A joke I once made. It’s funny because it’s true—most of the time.
We tend to approach women artists the same way we treat other non-white artists—as representative of, and speaking for, their minority group.
It’s not true when we’re looking at work which appears to be an inside job.
As much as I get annoyed when just authorship matters, it does matter. A lot. I only get annoyed when the name of the artist is most important. What matters is who the artist is in relation to the subject and how the access to the subject is obtained.
Since there is something inherently intrusive and voyeuristic about photography,* whether the photographer is an insider or an outsider** to the subject matter makes a huge difference to the way we view the image. And it will often influence the image itself.
*Which SFMoMA tried to cover with mixed results with its Exposed show.
**I’m using “outsider” in a tribal way rather than in a outsider art way
An outsider cannot cover a subject the same way as an insider. The results have completely different contexts. And context matters.
One of the best examples of this is Laura Heyman’s Pa Bouje Ankò: Don’t Move Again project where she set out with the intent of not making “souvenirs” and instead discovered that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle—and specifically the observer effect—also applies to photography. Her presence as an observer changes the context of her observations.
What I did not realize at the time was that this very idea – that the context of the images was something I could designate or control – was exactly what I sought to avoid. It was, in fact, both colonial and paternalistic. The context of any artwork is constantly shifting, and the context of these particular images has now shifted again.
There is no way that her work can truly be like Seydou Keïta’s* because she brings a different context to her images.** Keïta’s work is an inside job where he took portraits of his own people over 50+ years. Heyman traveled to Haiti and photographed for a year.
*Not to be confused with the criminally under-appreciated FC Barcelona soccer player Seydou Keita.
**A related phenomenon is photography using out-dated techniques and technologies. I can’t help but approach these photographs as if I were reviewing Pierre Menard.
To be clear, I don’t think that either insider or outsider photography is superior to the other. Taking two similar-looking examples from the same time period: Robert Frank’s The Americans is a fantastic example of travel photography since it treats the first world with the same critical outsider’s eye which is normally reserved for the third world. While Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw is an invitation to share in the experiences of American life within a racist society. There’s a place for both views and it important to see and understand each of them.
With insiders, we’re often looking in on unguarded moments from people who are comfortable with the photographer—whether it’s Linda McCartney’s photos of the Rolling Stones and other rock legends she had access to as a result of her place in that world, various family photographs, or Naomi Harris photographing swingers. Or we’ll be looking at people taking photos of what they know and what they’re surrounded by. It’s this second portion which makes it easy for us to assume that any minority photographer is making insider photographs.
Outsider photographs are tougher to spot. They’re not all as obvious as Marc Garanger’s Femmes Algériennes but there is often an external context created by the photographer’s presence.* This context can often just be the photographer’s point of view—for example, the Yvonne Venegas work referenced in the original tweet which begins this post.
*Something I noted when viewing Walker Evans’s work.
And a single photographer can do both. Cartier-Bresson’s work in Europe feels insider to me. But his work from Mexico feels outsider. Again, it’s not about which is better, it’s just being aware of the context.