3. Excursus: Politics of the Victim
Published: 19.06.2014
in the series Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary
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I mentioned in my first post that the rise of documentary discourses between the World Wars resulted from the political need to visibilize the working class in the new media culture corresponding to the era of mass democracy. Both in its “from above” (state/liberal/Griersonian/FSA) and in its “from below” (social movements/revolutionary/worker-photography) versions, documentary rhetoric contributed to this political need, in part through the dissemination of an iconography of a victimized working class.

The production of a poetics of dispossession is a key contribution from documentary methods emerging from the 1930s to social struggles for justice and democracy. Beyond the specific historical prewar context, I think this poetics was a central contribution to the 20th century universal citizenship democratic imaginary, which finds precisely a key historical iconic source in the worker-photography documentary project. I mean, the iconography of a fragile and precarious life is constitutive not only of the project of proletarian documentary, but is in the root of the poetic construction of democracy and justice. Egalitarianism is based in the poetics of all being equally vulnerable to poverty and abuse. Documentary poetics is about the production of the “common man” which constitutes the new political subject of mass democracy and is fundamental to the modern notion of popular sovereignty. Starting in the mid-1920s, worker photography contributed to the visual production of such a poetics through the depiction of the bare materiality of everyday life, of ugliness, and abjection, which is a programmatic aspect of German worker-photography literature. Edwin Hoernle, author of probably the most important programmatic essay on the movement, “The Working Man’s Eye,” articulated the idea of a “hard, merciless light” (a phrase I took as the title of the Reina Sofia Museum exhibition in 2011), as a class-struggle expression of proletarian self-determination and insurgency against bourgeois paternalism. The ugliness and abjection of proletarian subordination was thus attached to the visual production of a rebellious proletarian subjectivity, which constitutes one of the problems and contradictions inherent to the worker-photography discourse, a kind of structural ambivalence between empowerment and victimization.

What I want to examine here are the ambiguities in such victim iconography by addressing the figure of the prostitute in postwar humanist photography. The recent Joan Colom retrospective exhibition at MNAC, Barcelona, was the context for a discussion on the interpretations of prostitute imagery, which constitutes the core of Colom’s work. Colom was seen as the peak of what the main Spanish photography critic and historian at the time, Josep Maria Casademont, called the “new avant-garde,” corresponding to a period of great innovation in Spanish photographic culture between 1957 and 1964. We can also consider this period to be the golden age of Spanish postwar humanist photography.

Colom started photographing with a hidden camera in Barcelona’s red light district around 1960. A selection of his photographs was published in 1964 in a now famous photo-book, with texts by Spanish writer Camilo José Cela (awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1989). The book title (Izas, rabizas y colipoterras) is a series of slang names for prostitutes and already contains the characteristic pejorative language that Cela uses in the book, which is essentially a taxonomy or dictionary of such slang names, written as commentaries of Colom’s clandestine prostitute street portraits. Taken as a kind of abject social typology of prostitutes, the book can be seen as a pervert underclass parody of, say, August Sander’s social typologies: Antlitz der Zeit, the face of our times.

How can we read Colom’s photos of prostitutes ideologically?

Ideological interpretations of postwar photography in Spain bring new specific problems, since fascism won the war (and lasted formally in power until 1975). So the links between postwar documentary projects and its prewar left wing ancestors are more complicated to trace than in other Western European countries like Italy, France, or Britain. My view is that Spanish postwar photographic culture reproduced the dominant ideology of the national-Catholic dictatorship, and current resistance or oppositional interpretations of the period are pretty much revisionist.

Let’s try to stage the dilemma: Using the Sander analogy of Colom’s prostitutes as the “face of the times” in Spain under Franco’s dictatorship, we can see the photographs as the representation of citizenship under fascism, namely the prostitution of public life. This interpretation would also correspond to what Colom himself said about his work, that he “worked the street” (which I used as title for his exhibition), meaning that he did not photograph landscapes or still lives but street scenes. Seen in this light, Colom articulates an oppositional, resistance discourse under the dictatorship But this reading of identification of the photographer with the prostitutes (and with the underclass by extension) is contradicted by his explicitly sexist and classist work method and mentality, which is confirmed in Cela’s writing. Cela was not an oppositional intellectual to Franco, but rather quite the opposite, an official one. The book expresses the double morality of Spanish national-Catholicism in a most radical way: as an apparent denunciation of prostitution and social degradation, what is expressed in fact is an explicit voyeuristic and stereotypically masculine aggressive attraction to women in public space. The book expresses the viewpoint of the prostitute client: Colom’s identification with the oppressed is simultaneous to his identification with the oppressor. Thus Colom participates in a kind of sexist, petit-bourgeois, reactionary masculinity, which was a dominant ideology under Spanish national-Catholic rule.

