For perhaps the first century of photography’s history documentary photographers very directly addressed their subjects. In his speech to a conference of charities in 1909 Lewis Hine (1) beseeched his audience to get a camera and start documenting injustice because as he put it “there is an urgent need for the intelligent interpretation of the World’s workers”. Hine dedicated much of his adult life to this very thing. At no point in that speech does Hine refer to any ethical questions about photographing vulnerable people even though he was predominantly photographing children at this time.
However, as photography became increasingly popular both for professionals and amateurs the moral high ground of the engaged photographer became threatened by the criticism of eloquent philosophers like Susan Sontag (2) who accused photography of having a “chrome voyeuristic” relationship with the world that levelled the meaning of events. In 1981 Martha Rosler questioned the motives of both serious and amateur photographers who were prowling the Bowery and engaged in what she saw as victim photography. Susie Linfield writing as recently as 2010 highlights that the whole practice of direct documentary photography has become a “fraught enterprise” and many amateur photographers, including myself have needed to reevaluate their approach to street photography.
I see this as one of the most important ethical debates in contemporary photography (see note ii and here) and recognise that as a photographer taking pictures nearly exclusively for my own amusement that, if I wish to discuss social injustice, I have to, as Linfield would say, avoid the fraught enterprise. I began this course using Late Photography to explore the invisibility of the homeless (here) and there is a sense of having closed a circle by finishing the course using Staged Photography to investigate our reaction to migration and its impact on human dignity and identity.
Concept – The Stage
I discussed the socio-political background to immigration in an earlier essay (here) so I want to concentrate on the ideas behind assignment 5.
Using the setting of a medieval abbey as a “theatrical” stage assignment 5 looks at both immigration and identity. Waverley Abbey was the first Cistercian abbey in Britain and was in itself founded by thirteen French immigrants in 1128. Unlike other Cistercian Abbeys such as Fountains or Rievaulx this was never a rich house and its monks are recorded as “having endured poverty and famine” (6) as well being flooded out on several occasions. The Cistercians were described by a 10th century contemporary (iii) as the order that offered the “surest road to heaven” because of their austere and frugal lifestyle. (iv)
The original function of the site is symbolic:
- Founded by immigrants supporting the idea of “before we were us we were them“;
- A holy place quite separate and philosophically different from the surrounding mundane World. To enter its precinct (v) was to cross from a secular landscape to a spiritual and godly space. This offers a metaphor for the immigrant crossing an invisible national border to escape danger and find salvation or sanctuary.
- Its occupants were not the rich monks of popular history but the hard working and frugal devotees of a demanding order; as such they would probably have related to the plight of a displaced person. My image intends to imply that sanctuary has been requested and given – an act of charity and sympathy but questions the relationship between the supplicant and the authority figure.
- However their wealth and lifestyle was still far removed from the status of a contemporary peasant (vi) so the Abbey is a metaphor not just for a safe haven, a sanctuary, but as a place of abundance. The immigrant is moving from danger to safety and from shortage to the promise of plenty. There is an inference the there is no financial reason for refusing entry.
Using the ruins of the West Range which was the lay brothers’ house is also symbolic.
- It is the most enclosed and partially roofed space on the site and therefore provides a distinct outside from which to come and an inside into which the actors can enter. This transition from outside to inside represents the journey from danger to safety.
The small area of roof that still exists is supported by two central pillars.
In medieval religious art a pillar was often used to show the division between heaven and earth or the divine and the mundane as shown in these two different interpretations of the annunciation by Robert Campin and Giusto de Menabuoi. (10)
I am appropriating this idea into my final image where the area to the left of the pillar will represent the place of danger and to the right the place of sanctuary. This uses medieval religious art as a referent and helps provide a link between the final image and the site’s origins.
Act 1 – Entry
The narrative is intended to flow from the left hand corner where two characters gain access to the stage. They are entering through a window, an apparent act of illegal entry that an obvious metaphor for the illegal immigrant.
In act 1 the women will be dressed modestly, long dresses or trousers and a head scarf to represent a hijab. The overall ensemble will suggest middle eastern origins and therefore suggest their faith as Muslims. This is designed to be a symbolic representation rather than an attempt to place the modes “in costume” as their faith and origins should ultimatley be ambiguous. My models are in fact neither from the middle east nor followers of any organised religion which adds another layer to the question of actual as opposed to connotated identity and origin.
