Concerned Photographer blurs the line between voyeurism and compassion

By Jenny Fisher

Somehow, I expected the photographs to be bigger. I imagined massive images of girls at looms, staring vacantly at the camera, alongside photographs of policemen with dogs straining against their leashes, jaws open. But although the photographs were small, they were just as powerful as I had imagined.

The Concerned Photographer, an exhibit of photographs confronting social justice issues, runs until June 11 at the Art Institute. Beginning with Lewis Hines’s images of child labor, the exhibit includes work by such photographers as Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Danny Lyons, Bruce Davidson, and Susan Meiselas. Their photographs have been widely reprinted in newspapers, books, and other media.

A 1948 photograph by David “Chim” Seymour shows a girl who had grown up in a concentration camp living in a home for “disturbed children.” According to the caption, she had drawn a picture of “home” on the blackboard—a mess of circles resembling the coils of barbed wire or a tornado. She appears to be 9 or 10, but stares intently with old, accusing eyes. Her expression is unreadable.

Susan Meiselas took a series of photographs in Nicaragua in 1978, documenting the revolution of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. One image shows a little boy in a marketplace squatting in a forest of women’s legs and bright skirts. His eyes stare intently at three brightly colored plastic soldiers that are held by a pair of hands extending from the right.

The Concerned Photographer runs concurrently with Supernova, the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Supernova showcases paintings dealing with celebrities, gruesome car crashes, crime, and the civil rights movement. I could imagine encountering Warhol’s silk-screened repeated images of police brutality during the civil rights movements shown in The Concerned Photographer.

Warhol’s paintings are very much a reaction to the kind of photographs exhibited in The Concerned Photographer. His paintings call attention to our fascination with the horrible in such a way that it seems voyeuristic and sickening. They point to the way that newspapers, magazines, and television display those images for us over and over so that, in Warhol’s opinion, they become nonsensical.

The photographs in The Concerned Photographer are not intended to be voyeuristic in the vein of Warhol. Rather, these photographers present their images as a wake-up call, a window into lives their viewers might not otherwise see. These are lives that depict the underacknowledged hardships of child labor, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, independence in India, Ireland’s Bloody Sunday, and more. Unlike Warhol, these photographers aim to make their images motivating rather than deadening.

The Concerned Photographer includes a series of images taken by Sebastiao Salgado depicting miners in Brazil in the ’80s. The miners carry bag after bag of dirt out of the mines by hand in the hope that one bag might contain gold. One photograph shows a mine from above, with hundreds of people carrying sacks up ladders set against the steep walls. It almost looks like a movie set, because the heights are so extreme and because the image seems to belong in the 19th century, not in 1980.

According to the note beside his photographs, Salgado is often accused of “sentimental voyeurism,” of portraying injustice so that it has beauty rather than reality. In one photograph, a man reaches the top of a ladder with a bag on his back and the mine gaping below. If the image does have beauty, it is a harsh beauty that arises from the artistry of the composition and from the difficulty of the man’s life.

The note beside Salgado’s photographs also tells the viewer that he believes photographs are “a more effective means of conveying economic realities than text and figures.” He believes, therefore, that his images’ value and power come from a voyeuristic tendency they call forth in the viewer.

Thinking of this exhibit in tandem with the Warhol exhibit raises difficult questions. What makes a photograph valuable? What makes it meaningless? Do these photographs have the power to change minds, or are they really just images, repeated until they become senseless in newspapers and on television?

Regardless of how those questions are answered, the photographs are definitely worth seeing. I found them to be very powerful, especially in conveying the emotion and the human presence of events and times I had prevously only studied or heard about.