So Magnum Photos has been a trashfire for a while but I’ve only been sort of paying attention to it. Thankfully Benjamin Chesterton over a Duckrabbit has been on top of it. A couple days ago he published a comprehensive wrap of everything that’s been going on with Magnum over the past four years. It’s heavy stuff. Difficult to read and I cannot even begin to fathom how hard it was to research and write.
I have nothing to add to specific discussion about the Magnum rot. Their behavior has been abhorrent and the organization needs to just disband. But to think this issue is limited to Magnum misses half of the problem.
Reading Duckrabbit’s post reminded me how important it is to reevaluate my visual literacy. What kinds of photos I find pleasurable. Who is depicted as human versus who gets objectified. We like to think that the abhorrent stuff is obvious but it didn’t get magicked into being just overnight. It’s the logical result of a century of certain viewpoints and methods being lionized as authoritative.
All of us in photography—whether as photographers or just consumers—grew up seeing certain photos as being good or important. We’ve learned to accept the white male gaze. We’ve learned to expect the western colonial framing. We’ve learned to treat white men as impartial and everyone else as being biased by their identity.
Magnum is a huge part of that tradition. No matter how good their founding members are, you can see the first steps down this road. I’ve said before that I like Cartier-Bresson’s European work but am generally not interested in his work abroad. None of it as as bad as what Magnum has become but the trajectory is there from the beginning.
I went semi-viral a half-dozen years ago when I said I found this kind of thing boring. Looking back on that now, I kind of cringe at my reaction. Boring is still coming from a place of privilege. It’s a good first step but it allows me to ignore things that are harming other people instead of actively denouncing them.
I need to do better. Be more vocal about reprogramming my visual literacy. Boost other people like Duckrabbit who are also doing the work. And even just simple things like sharing what kinds of things I’m looking at and how they expand my eye.