If we compare Colom’s photographs to those by Brassaï or Christer Strömholm (who was briefly in Barcelona during the same period) made in similar contexts, we see that Colom’s hidden camera is antagonistic to the intimacy of the participatory and friendly observation that we see in the others.

The problematic ambivalence in Colom’s 1960 work is radicalized in his late work made in 1990s post-Olympic Barcelona, which documents the neoliberal transformation of urban space and the effects of the “easyJet revolution” on the street life of the city’s historical center. The indiscriminate representation of poverty, hooliganism, mass tourism, female sex work, and various other “carnivalesque” or “abject” uses of public spaces, all confirm a classist and reactionary mentality that sees public space as social chaos, even if we can also take Colom’s late work as a critique on the pervasive neoliberal propaganda of false consensus and idyllic multicultural public spaces. Barcelona is a paradigmatic case study for the neoliberal city and its new forms of propagandistic cultural governance.

OK, I hope I’m not getting too far off-track. To recapitulate:

It seems important to recognize that clandestine shooting is a constitutive trope in photographic modernism. Paul Strand already used side viewfinder methods in some of his early street shots from the 1910s. And in the late 1920s and 1930s, Cartier-Bresson, Ilya Ehrenburg, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and even Margaret Mead’s husband Gregory Bateson, while photographing in Bali, all used right-angle viewfinders in their Leicas in order to avoid the rigidity present in subjects who are aware of the camera presence. This way, they were able to capture “life itself”: the pure spontaneity of the unaware and anonymous passerby. Such unawareness is the precondition for the poetics of modernist photojournalism and documentary expression, to a large extent. But this unconscious, anonymous “common man” kind of representation is also the result of unequal power relations. Ehrenburg was aware of such power, addressing it through his analogy between the camera and a gun. In his book on Paris from 1931 he declares the dubious honesty of the writer as commentator of reality: “I can talk about this without flushing: a writer has his own notions of honesty. Our entire life is spent peeping into windows and listening at the keyhole – that’s our craft.”

What do the photographed ones have to say?

In 1964, when the book by Colom and Cela was published, one of the women in the photos sued them. She contested that she was not a prostitute and that the book was injurious to her. The case was taken up by the sensationalist press. Ultimately, the woman did not appear before the judge and the case was closed. By the way, she was the most beautiful and elegant woman in the book. Standing out from the others who appeared to be rather old, ugly, and fat, she seems to represent an upper class in the underclass world of prostitution (ironically, the press revealed that she was related to an employee of the state prison). So here we find a situation of rebellion against denigrated representation as the abject victim imposed upon by unequal power relations. Colom reacted to the situation by giving up photography, the cipher of such inequality. Did the slave triumph over the master? And yet, the repressed returned: 30 years later as an old man, Colom went back with his hidden camera to those very same streets.

6 comment(s)
Sarah James
Posted 20.06.2014 at 14:04

Hi Jorge,

I think this post on the poetics and politics of the abject and the victim is really fascinating. I want to ask you to expand on the connections between the visualisation of the working class from above and below in the interwar period, and the beginnings of the victimisation of the working class – the poetics of dispossession - central to universal citizenship democratic imaginary as this mutated in the postwar period of the 50s and 60s. Can you say a little more about the balance between the mobilisation of ugliness as part of a rebellious proletarian subjectivity, and the slide into a more reactionary denigrated representation of the abject victim? Where did the rebellious working class subjectivity survive?

I think your claim that clandestine shooting could/should be considered as a constitutive trope in photographic modernism is a fascinating and compelling one - and of course, in relation to the photojournalistic poetics of a life captured unaware, this makes perfect sense. I wonder how this works in relation to the broader cultural photographic fields of surveillance that also multiplied in the cold war period? How does the trope of the individual, the common man, and 'the type' function both in relation to this subject of surveillance, and in relation to the ideal of the humanist democratic subject and the abject victim? I say this just because your reading of Colom's photography as an abject social typology - a pervert underclass parody of Sander - is quite provocative. And makes a lot of sense. I wonder whether trying to unpack how the ‘type’ – be it prostitute or working class – is being represented helps to elucidate the tensions between the petit-bourgeois reactionary masculinity and the critique of pervasive neoliberalism that is also locatable in his work?

