Jim Goldberg

A lot of Goldberg’s work can be found on the Magnum website, while a video version of his seminal Raised by Wolves can be found on his personal website.

Goldberg uses text and image in a very interesting way, empowering people and enabling them to tell their stories through visual and oral narrative. He works with oppressed or marginalised groups, such as illegal immigrants, homeless, runaways, trafficked people, war veterans, and the institutionalised elderly. This is the kind of empowerment that I’m looking at. What are we looking at? Is this voyeurism? Goldberg has obviously befriended these individuals and explained what he is doing; they trust him and tell him their life stories, how they came to be in their particular situations and how they view the future. There is no judgement to be made, we just read the narratives and try our best to identify with the subjects. The images are in your face, the stories flesh out the images without detracting from their strength or passing judgment. This is a true symbiosis of image/text and truly postmodernist mini narratives that work as personal cathartic exercise as well as encouraging empathic solidarity and highlighting contemporary social issues without being overtly political in standpoint.

Goldberg describes himself as a “documentary storyteller” and had this to say of his work when interviewed in 2009:

Since 1970, I’ve been using text and ephemera as well as photographs in order to tell stories of one kind or another… There’s a thread that runs through all the work that is to do with bearing witness. The photographs are about asking questions, though, not answering them. I’m not a politically radical person. In fact, I’m much more interested in being radical aesthetically.” (cited in O’Hagan, 2009)

Goldberg uses mixed media, (primarily photographs, videos and objects) to tell his stories. Very often he encourages his subjects to write on the Polaroids he takes of them, which brings a whole new dimension to the notion of captioning as well as adding a vernacular aspect, since the handwritten scripts may be unfamiliar and illegible to many viewers, and rather than elucidating merely serve to add an element of geographical (and thus social) remove, or exoticism (is this a good thing?). As O’Hagan writes, Goldberg manages to “create a fragmented narrative that fractures the received conventions of reportage or straight documentary” these narratives do not fit in with conventional narrative techniques or presentation, while the work also serves to question those very parameters:

The problematic issues that dog contemporary photographic reportage – the immigrant as spectacle, the desensitisation of the viewer through the sheer volume of images of suffering – are addressed indirectly within the work, which often takes the form of a kind of creative collaboration.”

This is the kind of work that I am aiming to achieve. Nevertheless, I have some concerns about Goldberg’s work, since I am not relying on an intermediary to interpret the speaker and tell me what she said. What is lost in translation? I am the editor of my subjects’ thoughts, ideas and expressions, and I can personally assure the faithfulness of my own translation, but I don’t know who translated for Goldberg. Even though his subjects are seemingly empowered to tell their own stories, those same narratives may be reinterpreted in various ways… there is no solution. The portrayed Other will always remain as Other since she is in a gallery portrayed as something to be viewed, therefore Other. This raises the whole dilemma of my doing a project about disabled people that presents them as normal, but that singles them out as subjects who demand to be accepted on their own terms (as opposed to conforming to ‘norms’ or being forcibly ‘normalised’ by medicine or society), which of necessity draws attention to their Otherness. It seems like a vicious circle.

Goldberg’s narratives are disturbing and although they display the human side of their subjects, one does not really get much beyond the realm of vaguely identifying with the subjects before stereotype mode kicks in. These are the drifters, the outcasts, the losers and low-lives, junkies and whores, and their stories are pretty much what we have come to expect since the beat period. Although they are never presented as victims of the system or in any way blame the system for their circumstances, there is an undertone that somehow they represent the unavoidable and necessary symptoms of a system that is predicated on the unfair distribution of wealth and resources.

However one looks at Goldberg’s images, they are at the very least thought-provoking and not easily dismissed, which to my mind is the goal of all serious image makers in the vein of Hine and Smith. As one reviewer remarked “[Goldberg] dares to darken the everyday business of traffic in images with the taint of real injustice and suffering.” Combining the ethos of Sekula with the humanity of Salgado and in-your-face violence of Clarke or Golding… Goldberg bridges so many styles and ventures but manages to keep an integral style of his own (kudos).

On the other hand, many of Goldberg’s images have no significance outside of their own meaning, which is defined by the caption; hence an unadulterated photo of two young girls looks suspiciously like a family album snapshot, until one reads the caption: “UKRAINE. Donetsk region. 2006. Trafficked girls.”

We take his word for it. These might just be some kids that Goldberg came across in Donetsk (it definitely is the former USSR), but we read into his image much more then the image itself represents. Dangerous territory. We tend to believe more the images that have been overwritten by their subjects, albeit in hieroglyphs or alphabets we do not understand, their authority lies in the fact that they have been accredited by their subjects. Basically I am working towards the same sort of idea, since the authority I am proposing comes from the oral testimony that my subjects are willing to provide, as well as the visual evidence that I was actually present in their homes and lives for a certain amount of time. Nevertheless, I do not depend on interpreters or intermediaries to translate for me, so very little is lost in translation. Goldberg:

In Europe, I am an outsider,” says Goldberg. “I don’t really understand anything that I am seeing. I can be welcomed into people’s homes, I can be met with suspicion, I can be taken somewhere else altogether. There is always wonderment there for me, even if the person I am photographing may not see it or be aware of it.”

Which begs the question – how much is Goldberg himself aware of what he is witnessing or being shown? He admits that he does not understand, but he is coming at these people from an angle, and he has already preconceived what their particular story should comprise or conform to, and as such he will seek out the stories that corroborate that point of view, while the subjects themselves, after having agreed to participate, will add layers of drama to their own narratives so these conform to what they understand Goldberg is seeking, lest they be accused of time-wasting.

One thing is for sure, one never tires of looking at Goldberg’s work, and that to me is a sign of a successful artistic vision.

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