Monday, January 17, 2011

Who Sees (Portraits of) Homelessness?

There is no doubt that art allows us to address societal issues by providing a perspective that is often overlooked or simply ignored. Isolation & Togetherness at the Carnegie Arts Center is one such exhibition. The show includes a number of beautifully shot photographs, portraits of homeless individuals throughout Greater Cincinnati. The programming accompanying this exhibition include artwork by local artists dealing with definitions of home, awareness and advocacy for the homeless, and collecting non-perishables for Be Concerned. While events like this one are admirable ones, I wonder if such portrait exhibitions really work to draw the attention the artists hope.

In order to address my questions of social value of such exhibitions rather than aesthetics, I’ve asked Gregory Flannery to participate in a discussion with me. Here, I am less an art critic than a cultural or social theorist interested in learning more about how we look or don’t look at our communities and define our notions of home and homelessness.

Gregory Flannery has worked in local journalism in Greater Cincinnati for 30 years. He is the former news editor at CityBeat and the former editor of Streetvibes, published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. His work exposed illegal wiretapping by the Cincinnati Police Department and led to the successful prosecution of three Catholic priests for sexually abusing children. Among the awards he has received is "Best Feature Story," from the International Network of Street Papers in 2009.

1. Greg, first I want to thank you for engaging in this conversation with me. I wanted to start by saying the portraits are very nice. They add monumentality to each of the individuals and even a dignity that is not often associated with homelessness. Each photograph captures well the individuality of the subject, the person. As such, the photos avoid presenting homelessness as a simple or single definition. These photographs and those like them reveal a various images of homelessness. Would you agree this is the ultimate goal of such exhibitions?

Capturing the individuality of the subjects and avoiding presenting homelessness as a monolith are goals that I support. It’s also worth noting that the opening reception was a benefit for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, and visitors were encouraged to donate food.
This matter of dignity is interesting to me in that homeless people live such undignified lives, exposed to public view, denied privacy, prosecuted for doing in public things that people do everyday indoors (drinking alcohol, evacuating bodily waste, sleeping). Is dignity inherent in humanity, or is it a cultural construct? Should one be embarrassed (i.e., feel undignified) for sleeping on a park bench? Should one feel proud for being able to endure? Do mental illness and addiction, which often attend homelessness, diminish dignity?

2. There are a number of local art events like this one that devote time to the subject of homelessness. Do you see the visual arts being particularly effective in drawing attention to homelessness? Are there events or projects you would like to see sponsored here? Are there programs in other cities you see working or healthier dialogs we could engage in here?

I am working on a project that involves documenting conditions in homeless camps in Cincinnati over the course of a year. The project is somewhat controversial among social workers who serve homeless people because they fear that our work will either ennoble homelessness, lead to hate crimes against people living outdoors or lead well-meaning persons to provide assistance (food, water, blankets) to people living outdoors, thereby enabling them to stay outside longer, instead of accepting help in obtaining treatment and housing.
I think the visual arts are effective in drawing attention to the issue of homelessness; but the larger issue is how accurately the photographs capture the essence of homelessness, which is, of course, a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. The goal of imputing dignity, for example, runs the risk of prettying up a condition rife with hazard, disease, isolation and deprivation.

3. While visiting the show and recognizing the beauty of the each of the photographs, I was still concerned as to how this helps the viewer rethink homelessness? In other words, while the photographs are beautiful, how does this show or help us to be aware of see homelessness?

I don’t think the photographs by themselves can accomplish either of these things. Beauty has no place in the daily lives of most homeless people, whose daily routine is defined at best by the struggle for sustenance and at worst by the desire to escape through substance abuse.

4. One of my favorite film quotes comes from Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King. The scene takes place in New York’s Grand Central Station. The character played by Jeff Bridges is speaking with a homeless Vietnam Veteran when someone in the crowd tosses a quarter only to miss the homeless man’s cup. Jeff Bridges’ character says, “He didn’t even look at you.” The homeless veteran responds, “He pays so he doesn’t have to look.”
Do photo exhibitions like the one at The Carnegie really bridge this disconnect or simply accept this tendency to ignore the issue as an ill of humanity hoping to capture a single moment or attract at least one more advocate for the homeless?

We tend to fear that which we don’t know. I think there is value in capturing the individuality of homeless people but I’m skeptical that this does much to change other people’s behavior toward them. If some of the homeless people whose portraits are in the exhibit were present to tell their stories to visitors, that would more likely humanize them to the public at large and perhaps motivate people to interact with them in meaningful ways.

5. One would think the visual arts would be a perfect medium to draw attention to our homeless population. Though while the photographs are beautiful, I cannot help but to recognize the gallery as a safe place to address images of homelessness. In the gallery, visitors can view the photographs while enjoying a glass of wine, food, music, friends, and then maybe stop somewhere for dinner before heading home. I suppose my greatest concern is the possibility these exhibitions permit us NOT to see homelessness. Do these photographs shield our eyes? Do they permit us to look so we don’t have to see?

I think you nicely summarize the limitations of this kind of exhibit. The artist’s stated purpose is telling: “The purpose behind making these images was to illustrate the humanity of these individuals, as well as to provide an opportunity for the observer to gaze upon those who are often rendered invisible in plain sight.”
The problem, of course, is that homeless people aren’t invisible at all; the opportunity to “gaze upon” them is manifold, but we are unwilling. We avert our eyes precisely because what we see is not beautiful, not dignified. Homeless people are poorly dressed, have unpleasant odors, are gap-toothed, ask us for money and often display the disturbing effects of mental illness: These are not the kinds of characteristics that make “normal” people want to engage with them. Yes, putting their photos in a gallery makes it safe to look and perhaps to feel compassion from a distance. At best, that makes the viewer feel a certain self-satisfaction, but it does nothing to help the people who are the subjects of the exhibit. If the subjects were cancer or AIDS patients, would viewers be inclined to go out and do something to help? Unlikely. If the subjects were children orphaned by war, would viewers rally to cut the defense budget? I think instead what this exhibition does is make people feel a kind of detached sympathy that ultimately produces no practical change in their behavior.
Art for its own sake is a worthwhile pursuit but it isn’t usually a tool for changes in public policy.


