Picturing the Whole: Form, Reform, Revolution

Walter Benn Michaels


Talking about the political ‘Uses of Photography,’ John Berger says ‘most photographs … are about suffering, and most of that suffering is man-made’. The political potential not only of photography but of art more generally depends, Susan Sontag thinks, on its ‘responsiveness to suffering’. Here the danger of sentimentality (especially for the art of photography) is even more pronounced. For if the identificatory effect on the viewer – the sympathy produced by feeling something of what the victim feels – is desirable, it is also dangerous, since our sense that we in some sense share the victim’s pain may function to repress the recognition that we may in some sense also be responsible for that pain; that ‘our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering and may – in ways we prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others’. If art photography holds out the promise of producing in the viewer a response to the actual suffering a photograph can depict, it also runs the risk that what the viewer will respond to will be the photograph itself and not the photograph’s subject; the art instead of the suffering.

On this model, a model that essentially takes the photographs of the suffering victims as its model, the challenge political photography faces is how to insist on suffering without either aestheticizing or sentimentalizing it. But is this model the right one? I want to suggest that it isn’t and, looking at one book by the young American photographer Daniel Shea, I want to argue instead that the point of political photography today cannot be to try to achieve either the right relation with the suffering victim (honoring his dignity, etc.) or the right effect on the compassionate beholder (cutting her just enough to move her in the right way or to the right degree). In fact, I want to say that this interest in the ethical problem of the relations between the photographer and the viewer and the subject of the photograph is itself a kind of sentimentality, and its politics are those of a left neoliberalism: of human rights, diversity, NGOs. By contrast, Shea’s commitment is to the aesthetic instead of the ethical, and his understanding of what it means to make art out of photography requires a certain indifference to both his subjects and his audience. It’s that aesthetic of indifference that makes possible, I will argue, a certain politics of indifference – a politics that instead, say, of just seeking justice for those who have been treated unfairly by the labour market, seeks to alter the conditions under which that market functions; that instead of focusing on the victims of abuses in what Berger calls ‘a class-divided society’, focuses on the abuse of class division itself; a politics that, in other words, is not left neoliberal but left.

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