The controversy invited by projects made by “privileged outsider pointing a camera at underprivileged subject” is a well established and largely derogatory reading to the resulting body of work. The problem with this relationship is the relative position of most photographic artists to many important subjects integral to the representation of crime, poverty and economic disparity: that of privilege. Some artists see this merely as an unavoidable aspect of work that they must still make while others try to mediate these readings by inviting community engagement, marketing the work as a charitable effort or through creative collaboration with a representative subject. While these efforts may assuage some of the pejorative readings of their work, there always exists a concern for the ethics surrounding the work that has been made and the person who has subsequently put it into place. In fact, this concern may run even further to the relationship of the readership to the subject matter and the ethical issues of the consumption of work that points a finger at the less fortunate within our society.
To photograph the poverty stricken Favelas and their Gang-entangled occupants, for a successful European artist should typify this issue, yet I find it hard to view Sharkification by Cristina de Middel as ethically problematic. If anything, it is as though through the fictionalisation of her subjects as marine life and her photography as a kind of marine biological study we are excused of the ethical concerns we may otherwise be stricken with by such a body of work. More than a creative device, de Middel’s “sharkification” of her subjects removes the images’ potential ethical ugliness and instead presents a more interpretive essence of the issues highlighted by the work. How useful really is it to follow a day in the life of “X”, to see how their life is so dramatically different, to learn of their individual specific struggles? In a society that has been made accustom to the 15-second news bites that are supposed to convey the facts and emotion of a given scenario, it’s hard to view this representational mode as anything other than compassionate presentation of information. Given a few hours with Sharkification and instead, you may begin to see this “compassionate” model as a kind of obfuscation of the real complexities of the subject it is used to supposedly faithfully represent. What this failed representational model presents us with is illustrations – caricatures, even – of the truth in order to make it easily digestible and subsequently easily forgotten. News channels may warn of graphic content before showing us a blood soaked floor, but this is not really a warning but a promise of what is to come; don’t turn away now, you’ll miss the best bit.
Cristina de Middel instead removes the unnecessary specifics that would make her work too easily about one person’s plight. Instead, we are given a project that simultaneously mocks the ability of the media to ever present truth, and in shunning this idea – by turning to the possibilities fiction opens up to her work – we are given a much clearer view of an aspect of what is really going on.
Sharkification can be purchased here.
Ollie Gapper graduated from UCA Rochester in 2014 with a degree in Photography (Contemporary Practice). He is currently studying an MA in Photography with a long-term focus on photobooks and the American landscape.