Who Can Represent You?

When others speak on behalf of your history and heritage

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Image for post
‘Migrant Mother’, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936. Source Wikipedia

It matters that the image is of a woman with her children. It matters that the children hide their faces but the mother gazes outwards. The way her right hand pinches at her cheek, that matters too. As a photograph, I would like to say that it’s beautiful, but it is problematic to do so. Why?

The photo was taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936 in Nipomo, California. The woman depicted is Florence Owens Thompson, with her children on each shoulder. In 1960, Lange gave this account of the image:

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

The problem that we have to deal with is this question of equality. Lange says “There was a sort of equality about it,” but many commentators think otherwise.

They argue that the image was precisely a result of inequality. Lange orchestrated the image, emphasising the motifs of grubby clothing, stark wooden cabins, far-away look in the eyes and bare-footed children. She gives us an overall ambience of muteness, loneliness and destitution. Florence Owens Thompson later contested the account of how the photograph was taken.

For these reasons, the image is manipulative, and if I call it beautiful then I am letting myself be manipulated.

I’ve been looking at images. Photos, paintings, old and new. This essay is about such representations, who is allowed to make them, whose voice is legitimate, and where the barriers are drawn so that we know when someone has transgressed.

Here is a story with no victims:

One of my pastimes is painting. Earlier this week, I picked out an old canvas from the attic, a painting I made around ten or eleven years ago, and on a whim I began to rework it.

I was partway through this activity, incautiously splashing on new layers of paint, when I suddenly began to regret what I was doing. This old painting had taken me many weeks to paint in the first place, and I suddenly felt sorry for my younger self: all the effort I put into it years ago, I felt was somehow being dishonoured.

I’ve started now, I thought. The only thing for it was to make a better painting and do justice to the effort I put into it years before.

The painting belonged to me. It was my own heritage — if I can use such a loaded term — to use and re-use. But how easy is it to use and re-use someone else’s heritage?

Here is a story with at least two victims:

An ancestor of mine had a miserable time. I know this because my mother is a keen genealogist and has found all sorts of fascinating, and also sorrowful, details about our family history.

This particular ancestor, as a young man who was born in the first half of the 19th century, was engaged to be married to a woman who worked as a cook in a large, aristocratic household. ‘In service’ as they used to say. For a reason that history has kept hidden from us, someone held a vendetta against this young woman, evidence of which began to appear in for the form of anonymous letters sent to her employer. The letters made all sorts of allegations about the girl’s conduct, about her walking the night time streets and acting “like a common prostitute”. The young cook was so ashamed of these slanderous accusations that, a few days later, on a cold February day, she went out dressed in a bonnet and cloak, and drowned herself in the local river. Her fiancé was devastated.

Here is my question: Is it wrong for me to retell this story, to add my slant to it, and to put it in front of your eyes? As with all stories — all representations — some details have been omitted and others emphasised. It may be a facet of my own family history I am recounting, but the events themselves occurred a long time before I was born and have no direct relation to me. The subject matter is not mine. Do you think I have crossed a line?

As a painter, I regularly represent things that don’t belong to me. I try to make a point of using my eyes first and foremost; that is, I try not to intellectualise to heavily about what I choose to paint.

It’s for this reason that I had some sympathy for Dana Schutz, who courted considerably controversy two years ago when she publicly exhibited her painting Open Casket, an artwork that depicted the body of Emmett Till, a young African-American murdered in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of 14. Till was the victim of a horrendous lynching after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, decided to have an open-casket funeral so that all the world could see what the murderers had done to her son. It is on a photograph of the open casket that Schutz’s painting is based.

Schutz, being a white artist, was thought by some to have transgressed into a territory she had no right to enter. I think there can be no doubt that she made a compassionate painting, but her white skin was a problem.

In protest to the display of this painting at the Whitney Biennial, the artist Parker Bright stood in front of the painting wearing a t-shirt with the words “Black Death Spectacle” penned across the back. One Instagram user summed up the overall backlash: “The world doesn’t need a white perspective on Emmett Till. This should have been obvious.”

I was interested to read the assortment of positions taken up by commentators following these events.

