The Ethics of Aesthetics
The worst drought in the Horn of Africa in 60 years continues to show no signs of abating. Over the last few months several bodies of photographic work focusing on the humanitarian emergency in the region have appeared in national and international media. One such body of work is a portfolio of images taken by Alejandro Chaskielberg for Oxfam.
I first saw Chaskielberg’s work at the 2010 Brighton Biennial, where he exhibited a portfolio of photographs about the Parana river in South America. The photographs had been taken at night, which gave them a distinctive visual appeal. His latest work for Oxfam in the Horn of Africa shares the same aesthetic quality: they were all taken in the moonlight with added artificial lighting. As a result of combining flash and moonlight, Chaskielberg’s photographs have an almost tactile, three-dimensional quality. The colours are intense and the scenes and people depicted have a mysterious aura to them. Moonlight photography has become Chaskielberg’s trademark visual style. The photographer acknowledges that he likes exploring the boundaries between reality and fiction, which is evident in his images. In Chaskielberg’s photographs people look as if they were characters in their own dreams of sustainable livelihoods, dignity, and survival. Is it not at night-time that we dream anyway?
Alejandro Chaskielberg’s USP (unique selling point) is unquestionably effective. He has found a very personal, almost inimitable visual approach. And that achievement should not be underestimated. But I look at Chaskielberg’s moonlit images and I sense a tension between what the images show and what they are meant to tell. I detect a conflict between the images as visual products and their communication potential. In other words, I fail to connect what I see in the photographs with the plea of the people in them. Interestingly, I see that connection immediately when I look at Rankin’s images taken in the same region, on the same topic, also for Oxfam. Rankin’s photograph of a Turkana woman holding a day’s worth of food is beautiful and at the same time brutally honest. We get the message and the dignity of the person photographed remains intact. In fact, if anything, the dignity of the person in the image is enhanced.
Comparing Rankin’s and Chaskielberg’s images reminded me of an insightful article written by John Mraz on Sebastiao Salgado. Mraz eloquently explains how a documentary photograph should strive to achieve a balance between expression and information. I believe that these two qualities are not mutually exclusive. However, if that balance is upset then the effectiveness of a photograph as a visually compelling mechanism for sharing information is severely affected.
One image that made an impact on me, and that manages to strike that difficult balance pointed out by John Mraz is Tom Stoddard’s photograph of an emaciated woman in Ajiep, Sudan. This photograph is both a document and a symbol, as Mraz would put it. It is both specific to the events it refers to and universal.
The ethics and the aesthetics of the image are intimately connected. They can work synergically as they do in Rankin’s or Stoddard’s photographs, or, in the case of Chaskielberg’s, create a tension that prompts us to ask questions about approach and intention.
These issues may seem rather metaphysical but as photographers we need to be able to deal with them. It’s part of what we know as a healthy reflexive practice, which doesn’t have anything to do with ‘reflexes’ but with the ability to understand how the photographer’s cultural background, beliefs, intentions and preconceptions affect the outcome of their work.