Further thoughts on “The Ethics of Aesthetics”
When reading Jose’s initial post, I was slightly bothered but not able to put my finger on why. Later I realised it was the title of the piece that was bothering me. Given the arguments for and against the relative successes of Rankin and Chaskielsberg, wouldn’t “The Aesthetics of Ethics” make more sense? The piece does not deal with any aspect of morality for either photographer’s project – just their relative successes in purely artistic terms.
That both are staged is perfectly obvious; we accept both on their terms because there is no intention on the part of either photographer to deceive us into thinking these are genuine views into the life of these people. Chaskielsberg’s moonlit images may seem more deliberately ‘art’ than Rankin’s simple portraits holding their daily food in front of them, but both work in their intentions in that we notice them. Both projects are intended to reinforce the ideals of Oxfam but it is arguable that Chaskielsberg succeeds more than Rankin here. It is just about conceivable that the Turkana people might live mostly at night, but Chaskielsberg does not intend us to believe that. However the images do demonstrate a community that seems largely self-sufficient (with some help), both confident and forward-looking. A post from Oxfam America describes how the resulting work was not universally well received by Oxfam, and that the images were ‘too beautiful’ and paid too little attention to the hunger suffering of the people.
Rankin’s images deliberately play up to the idea of subject as victim; the poses of those people holding their daily food are intentionally reminiscent of begging bowls. Rankin is far too smart to leave it at that though, and counterpoints these with images – mainly taken from a low position – showing other members of the group as much stronger and more capable.
Although Susan Sontag is mostly discussing images of conflict, some of what she says is relevant here. Referring to the impact these photographs have on viewers she says “If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do – but who is that ‘we’ – and nothing ‘they’ can do either – and who are ‘they’ – then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic”(Sontag,2004:89). Images that just show hunger and starvation will have less of an impact on the intended target (potential Oxfam donors) than those that offer at least a degree of optimism. Chaskielsberg’s photographs may be slightly gimmicky but they do show the Turkana as resourceful and able to stand on their feet – just in need of a leg-up, a means of getting started. Rankin’s counterpoint approach is less overtly ‘art’ but produces the same effect; a description of a group in need of help but not helpless.
Kramer, A. (s.d.) Alejandro Chaskielberg’s moonlight photos: Too beautiful?. At: https://firstperson.oxfamamerica.org/alejandro-chaskielbergs-moonlight-photos-too-beautiful/ (Accessed 15/09/2020).
Sontag, S. (2004) Regarding the Pain of Others. (s.l.): Penguin.