Alex del Canto, David & Noa, 2020, Photography, Photo courtesy the artist
Alex del Canto, David & Noa, 2020, Photography, Photo courtesy the artist
Beláxis Buil, Solo: In Quaratine, 2020, Photography
Outside, looking in 2014, Beláxis Buil, Photography
by Beláxis Buil
edited by Global English Editors
American photographer Dorothea Lange’s work has resurged as some of the most relevant imagery depicting destitution and loss of hope in America. The Great Depression wrought staggering heights of uncertainty as millions lost their jobs, security, and hard-earned land. The picture-perfect Pollyanna dream that America was an unstoppable superpower, a giant whose economy promised its citizens untouchable future wealth, came to a nightmarish halt in 1929.1 Lange worked as a field photographer for the Farm Security Administration and was able to document the jarring landscape of America’s Great Depression. Now, in 2020, we aren’t too far away from the realities lived by Lange’s subjects. Her ability to capture families, migrant workers, and ruined city landscapes revealed priceless, private moments in rural America that would otherwise have gone undocumented in the nation’s history.
It is by using the lens of the camera to capture the human experience that Lange, and other photographers such as Marion Post Wolcott, turned life’s turbulent moments into poetic phrases using light, land, and people. More specifically, it is through the lens of the camera that Lange, Wolcott, and other female photographers observed the dynamic of relationships and their importance to social function. Today, our national focus has shifted away from America’s undeniable exalted stance in the world to one humbled to reconsider its roots in family life. Now, the whole world is on pause. Not since the Great Depression and 9/11 has America dealt with such an unequivocal blow, bringing every single person’s attention back to an element of life that seems to be quickly disappearing: family, family life, humanity, but more so the quiet moments that go unnoticed. Lange’s photograph, Mother and baby of family on the road, 1939, illustrates just such a moment. The image presents a mother supporting her baby on her lap, using her body as a structure of comfort, a structure her child will familiarize through time as one to depend on. This moment of interdependence between the subjects demonstrates a synergistic relationship that goes beyond the explanation of a human, physical bond, touch or comfort, to one that creates a symbiotic function between two lifeforms.2 These brief moments of respite during the Great Depression provided Lange and many other photographers with opportunities to catch glimpses of the real meaning of relationships.
In terms of contemporary American society, family life is measured by social media standards: posts of ourselves hugging family members, sitting around a dinner table celebrating a milestone, or color-coordinating an ensemble of family members in t-shirts and sweatpants to perform a routine for viewers on TikTok. Seldom have there been posts of terrified families sharing their experiences with COVID-19. Upon contrasting the image Mother and baby of the family on the road against most social media images today, one can state that today’s images appear polished, staged, and picture perfect. An image of people living on the fringes of society that makes that reality visible to the public would most likely be taken down by the social media platform or receive objections from those who don’t wish to see such harsh truths. Very few subjects have been willing to publish despondent images during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Neither have there been many images posted that expose the raw truth happening inside hospitals, or of the staggering lines formed outside of unemployment facilities, or of domestic violence, or even of police raids breaking up covert parties at homes and apartments during stay at home orders. These types of images are usually hidden from media platforms but are found in newspapers, news reports, journals to heighten fear, or used for surveying.
