parks, a photographer, writer, poet and composer, who gained fame by photographing what he saw around him, poverty and the struggle for civil rights, we can look at this case and its impact.

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American Gothic photographed by Gordon Parks (c) 1941, Woman pictured is Ella Watson
Firstly let me just state that I do not wish to ignore that this discussion could easily be about the aestheticisation of poverty as Gordon Parks’ photographs are indeed beautiful. But here for this post I consciously chose to look at the experience of the individual, the intention and possible impacts on the practitioner, subjects and audience.

Gordon Parks was an African-American photographer who was born in 1912 and died in 2006. Parks was a black man in America. Born in Kansas and raised in Minnesota, he never finished school, worked as a waiter on the railway, in road gangs and many other forms of employment. Unable to afford education he did what he could. Inspired by photographs of the bombing of the “Panay” he saved up his money and bought a camera for seven dollars; it came with two rolls of film. He wanted to shoot fashion, which he did, but some of his most notable work came from the world directly around him, “the photographs that I made there [Chicago], aside from fashion, were the thing that I was trying to express in a social conscious way. I’d become sort of involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they be, whether they be Indians, or Negroes, the poor white person or anyone who was I thought more or less getting a bad shake. I, you know, thought I had the instinct toward championing the cause. I don’t know where it came from but… Possibly the cause was my own early poverty.” Parks (1964)

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LIFE Magazine 1961 (c)  Photographed by Gordon Parks
In 1961 LIFE magazine sent Parks to Rio de Janeiro to create a story focused on poverty in Latin America. To accomplish this Parks focused the photo essay on the family of Jose and Nair da Silva and their eight children.

LIFE showed its readers a frightening, brutal world where the da Silva children — and, by implication, countless others like them — spent their day “penned in their shack [built of tin cans and broken orange crates] or roaming the foul pathways of the favela where the filth of the inhabitants is tossed out to rot.” TIME LIFE (2012)

There’s an unromantic version here that LIFE magazine doesn’t speak about. But, Parks says in his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, “The detailed Life assignment in my back pocket was to find an impoverished father with a family, to examine his earnings, political leanings, religion, friends, dramas and his frustrations.” Parks (1990) So that’s what he did. In the same autobiography he explains his own motivations for wanting the assignment,

“I’ve never lost my fierce grudge against poverty. It is the most savage of all human afflictions, claiming victims who can’t mobilize their efforts against it, who often lack strength to digest what little food they scrounge up to survive. It keeps growing, multiplying, spreading like a cancer. In my wanderings I attack it wherever I can—in barios, slums and favelas.” Parks (1990)

Parks, sees himself as self-determining through exposing the ugly face of poverty. There is a conversation to be had though that in order to be allowed to photograph these topics in a way that he would be published, the subjects had to be shown through the lens of disgust and powerlessness. That by imposing himself on the de Silva family (the subject of the LIFE article), that he too was exploiting this family’s powerlessness, “José, the father, viewed us with skepticism. Nair, his pregnant wife, seemed beyond tired beyond speaking. Hardly acknowledging our presence… Later, when we got down to the difficult business of obtaining permission from José da Silva to photograph his family, he hemmed and hawed, wallowing in the pleasant authority of the decision maker. He finally gave in, but his manner told us that he expected something in return.” Parks (1990)

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Life Magazine 1961
Parks goes on to create a relationship with the then twelve-year-old Flavio who is the eldest boy and a parental figure in the de Silva family. Flavio makes a sympathetic figure in the western press and is consequently ‘helped’. Brought to America to be cured of tuberculosis with the assistance of President Kennedy and the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver. The Life cover and article demonstrates how poverty has a value that makes the audience feel good about themselves in a way that is public and self congratulatory, “The Compassion of the Americans Brings a New Life for Favio” the article was titled. Parks made a film about Favio, writes and sponsors the boy in a way that was sustained throughout Parks’ life.

 

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Life Magazine 1961 (c)
In an excerpt from the HBO documentary Half Past Autum: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks Parks returns to visit Flavio, who is now in his fifties with a family of his own. Everyone there is visibly moved, “Gordon Parks is really something that happened in my life and my brothers and sisters’ life, and my mother’s ” says Flavio, “it’s something important, it’s an act of a father. We kept in contact by writing letters and thinking in our minds, in his there and me here, it’s the way you keep in contact, just not forget the person.” Towards the end of that section of the documentary, Parks reflects on the real impact that their interaction had on Flavio:

“Age had fallen hard on Flavio da Silva’s head, neither time nor goodwill had overcome the poverty that still stalked him. The house was in shambles. Life‘s cover had portrayed Flavio smiling his thanks to those who saved him, but now it was clear that in molding human lives money alone was not enough.” Parks (1999)

This quote realises for Parks that after a life spent photographing, filming and writing about the plight of the poor, he realises that poverty is a problem that is bigger than money, it is a social problem not to be solved by publicity portraying them as victims, marginalised citizens and/or the powerless other.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics in 1960 the population of the favelas were 337 412, in the year 2000 it had risen to just over a million.