The concept is to connote outsiders, foreigners, a sense of otherness. This symbolises the disparity between attitudes towards immigrates who look and act like “us” such as Irish, Australian or South African immigrants and those who look “foreign” and therefore carry some undefined but feared threat to our national identity or security. I have chosen young women models to emphasise the imbalance between this assumed threat and any real threat that they could offer.
Because the photograph is known to the audience to be staged it is intended to ask the viewer to consider whether the models are foreign or not, are they “one of us” and merely acting a role or are they foreign and therefore “them”?
Act 2 – Supplication
The narrative flows forward to the centre of the frame and to the left of the pillar where the subjects are asking for entry.
I have used the word supplication for three reasons:
- Its accepted meaning of “a humble plea; an earnest request or entreaty, especially one made deferentially to a person in a position of power or authority.” (11) connotes the humbling of an individual when making a request, a possible loss of dignity and the requirement to become subservient to the person in authority. This speaks to the idea that an immigrant’s identity and self worth are fundamentally and negatively modified by the very act of requesting asylum. Having the power to offer or refuse sanctuary gives the established authority power over the supplicant, who hitherto was not within their sphere of influence.
- The word is often used in the context of a religious act such as “addressing a solemn request to a god” (11) or a request for a special blessing within a litany. This forms a link between the idea of begging and the religious act of prayer and therefore fits into the underlying religious theme of this work.
- It also refers to A Supplication for the Beggars (12) a pamphlet written by Simon Fish in 1529 strongly criticising monks as “greedy serfs” and “sturdy idly holy thieves”. This pamphlet has an ironic twist which fits well with my theme. Fish argued that the monasteries, who as well as their own industry and agriculture took a tithe of 10% of all families’ income, should be dissolved and their wealth and lands handed over to Henry VIII. Fish also argued that there was no such place as purgatory. (vii) The irony is that Fish was charged with heresy for proposing a strategy that Henry and his righthand man Cromwell implemented only seven years later. (viii)
In practice the payment for prayers to reduce the soul’s stay in purgatory meant that the rich, contrary to the teachings of Christianity, could buy a more rapid progress to heaven .
This inbuilt prejudice towards the rich and against the poor even in the afterlife is a potential metaphor for the ease with which a rich migrant can enter Britain in contrast to the need for a poor asylum seeker to beg for entry.
The painting above is a modern recreation by Ernest William Tristram of a medieval mural but it is intriguing that, in mimicking the medieval style, he uses an ornate frame to signify a building and distorts the proportions of the body so even when kneeling the women are tall and upright. I suspect that this style was adopted to maintain the dignity and authority of royal or religious subjects in medieval art.
In my image the supplicants are grouped to the left of the central pillar with a monk-like figure to the right. As mentioned above this symbolises the mundane world to the left and a divine place to the right. This could also be seen as a division between the natural and supernatural or outside and inside.
I intend to direct their poses to emphasise the loss of dignity and identity that is suggested by praying to, or begging a favour from, a figure of authority. This questions whether the act of granting asylum or sanctuary is in fact an act of subjugation and suppression that emphasises the power of the giver over the receiver rather than an act of charity between two equals.
Act 3 – Sanctuary
The final group features the two women engaged in cheerful conversation having arrived in a place of safety or having entered the sanctuary of the Abbey. This is a reference to medieval right of the church to offer protection to a criminal for a period of time while the Bishop interceded on his behalf. (ix)
The dress and poses of the women become important at this point. They retain a head scarf which symbolises rather than directly representing a hijab and which reminds us of their previous identity and status but the rest of their dress and pose is young Western woman in style. This combination intends to show that they are in a state of transition between two identities and suggests that their journey is not yet over.
Notes on Text
(i) From 1905 until his death in 1940 Lewis Hine worked with various organisations including the National Child labour Commission to collect photographic evidence of the state of the working man, women and child in America. His earliest work focussed on immigrants but probably quite naturally led to the more general exploitation of the working class American. His overriding concern was to advertise the “problems and activities of the life itself” and to “launch them (the photographs) into every possible channel of publicity”. For Hine and the Farm Security Administration photographers who followed him and who were highly influenced by his approach there was never any doubt that the end justified the means.