I think the subject you find under the lens of the hidden camera - the 'unconscious, anonymous 'common man' is one trope for the photographically produced new political subject of mass democracy in this period. But I guess the knowing subject returning the photographer's gaze - and of course, consequently also the viewing subject’s - is its twin? Indeed, this seemed to be a far more important trope for Steichen when selecting his images (sorry to return again to The Family of Man...) - with the production of empathy and collective belonging in mind. In many ways these two photographically produced subjects and their related gazes and social relations have traditionally been critiqued in terms of the power structures and relations of documentary practices – those that walk the precarious line between empowerment and victimisation. But can this central paradox also be related to the structural ambivalence between democracy and sovereignty in this period, as you are mapping it?

Jorge Ribalta
Posted 23.06.2014 at 13:11

Thanks Sarah. That’s tough one! I’m afraid my answer can only be a poor one. Essentially because I’m unclear about where the border between victimization and empowerment really is. At least iconographically or poetically speaking. The thing is that in German Worker Photography you find marvelous poetic examples of such “masochistic” or negative identification with abject proletarian life representations: Albert Henning’s photos of street people looking for food into the trash or having a soup in a charity shelter, Ernst Thormann’s charity lines, Walter Ballhause’s unemployed everyday life, etc. All these great German photographers have a most sophisticated depiction of class shame and social unrest you can find. But simultaneously they convey a tremendous poetic strength in the representation of the materiality of such shame and poverty. Joris Ivens explains in his memories the experience of showing some film to a Russian worker audience and having the admired feedback of such audience in terms of recognition of his ability to capture the very material experience of work, without idealizations. One of the workers told him: “You say you are from the middle class, yet the film we have seen was surely made with the eyes of a worker”. Ivens wrote that he was the highest possible compliment to him. Of course. I mean this is a poetics made of harshness, a rare combination of violence and tenderness.

“Positive” working class depictions in Worker Photography appear thus as parodies of bourgeois “good life” commonplaces, as the Filippovs’s AIZ cover, with the two daughters dressed like tennis players. Such masochistic class negativity in my opinion has a double meaning. One is triggering reaction, of course. This is why I say that such class identifications are a counter-discourse rather than a representation of proletarian subjectivity. The second meaning is about the longer history of representations of the working or lower classes coming from a naturalistic 19th century pictorial and literary tradition. And beyond, we can probably trace a longer iconographic genealogy in the history of painting. I mean, there is a long history of forms of representation of working classes and vernacular communities attached to various “carnivalesque”, grotesque or abject traditions, which in the 19th century link with the new emerging visual mass media forms of social and political commentary (like Daumier). So I’d say there is a more or less conscious class-subjective internalization of such pictorial history and visual culture. Let’s not forget that AIZ published regularly on artists like Goya, Daumier or Heinrich Zille. And that Heartfield inserts clearly his work in that political caricature tradition.

So there is a kind of sadomasochistic unconscious in such tradition. What I’d label as reactionary is the more “masochistic” part, the kind of melodramatic self-compassion. But probably that masochistic mechanism is necessary as a trigger of the emancipatory of revolutionary impulse, I mean you cannot have one without the other. That’s why I have a real hard time to separate the two elements.

So, concerning the second part of your comment, it is probably worth noting that the emergence of a self-critical awareness of the camera’s power microphysics is also to be traced to that period. I mentioned Ehrenburg but we can also think of James Agee self-criticality in Let us Now Praise Famous Men. So yes, I think photography plays a key role in that period in terms of becoming internalized quite deeply and becoming essential both in the public forms of class subjectivity formations and representations and in the psychological mechanism of self perception and social imagination. This is maybe what Agee meant when he wrote, also in Let Us Praise Now Famous Men, that the camera was the “central instrument of our times”.

But, again, your question is too difficult…

Jorge Ribalta
Posted 23.06.2014 at 14:32

Sarah, just one more detail. When you ask about where did the rebellious working class survive in the postwar period I think the question should be also addressed to the working class political organizations and historical conditions. It is important to recognize that the life conditions of the working class in the West were completely different in the postwar from those in the prewar, so I'm not sure if posing the question in terms of survival helps us to identify both the continuities and discontinuities in the two periods. I think this debate is for example totally different if we look at parts of the world that were not directly affected by WW2, like Mexico. You find there fascinating and extremely politicized photographers like Nacho Lopez, working in the 1950s and 1960s. You don't find such examples in Europe or the USA at that time.

antonella russo
Posted 23.06.2014 at 20:11

Dear Jorge
Thank you for adding another new compelling tassel to your blog!

