“Unlike Smith, Lonidier takes the same photographs that a doctor might. When the evidence is hidden within the body, Lonidier borrows and copies X-ray films. These pictures have a brute, clinical effect. Each worker’s story is reduced to a rather schematic account of injury, disease, hospitalization, and endless bureaucratic run-around by companies trying to shirk responsibility and liability.” (Sekula 1984, p 67)
So the essence involves actually taking an engaged political stance, rather than an outsider’s compassionate one? One could say siding with the underdog – no longer objective documentary, but activist reportage, much the same as Greenpeace photographers. Is that all that constitutes this new approach? But couldn’t that just be accused of being propaganda of another kind? Do we not need to have testimony from the corporations to get a better understanding – I mean a more objective ‘bigger picture’? Are they invited to comment, as in most major documentary films, where the accused are invited to defend their positions (even if they do in the event decline)? Does this really constitute an educated political critique, or is it merely soapbox discourse that happens to collude with Sekula’s particular point of view? Would Smith’s photographs of the mercury poisoning victims have been made more to Sekula’s liking if he had included documents of their legal struggle? To my mind Sekula misses the point of the Minamata project, and tries to project his own (current, postmodernist, activist) political expectations onto the work that Smith had already compiled (which was quite original and cutting edge in its time). Not only is this absurd from a journalistic point of view, it also undermines the work that Smith did – as if to devalue it. Smith worked from an angle – the angle that the plight of victims must be made known, and there was good reason for this. He had to contend with the language barrier as well as the animosity and physical violence of the factory owners and their aides. He found a story and worked to make it public the best of his abilities. Possibly had he been able to understand Japanese, he would have added documents to the series (perhaps he did, but they were ignored or overlooked by the editorial team, who preferred to place Smith’s portrait on the cover as a hero!). I really do like the idea of combining image with text and testimony, as well as providing supporting evidence, in the way of documents – letters, rephotographed images, interview transcripts, and official statistics. This is an area I’d like to explore with this project, since it really does avoid the classic compassionate line taken by most major documentarians (this is still true in photography, but not so in film).
“Lonidier’s presentation is an analog of sorts for the way in which corporate bureaucrats handle the problem of industrial safety, yet he subverts the model by telling the story from below, from the place occupied by the worker in the hierarchy.” (p 67)
Didn’t Smith attempt to do exactly that with his photos of mercury-poisoned victims? Despite the compassionate stance of the images, was the story not told from below? Or is he not granted this position since he is an outsider (foreigner)? The plant owners certainly did not share Sekula’s view – otherwise they would not have had Smith beaten up. Looking at the scope of Smith’s work that he carried out for the Jazz Loft, he probably actually would have wished to include testimony and medical documents such as X-rays from his subjects. What prevented him? Language? A sense of modesty? Hard to tell, but I think Smith was into all the kinds of things he advocates long before he took the Minamata series. I’m sure he would have lauded this work by Lonidier.
“Quotes from the workers are set in type so small that they are nearly unreadable. The titles are set in large type: “Machinist’s Lung,” “Egg-Packer’s Arm.” The body and the life are presented as they have been fragmented by management. Injury is a loss of labor power, a negative commodity, overhead. Injury is not a diminishing of a human life but a statistical impingement on the corporate profit margin.” (p 67-8)
This is a result of the modern consumerist-led philosophy of our time, one that I try to combat in my work and in my teaching. I don’t think this is necessarily in opposition to Smith’s vision of the world, although Sekula would have us believe he is apparently impotent in the face of it. Once again – is this because Smith is an outsider? Sontag’s ‘tourist in someone else’s reality’ who can withdraw at any moment? I think that Smith was merely attempting to give a voice to those who otherwise could not lay claim to one (the politics of which I discuss elsewhere).
“Lonidier presents an analysis of the strategies employed by corporations and unions in the struggle over occupational health issues. …implicit in Lonidier’s argument is the conclusion that work cannot, in the long run, be made safe under capitalism, because of the absolute demand for increasing capital accumulation under escalating crisis conditions” (p 68).
Lonidier seems to be acting as some sort of kind lawyer, researching the plaintiffs’ situations from a blue-collar point of view. On the other hand, he supplies us with the textual information we need to interpret his images in the way he wants us to see them (as Sekula himself mentioned before, the truth is up for grabs – sold to the highest bidder). Lonidier presents the leftist-liberalist position that most artists and critics tend towards, without sensing the hypocrisy in that (it kind of feels good to rebel against the system that feeds you, doesn’t it).
To my mind, there is nothing essentially new about this kind of photojournalism, just another dimension attached to add ballast to intrinsic arguments. This is a policy adopted in the 20th century ostensibly to defend the rights of the working man (the last bastion of defendable human rights in the West!). In fact, it could be argued that what is really happening is the addition of another level of propaganda, or manipulation of thought. There is only one point of view included – where is the defence? (usually here appears a screen that says we tried to contact XXX but they declined to be interviewed…)
Although it is somewhat in new packaging, this is just another social-reformist documentary vision, albeit with an activist position (it does not demand change within the inherent structure of society, merely pleading on behalf of the underdog who deserves a little more compassion – after all, if there were mass upheaval the working man would suffer too!).
I do like the idea of presenting documentary images together with testimony, with other documentary evidence, to show a larger picture. Maybe this is something to consider for my project. Something along the lines of what Meiselas is doing with the Kurds – a web-based archive, which would make for an organic documentary piece, growing as the material itself grows. This is not within the constraints of the OCA project, but something I can work on outside of that framework.