Escaping the Missionary Position

Once upon a time, so we heard, the white male photographer would arrive and set up base at the Hotel Sheraton. In the afternoon, he would snap the slum conveniently located near the hotel. The next day he would take a flight back home (the city had little to offer in terms of nightlife or alcohol). A week later, the New York Times would run a photo of that slum, the country’s image would be “ruined,” and so forth. However, standing at the edge of 2013, even the hardened pity party protagonist has to grudgingly admit that we have won the battle. White photographers no longer dare to follow that Sheraton-slum-airport map. Instead they stay with someone local, they eat at our table (with their hands), and then take photos under our watch. Now no one should think we want to return to that old Sheraton paradigm. Never! But the question remains—even after all this time, why do the wheels of history only start turning with the arrival of the Western photographer or curator? If it is truly an indigenous, local movement, why does it need external blessing (award, festival, curator, magazine) to gain local traction?

One more question: say that slum photo is taken by a Bengali, and then published by The Times. Have we broken any paradigms, or just replaced the foreigner with ourselves? And if it is Bengalis who are marketing those photographs, then why that “victim” tone of “the Westerners are coming”? If you are going to talk disparity, start with the fact that the amount of expensive camera equipment in Dhaka indicates a powerful new economic circuit, for which the main buyers are western agencies.

Everything has an end state, and signs of exhaustion are now visible in social realist photography. Funding promises freedom, but instead traps work in the foundation cage. Take for example that award-winning feature on the gay cruising scene, which projects a new liberal climate. On the net however, aggressive comments posted under the photo hint that many minds are still closed odd. Hiding behind that award is the very real possibility of death at night. What is needed then are photographers who engage with the movement, not just document it. Actually, put down the camera for sometime will you? Maybe even for a few years. Break apart to birth the new.

Contributor

Naeem Mohaiemen

NAEEM MOHAIEMEN is a writer and visual artist (shobak.org). This excerpt is translated from the essay "Social Realism's Truth Quest."