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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...

...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.