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Pictures against the Stigma of Poverty

by Florian Ebner

To battle the world’s misery, change society with the aid of photographs depicting it—this is the idealistic approach of social-documentary photography. Yet it is often alleged that the images, taken by those who can return to the safe haven of their everyday lives, are disproportionate to the reality they represent. The photographs by the two authors presented here also have to face up to this (self-)criticism, which always inquires into the photographer’s respective vantage point. They are pictures from the United States, pictures of the face of poverty and at the same time against its stigma, pictures by two photographers that were taken thirty years apart.
The petroleum lamp on the table would not have been sufficient to light up the scene. Light coming from the side illuminates the table at which the couple is sitting, the black woman with her hands clasped between her legs, the black man with his back to the photographer and holding a rifle. Their names are Ida and Joe, but they could also be called Baucis and Philemon, because this shack in Alabama—photographed in the first half of the seventies and with the few items on the table and the yellowed newspapers on the timber walls, which could serve as either decoration or insulation—appears to be timeless. The photographer may have found this image too appealing, the poverty and humility it depicts too idyllic, because Jacob Holdt chose to use another one for his angry book American Pictures: it is a scrutinizing image, the flash illuminating every corner of the miserable dwelling. Yet, as he writes, even photographs of this kind cannot make poverty visible enough.
A simple light bulb scantily lights the two people in the second interior scene. In effect, the light only seems to apply to the black women who has struck a pose, her head tilted and seeking eye contact with the photographer, while her girlfriends have withdrawn into the depths of the room, lean against the wall, or hold the light bulb from outside the image area. One needs a few moments to understand this picture: the young women believe that this photo is only a portrait of the one in the center and that they are waiting until it is their turn. But the photographer Jean-Christian Bourcart “zoomed out,” expanded the perspective, bringing the entire scene into the image and highlighting the difference between the posing body and the passive onlookers and, not lastly, the entire scene itself, a dreary, bare, unplastered prefabricated apartment in Camden, New Jersey.
The photographers stand for a direct account of reality in different ways, representative of the understanding of photography of their time: the direct scene that listened in on in a shack in Alabama, and the contemporary group photo from New Jersey that reveals the “staged” quality of the scene. Yet the constellation of photographer and model is similar: Jacob Holdt and Jean-Christian Bourcart are white Europeans, a Dane and a Frenchman, and their models are socially declassed Afro-American women—at first glance a difficult constellation, a dissimilar relation of power and powerlessness. Let’s now look at the two projects in detail.

The Vagabond
Jacob Holdt’s life in the seventies was turbulent, even from the point of view of his contemporaries. In 1978, an article in the Oregon Times described a “Christ-like figure” who in hours-long slide shows presented the sins of American society and time and again returned unscathed from its darkest realms of shadows: “Holdt got his pictures during his five years of hitch-hiking across the country. He claims to have sold his blood to buy film. His documentary evidence of Americans so poor they eat dirt and pet food is shocking, and has drawn large audiences all over Europe.”
At first, Jacob Holdt was an adventurer and activist who took to the street against the Vietnam War and for the civil rights of blacks and Native Americans. In order to document the social extremes, in 1972 he begins taking photographs with a small Canon camera. He hitchhikes through the entire country, capturing both the slums in which the descendents of the slaves live as well as the junkies in the ghettos of the North in Harlem, Detroit, and Chicago. He crosses the threshold to these people, lives with them, suffers with them, sleeps with them; their paths cross and separate. As an enigmatic traveler from Europe he is hosted by the most distinguished American families, and he even infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. He produces a bleak tale from his wealth of visual material, fifteen thousand photographs in all, by allowing his images of the poor and the rich to prominently demonstrate and thus contrast the respective social extremes. This story was first told in the slide shows mentioned above. In 1977, he published his legendary book Amerikanske Billeder, which on 272 pages features more than 650 of his own photographs alongside further historical documents imbedded in a long text consisting of accounts of countless encounters and letters. The Danish edition is followed by translations into English, Swedish, and Dutch; separate German editions are published in West Germany and the German Democratic Republic. Jacob Holdt describes the book by his fellow countryman Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, as an important stimulus for publishing his photographs. The book, published in 1890, is an illustrated account of life in New York’s slums and marks the birth of social-documentary photography. Holdt’s work is important from a photo-historical perspective, as there has hardly been another photographer to have so closely linked the authenticity of his narration to images of the interior living conditions of the poor, primarily Afro-Americans. He stepped across their threshold, even if he makes no illusions about the impact of his images: “These affluent liberals, whom I came to hate and love at the same time, will give me all possible support in publishing and exhibiting my critique of their society, shocked at the things I have seen in America and ashamed because I have crossed a threshold which they feel they ought to have crossed themselves. . . . Therefore I cannot avoid feeling that I too exploited blacks, for I know all too well that these pictures will not benefit them. . . . And so my pictures will only become a catharsis.”