(ii) I see this as one of the most important ethical debates in contemporary photography and have previously discussed the debate and the views of Rosler and others (here and here). I have also discussed how various practioners have found ways to continue to address documentary subjects without committing what Abigail Solomon-Godeau (5) called the “double act of subjugation” by exploiting people who are already suppressed by society.
(iii) William de Malmesbury was an English Benedictine monk who, writing shortly before 1124 drew attention to austerity of their lifestyle. Their preferred clothing of a white habit led to them being also known as the “White Monks.” (7)
(iv) The Cistercians are best known for being devoted to the Rule of St. Benedict that required a monk’s day to be divided into three occupations; the performance of the liturgy (the Opus Dei), manual labour and reading. Unlike many other orders the Cistercians reduced the length of the daily service to ensure enough time was allowed for manual labour. They were essentially farmers who established their monasteries in remote areas where they developed their expertise in sheep farming and the production of wool. The medieval monastery was a rural industrial centre that would have been nearly or completely self sufficient as well as generating revenue to support the Abbey. (7)
(v) A precinct is a place set aside for a special purpose – “
(vi) Janina Ramirez in her recent TV documentary Saints and Sinnerswhich charts the rise and fall of the British monasteries presents recently discovered evidence that whilst the life expectancy of an “ordinary” medieval male peasant was between 25 and 30 years the skeletons of monks indicate that many, if not most, lived into their 50s, 60s and beyond. Scientists have also found that diabetes was not uncommon in monastic populations. (9)
(vii) Henry VIII is best remembered for his desperate search for a male heir that led to Britain’s break with the church of Rome after the Pope refused to dissolve his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. However the later part of his reign was a time of great change in Britain with the rise of Protestantism, the growing demands for an English language bible and the complex religious arguments regarding the existence of purgatory, Heaven and Hell’s waiting room. This argument may appear philosophical to the modern mind but if the world at large came to doubt purgatory’s existence the economic consequences for the church were enormous as all their establishments from the local monastery to the Vatican offered a service to pray for the soul’s rapid progression through purgatory. The number of prayers and the period over which they would be offered was based on the value of an individual’s contribution to the church. It is no wonder that the church saw arguments against purgatory as heresy.
(viii) Waverley Abbey was suppressed in 1536 and its wealth and land handed to Sir William Fitzwilliam the treasurer of the King’s household.
(ix) According to Karl Shoemaker the church jealously guarded a right to protect a criminal within the walls of a consecrated church for over a thousand years. He argues that this practice had its roots in Roman law where an aristocrat could intercede on behalf of their followers, an ideas that merged with the Christian teachings of clemency and the pardon of repentant sinners. The practice remained part of English comma law until its abolition in the 16th century.
(1) Hine, Lewis (1909) Social Photography: How the Camera May Help in the Social Uplift. Published in Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg and published in 1980 by Leete’s Island Books.
(2) Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin Books
(4) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
(5) le Grange, Ashley. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Kindle edition. Oxford: Focal Press
(10) Farthing, Stephen (2006) 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. London: Quintessence.
(12) Fish, Simon (1529) A Supplicacyon for the Beggars. Edited by Edward Arbor. Gutenberg eBook, Kindle Edition.
(3) Rosler, Martha (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughs (on documentary photography) (accessed 2014 at the Everyday Archive) – http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf
(6) History of Waverley Abbey (accessed at genie.com 8.10.15) – http://www.geni.com/projects/Waverley-Abbey-Surrey-England/25944
(7) Burton, Janet. Who Were the Cistercians? (accessed at monastic Wales 8.10.15) – http://www.monasticwales.org/article/3
(8) Precinct (accessed at dictionary reference 8.10.15) – http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/precincts
(9) Ramirez, Janina (2015) Saints and Sinners: Britain’s Millennium of Monastries (accessed at the BBC 8.10.15) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052zxhm
(11) The Oxford Dictionary (accessed at OED 9.10.15) – www.oed.com
(13) Roach, Levi (2011) Review of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages by Karl Shoemaker. (Accessed at History Today 9.10.15) – http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2011/08/sanctuary-and-crime-middle-ages