Maria Perlman is an anthropoligist who has spent her life studying the idea of the marginal community and the links between the social systems that support the existence of the myth of the other and the reasons for its existence. In The myth of marginality:urban poverty and politics in Rio de Janeiro, Perlman connects sustaining the the current ideology around ‘marginal’ communities as functionally convenient for the dominant political system. Her longitudinal research of the favela’s of Brasil points out many causal indicators for their existence that were never dealt with through looking at Life’s expose on poverty in Latin America.

The portrayal of the Savio’s and other residents of the favelas as ‘other’is problematic

Perlman writes, “My conclusion was that the favelados are not marginal, but inexorably integrated into society, albeit in a manner detrimental to their own interests. They are not separate from or on the margins of the system, but are tightly bound into it in a severely asymmetrical form.”

In Parks’ coverage of the Savio family the father was painted as a type of a villain, blaming him in a way for his family’s situation and standing in the way of Flavio being adopted in America and having a ‘better life’.

Perlman writes, “The ideology of marginality, with its moralistic “blaming the victim” narrative has persisted,” she goes on to explain how this ideology serves the dominant culture.

The coverage in the LIFE magazine article did not investigate the significant societal factors that led to the poor of Brazil in the 60’s and 70’s not being able to overcome their social and economic distress which were:

  1. the dramatic loss of manufacturing in the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan area, which left thousands of blue collar workers unemployed;

  2. the consolidation of the physical space of the city and consequent reduction in construction jobs (which had been a mainstay for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the boom of the 60s and 70s); Perlman (2005)

Perlman also lists: a downturn in domestic employment due to the financial insecurity of the middle-class; technological advances replacing jobs; higher education standards for job entry; increase in drug violence; and the stigma of living in a favela as a barrier to employment.

No person or society is an island, so it seems irresponsible to the subject to portray them as such. There is a direct correlation between portrayal and public opinion, “portrayals of poverty are important because they have an impact on public opinion.” says Rosalee Clawson and Rakuya Trice in a research study called Poverty as we know it:Media portrayals of the poor,

“In turn, public opinion has an impact on public policy (Page and Shapiro 1983). Thus, if attitudes on poverty-related issues are driven by inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals of the poor, then the policies favored by the public (and political elites) may not adequately address the true problems of poverty.” Clawson & Trice (2000, p. 61) “Graber’s research on television suggest that themes are more memorable than verbal information (Graber 1990, 1991) Although news magazines are a very different medium than television, it is certainly possible that magazine photos capture the audience’s attention in the same way as television visuals. Psychological research suggests that vivid images of particular cases are more memorable and influential than dry statistical data (Fischhoff and Bar-Hillel 1984) a finding that is confirmed in the quantitative study Watchdog, voyeur or censure? An eye-tracking research study of graphic photographs in the news media which investigates peoples beliefs about American intervention in foreign countries after exposing research subjects to selected graphic images. Dahmen (2015)

This discussion is in no way meant to be exhaustive and there is no blanket way to control where, how and which images are released. But, a concerted effort by employers, educators and individuals to be aware of the real impacts that any information, specifically regarding the powerless has to impact lives that have very little recourse to fight. As shown by relating the Perlman article to the Life Magazine story, it would have been more socially responsible to educate their readers on the context around the images, possibly by showing through the images why the poverty existed in that place, rather than adhering to existing stereotypes of the filthy dirty poor, who are just there.

The Life article did encourage giving aid to South-America for a time, but it did not cure the employment, education, housing, drug or social stigma problems as they still exist is Rio de Janeiro today.

 

References:

Clawson, RA & Trice, T 2000, ‘Poverty as we know it: Media portrayals of the poor’, Public Opinion Quarterly, vol.64, no.1, pp.53-64

Cosgrove, B  2012, ‘A fierce and tender Eye: Gordon Parks on poverty’s dire toll’, Time Life, 29 November, viewed 28 March 2017, <http://time.com/3875106/gordon-parks-classic-photo-essay-flavio/>

Dahmen, NS 2015, ‘Watchdog, voyeur, or censure? An eye-tracking research study of graphic photographs in the news media’, Journalism Practice, vol.9, no.3, pp.418-432

Doud, R 2016, ‘Gordon Parks 1964: Oral History Interview’, Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.9, no.10, pp.317-333

Parks, G 1990, Voices in the Mirror: An autobiography, University of Michigan, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990

Perlman, JE 2006, ‘The Metamorphosis of Marginality: Four generations in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 606, no.1, pp.154-177

Perlman, JE 1976, The myth of marginality: urban poverty and politics in Rio de Janeiro, Berkley, University of California Press, 1976

Rice, CL [dir] 2000, Half Past Autumn: The life and works of Gordon Parks, television documentary, HBO, 30 November

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