The Foreign
In contrast, Jean-Christian Bourcart describes the development of his work Camden, New Jersey, briefly and succinctly: “Absurd, all I did was search the web for the most dangerous city in the USA. I wanted to find that strange energy given off by places where rules and social constraints have been abolished or weakened. Or maybe I wanted to check that it's still possible to reach out to others, as distant and alien as they might seem. At the top of the list I found Camden, New Jersey, less than two hours from New York. There, I discovered the face of everyday poverty hidden behind stigma and stereotype.”
Bourcart is a photographer and an artist. He does not have a single photographic language, but selects a new one to correspond with each of his projects. In Stardust, which preceded Camden, he took pictures of the dusty panes of glass in movie theater projection rooms, on which one sees the blurred outlines of the filmic fictions. In Camden, on the other hand, he confronts the realities of “New Poverty,” whose already harsh causes, such as workplaces that have been relocated to low-wage countries, have been joined by new factors, such as the condemnation of entire districts in the media. The sociologist Loïc Wacquant sees a “territorial stigmatization” of whole neighborhoods as “no-go areas” as an important structural element of the new “urban exclusion in the twenty-first century.” “These hopeless slums have made a name for themselves as breeding grounds for all the urban plagues of our time, as places one avoids, fears, and abhors.” Bourcart’s photography counters this stigma. He produces a piece of wall art consisting of ninety-nine prints, including 83 photographs and 16 texts, and into which a video monitor has been integrated.
The images feature people in urban settings, as portraits and in scenes, but also cityscapes, architecture, interiors, and objects. They are everyday observations, incidental, significant details of destruction and helplessness, but also emotional gestures. The overall picture that develops shows the desolate situation of a city from which the welfare state has long since retreated. The text fragments from his journal describe events that cross out the foreign and distance, which Bourcart cannot deny and would not like to hide: “I’m interested in what we have in common with people from Camden. But then again, photography is always about difference. I wonder if there’s any point adding more spectacle to the spectacle. Maybe it helps to provide some material evidence about the economic and social machine that swallows us up and spits us out.”
In this respect, Camden, New Jersey stands for a contemporary documentary attitude that relies on the subjectivity of its perspective and yet is aware of the limitation of its own insight; that collects the visible evidence in situ and yet chases a media chimera in our minds; that again relies on the experience of encounters, but also attaches contemporary discourses to the images that are produced in the process. “Personally, what I’ll take away from this adventure is that there is not more violence in Camden than anywhere else. It is just more raw, and less masked by hypocrisy and cynicism.”

Exposing Differences
Despite the skepticism with respect to the impact of their works that the two photographers share, what first becomes evident in this encounter are the substantial, time-related differences: there is the absolute necessity of the activist to bear witness to the circumstances one could not, or did not want to, conceive of at the time, and there is, after all of the stereotypical depictions in the media, the photographer’s interest to go out and see for oneself what is really going on. Yet if, at this point, one leaves the perspective of the two authors and considers the different aspects and narrative perspectives that constitute their works, as well as the audience they address, the different signatures become visible with which their photographs can be “intoned”—the exhibition attempts to raise awareness for this.
Holdt’s photographs are individual images whose statements have been condensed, readable messages that do not require an autograph, arguments that are more effective than linguistic descriptions. They are located on the pages of books or magazines, or on slides projected onto a screen. They were never objects of contemplation—the author was never interested in the beauty of a photographic print! The exhibition therefore features the photographs as slide projections—the same way they were initially presented and continued to be for many years—highlighted by excerpts from Holdt’s letters, which are reproduced in his book. It also includes the numerous editions of his book American Pictures, which give visitors an idea of the importance of this public figure in the late seventies and eighties, but which also spark memories of the book culture that prevailed at that time. The other side of the exhibition features Bourcart’s montages of photographs and texts, the first presentation of his Camden cycle. Unlike conventional captions, the text fragments from his journal give the reading of the images a new direction. It is interesting to see how much today’s artistic discourse adopts the form of a magazine layout, placing large, extensive images alongside series and sequences. It almost seems as if the narrative perspective of the reportage and documentary, which has gradually been banished from magazines, has found refuge in the spaces of the museum and the gallery. It would be wonderful if it met here with a similarly large number of viewers.