In support of Parker Bright, the British artist Hannah Black wrote an open letter to the Whitney Museum that went viral. The letter accussed Schutz of having “nothing to say to the black community about black trauma”, and asking that the work “be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum”.

“[…] Non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s.” – Hannah Black

Commenting on the episode, the African-American artist Kara Walker pointed out that “the history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don’t necessarily belong to the artists own life.”

In response to Black’s letter, the British writer Zadie Smith questioned to right of anybody to claim an imperative relationship to another person’s suffering based on race: “When arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated that antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity. Is Hannah Black black enough to write this letter? Are my children too white to engage with black suffering? How black is black enough? Does an “octoroon” still count?”

Clearly there is an ethical question at stake here, one that pivots on issues of ownership and the license to assert that ownership, but exactly where the line might be drawn remained unclear to me.

There are few social-documentary photographs more well known, nor more heavily plundered for significance, than those of rural America from the era of the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, shown at the top of the page, is perhaps the most well-known. Other images include shots of sharecroppers, cotton pickers and economic refugees from the deep-south. They are photographs that have become part of a sort of American folklore, a complex heritage that has engaged sociologists, art historians and critical theorists in broad scope.

In the 1930s, the original selection of images were widely disseminated across the US through travelling exhibitions and in picture magazines such as Life and Look. The core group of photographers, of which Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange are the most celebrated, also included Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, and John Collier.

There was undoubtedly a propagandist angle to the photographs. Their purpose was to underline the government’s New Deal programme which sought, amongst other things, to introduce a rural rehabilitation scheme through the Farm Security Administration Programme (the FSA), under whose sponsorship the photos were taken. From 1935 to 1944, this small group of photographers were sent to the south-west in order to capture the conditions of destitute farming families, and to share their plight with the rest of the country.

The images have since been transformed into exemplars of the voyeuristic or discriminating ‘gaze’. Such a reading exposes the objectification — even commodification — of the farmers and their families by, it is argued, depicting them as marginalised and helpless. In this way, the FSA photos have been subject to an uncommon degree of scrutiny.

For a flavour of the type of writing the FSA images have inspired, this excerpt from Paula Rabinowitz’s 1992 Voyeurism and Social Classes will suffice:

“Voyeurism and its attendant sadism is at the heart of the documentary narrative that depends on the powers of the gaze to construct meanings for the writer and the reader of “the people”. […] No matter what its political intentions, the documentary narrative invariably returns to the middle class, enlisting the reader in a process of self-recognition.” 1

I make mention of the FSA photographs in order to prompt further questions that seem salient to me.

I wonder: Is it never possible for one group of people to represent another? If we are adamant about this, then are we at risk of representational segregation, where a perspective on an event is legitimate only if it comes from within the group affected? Who is to say where a ‘group’ begins and ends? It is right to say “no matter what the intention…” and go onto to find fault? Is intention irrelevant? What about the question of respect?

In the open letter written by Hannah Black, she said: “Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist.”

Hannah Black speaks with a conviction and clarity that is admirable. Yet I still find it hard to see how her certainty can be justified. She appears to me to be judging Schutz on her social and racial status as a white person rather than as an artist with personal, individual intentions.

I would like to say that intentions do matter, much like they matter in the law courts. The problem is that intentions get murky when other players are involved, like patrons, commissioners, galleries and governments. That’s not to mention the vagaries of human beings, which are perennial. It is easier to talk about composition and technique than to specify intention. We may try to ‘read’ intention from an image, but our reading is idiosyncratic and always partial.

Perhaps we just have to accept that. Sometimes images have to stand for many different things for many people.

I suppose what finally counts is the effect of the image: how its attitude influences others, how the ego of the image echoes in the world. Respect seems to me key. Does the representation respect its source? This matters, because what underpins respect is the assumption that there are some fundamental moral values that transcend the differences between people and cultures. I believe this is worth hanging on to. Respect, then, is what we should look for. Maybe in these troubled times, this is a more vital judgement than that of beauty.

Christopher P Jones writes about art and culture at his blog. You might be interested in these stories on Medium:


1. Rabinowitz, Paula. “Voyeurism and Class Consciousness: James Agee and Walker Evans, ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.’” Cultural Critique, no. 21, 1992, p. 162. www.jstor.org/stable/1354120.

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

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