Anonymous said...

Exceptional interview. Thanks for writing it.

Roderick Vesper said...

I think it would have been interesting to get the artist's perspective on this discussion. I have a hard time imagining that he feels that the best this work can do is give some sort of self-satisfaction to the viewer.

I teach photography in a local high school and the kids get really excited when I expose them to the work of James Nachtwey and other "social documentary" photographers. Every year I have students who leave the comfort of their suburban neighborhood and go downtown to photograph the homeless. Every year they say they want others to see it in the hopes that someone takes some sort of action.

Maybe I'm missing the point here, but this interview seems to dismiss this hopefulness from the artist's work in a way that demonstrates a certain cynicism about both the art world and society in general. Perhaps this artist hopes for something to actually happen in response to his work. Perhaps the artist believes, as I do, that a culture that is continually brought to an "awareness" through the local arts community will slowly begin to change fundamentally in their understanding of society, culture, philosophy, etc.

While I am taking issue with some things that are being stated here, I must say that it is a great discussion to be having. Thank you for sparking the dialogue.

Me said...

I think you are absolutely correct.

In fact, the exhibition includes an artist statement explaining exactly what you say here....a hopefulness. This is why I didn't invite the artist into this discussion.

I honestly believe documentary photographers, like your students hope their work will call people to action. I try with this discussion to start from this premise...we hope this works....we hope others will see what we see and act.

The discussion is meant to help determine the effectiveness of these photography exhibits.

You bring up an interesting point about your students leading me to wonder if these projects are designed top help the photographer see rather than the viewer.

What do you think?

Roderick Vesper said...

Absolutely, it is about the photographer seeing. As an artist I often try to tackle larger issues that I hope will cause my viewer to reconsider their current attitudes or understandings. However, I do that by exploring things that are deeply personal to me. If I don't, how can I make an authentic and engaging body of work?

For example; I am currently working on a project that looks at the concept of eminent domain. I didn't choose to do this in an effort to bring about some sort of social change. I chose to do this because I was driving around one day and was intrigued by the ubiquitous nature of "Lots for Sale" signs on properties that were now sitting empty for extended periods of time due to the housing crisis. I wanted to understand the histories of those places, what had been erased, dismantled in the hopes of increasing value or commerce in that area? So I turned to a personal instance where my father is in negotiations around a road being built through his farm.

I am exploring this through art in an attempt to understand the complex dynamics in these situations and to catalogue histories that I see being lost in our rapidly moving age. There is a great feeling of satisfaction in discovering something new about the world and my desire is to share some of that discovery with others in a hope that they may have some sort of vicarious experience through the work.

I think that many, if not most, photographers have chosen their medium because it is about ways of seeing. They challenge themselves to see things differently, and in turn hope to challenge their viewers to do the same.

Me said...

I think this is exactly why I love photography. The medium seems to be much more inviting to consider issues such as homelessness and eminent domain.

Like you, I do hope viewers will stop and really see things the artist reveals.

I just saw (and perhaps you have seen it too) a documentary photography project in the NY Times. Rather than looking at the homeless, the photographer shot portraits of those who hold jobs.

The portraits are presented with audio interviews. I've not see or heard all of them, but suspect the added interview enlists further engagement with the images....the issues at hand.

Perhaps then the question is not on the success of the images or the hope of the artists, but what seems to be a growing need for additional information (video, text, audio).

Does this point to a weakness in photography, the photographer, the curator, or the audience's attention? If it is the latter, what do we do?

Roderick Vesper said...

As an artist who shifted from calling himself a photographer to visual artist, I am quite familiar with the battle, most often internal, over photography's effectiveness as an isolated medium. My shifting into installation came from questioning if photography was enough. While I now focus on video and sculptural installations, it is because I found a love for working with those materials, not because of a conclusion that photography was somehow failing. On the contrary, I believe very much in the power of the photograph.

I don't think that the current obsession with using sound, video etc., is a sign of the weakness of photography. Photography is what it is, it has changed very little in its essence since it William Henry Fox Talbot first created a negative/positive printing process. Cameras are still dark "rooms" with a hole that light passes through. What has changed is how we use this mechanical device. (John Szarkowski talks about this quite effectively in his introduction to "The Photographer's Eye".)

And now that is coming into play with video and audio as the technical resources for this method become more affordable and accessible. So, I think it depends on who is using them. There are artists who use sound and video as a tool to create more engaging work, as well as work that appeals to our TV culture. But there are artists who use it as a crutch, who aren't confident in the power of their images to properly develop their message. But this is not unique to this age, or these materials.

If we are going to discuss the role of the audience, I'm going to take a different position. I would argue that work that engages sound and video actually creates a distance for the casual art viewer. They can comprehend that painting, sculpture, photography are art forms. These new media pieces are the ones you hear people challenging more. I would also argue that we can't worry about the audience too much. Yes, we want them to see the work and get something from it, but we have to choose the forms that we think are engaging and hope that the passion that is brought to the process translates into the viewer's experience.

I feel like I'm bouncing around to the point of becoming incoherent, so I will just stop there. This is obviously something that could be discussed at book-like lengths.