I have some comments I’d like to share on the issue of the aporias and ambiguities in photographic representation of the prostitute in relation to Colom’s history case you brought up.
I think it was important to stress the how Colom’s represented a subject which was largely erased ( removed and repressed) from fascist regime representation .
Just one footnote on August Sander to support your Colom’s discussion. I think it is interesting to note that the category “prostitute” is not represented in August Sander’s ( social -democratic /liberal -democratic) “Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts” and thus the prostitute /sex worker is left with no physiognony , her profession is excluded even from Sander’s “the last ones “ category (blinds , beggars, unemployed, persecuted jews and jewesses and even dead people!)

It seems to me that The category “prostitute” was filled especially by Neorealist humanist photography . In his 1947 “Tutti ladri “ (They are all thieves) in “Tempo Nuovo” photo-texts by Federico Patellani on social degradation of Neapolitan street life pictures “Neapolitan signorine” as flaneuses seen from afar or just their backs and with Lambertino Sorrentino 1949 “3000 schiave bianche”
( 3000 white slaves) in “ Tempo Nuovo” a four-part chronicle on Italian brothels, including and an inventory of brothels, a statistics on the spreading of venereal diseases , interviews with prostitutes and even a signed petition to the Minister of Interiors to ask him to abolish “State –supported prostitution.”

Some ambiguities of Colom’s prostitution documentation are shared in a thorough and detailed photo- documentation on prostitution taken by Franco Pinna in 1956 to be published in the PCI weekly illustrated “Vie Nuove .”
Pinna visited “Il Mondrione” Roman shanty houses ( borgate romane) the anthropological (exotic) site in the outskirts of Rome periodically visited by delegations of Comunist intellectuals
( Giovanni Berlinguer, Elsa Morante, Alberto Moravia and young Pier Paolo Pasolini) to show human and political support.
For his project, Pinna used the same sequence technique he applied for De Martino’s ritual pictures producing a long (set-up) sequences of the “ mechanics “ of the “Borgate” prostitution starting with enticing a client and even including a strip-tease shots for the benefit a male voyeuristic audience.
No prostitute ever protested on Pinna’s requests but quite the contrary they happily accepted to be interviewed and provided generous and long self-presentions of themselves and their lives.
I pondered on your question about I could have Colom’s prostitute best react to her victimization and abuse and empower herself and I guess one answer might be to not only struggle for her own dialectical self-representation ( appropriating documentation of her own work) but also share its institutional circulation .

Jorge Ribalta
Posted 24.06.2014 at 12:37

Thanks for the interesting connections Antonella. Yes, you're right, the power issue in relation to the 1964 Colom affair is just one possibility among various others. When I went to see some sex workers organizations while doing the Colom exhibition it is true that there was a misrecognition and a relative refusal of Colom's abject representation of street life in the Raval district, but this does not mean that all of the sex workers disliked their own photos. Some of them even liked the idea of having their photo in the exhibition. Of course this was not the rule, I mean most of them disliked the way Colom's photos reproduced a dominant mentality that criminalizes female sex workers in public space, and particularly when there's an increasing pressure for the eviction of sex work in the area, now in a strong process of gentrification. But again, this is not a one-sided debate and various positions are possible.

Sarah James
Posted 25.06.2014 at 17:47

Hi both,

This is a great conversation! And yes, my questions were too huge, and far too abstract to answer!... But thank you for trying...

Jorge - I think your coupling of the 'sadomasochistic unconscious' and the 'reactionary, masochistic' is a really helpful way of thinking about some of these complexities and contradictions within working class self/representation. I think this is one of the strengths of an approach - such as yours - which is intrinsically historical, and historically reflexive, as well as dialectical, rather than over-burdened by theory - which has rather characterised those debates associated with post-documentary. Only through such a careful archival investigation can one be open to these paradoxes - and the ways in which a reactionary tendency can be understood as a precondition - or necessary other - for an emancipatory drive or revolutionary impulse.

Antonella - I completely agree with your points about Sander - the prostitute is missing from his history - despite his inclusion of homeless and unemployed men, or working class mothers, you are totally right that he shies away from this female type. Which seems particularly crazy given the position the prostitute inhabited within modernity and its aesthetic world - and in the typological/realist/sachlich approaches of Sander's contemporary German painters or writers...

I also find these kind of comparisons between German and Italian pre and postwar documentary and humanism really enrich the debate - particularly as it is too often limited in mainstream photographic histories to an Anglo-American narrative.

I look forward to the next post. And will keep puzzling these issues...


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