Recently, The Guardian and Kaiser Health News joined efforts to ‘document the lives of health care workers who died from COVID-19. The collaboration became a database investigating ‘why so many healthcare workers fell victim to the pandemic’, additionally each health care worker was acknowledged in photographs outside of their professional, immediate surroundings.3 It is through the visual imagery of photography that a subject's independence or interdependent relationship to others and their immediate surroundings is exhibited. In the case of The Guardian and Kaiser Health’s effort, the healthcare workers are acknowledged, but removed from the space they independently/interdependently knew best-or made more visible due to the pandemic crisis. None of the images depict the real horror happening within medical environments. Instead the images are quiet, tender, and focused on the subject. Finally, there is the way photographs serve as an entry point for the public to see, understand, and relate to the subject(s), or relationship dynamics happening within the space. Although The Guardian and Kaiser Health released disheartening information, the photographs of the subjects respect their positions as citizens whose lives existed outside the medical field. Each photograph shares a momentous second in their individual history, privileging the viewer to recognize the workers as humans, and not staged in PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) standing tall, proud, and empowered in relationship to one another. Because the media, celebrities, and politicians have exalted their role during the current pandemic, there is a sense that they too must fit the heroic role appointed to them in spite of the nightmarish reality within hospitals. It’s an unnecessary pressure. Perhaps these photographs could be shared on social media, replacing images we find of hospital workers lined up in rows like trophies. The hospital workers’ relationship to their space has been forced to conform with the public image being presented, when in fact the existing relationship between the hospital workers and their immediate surrounding during the pandemic is one that obligates them to deny the severity of the patient's condition, lacks support from administrators (not enough PPE), is fearful, and intensely centered around surviving (for the patient and health care worker(s)).*
When comparing Marion Post Wolcott’s photographs to images of hospital workers or families displayed on social media today, we see a significant difference between Wolcott’s disposition as photographer to her subjects and their relationship to one another in their spaces, environments, and immediate surroundings. During the Great Depression, Wolcott was working for The Farm Security Administration. Although this gave her access to subjects she would not otherwise have been able to reach, Wolcott’s use of the camera clearly shows her desire to document and shed light on the underprivileged in America. “As an FSA documentary photographer,” she said, “I was committed to changing attitudes of people by familiarizing America with the plight of the underprivileged, especially in rural America”.4 She felt the need to "publicize the need for federal assistance to those hardest hit by the Great Depression".5 When looking closely at her images, we begin to notice her insightful ability to shift the viewer’s gaze towards the humanistic interpersonal/interdependent relationships between her subjects. In Wolcott’s Taking a drink and resting from hoeing cotton, Allen Plantation,1941, a black woman stands dressed in light clothes and a hat. What seems to be a rake or pitchfork rests on the left side of her upper arm. She is holding a pitcher that is tilted forward towards two small, black children. Both children are dressed in light clothes and seem entranced by the pitcher of water. The taller of the two children has their head dipped slightly into the pitcher, as though overcome by thirst. All three subjects stand in an open field, a plantation. Studying the image, we realize the woman is using her body as a structure that supports the rake or pitchfork and also as a structure that functions to fill a need that both children require. Additionally, we see that her relationship to the land surrounding her is one enslaved to a plantation where her work is enforced by plantation owner/s. Her relationship to the land is dependent and further complicated by her need to supply the basic needs of her children.
Similarly to Lange’s Mother and baby of family on the road, we notice the same interdependent, symbiotic function between all human forms in Taking a drink and resting from hoeing cotton. Mainly, however, we notice both women providing for the children: human comfort, support, care, and nourishment that illuminates a single moment capturing the quality of real humanness. We could point out that, although Wolcott captured an intimate moment of interdependence between her subjects, there is a sense of distance between Wolcott’s lens and her subjects. We could speculate that her privilege may have granted her access to her subjects, within parameters. On the other hand, Lange’s lens was up close to her subjects. Regardless of the distance between each photographer and their subjects, these images candidly exhibit qualities of life and synergies that exist between the subjects which could have been overlooked. They also seemed to have a deeper understanding of such dynamics in relationships and their physical, psychological, and emotional functions, synergetic connections, and human responses to their immediate surroundings. These two images taken in 1939 and 1941 have a distinct feel, unlike most images found on social media today.
Contemporary photography and video have found multiple ways to bypass the tedious task of developing, processing, and printing. As photographers, we have the luxury to recreate the original digital shot by adding filters. A photographer can control as much as they would like by creating posh environments, curating specified subjects or celebrities within a set, and directing subjects to pose, sit, or stand. What the photographer decides to practice in their studio or behind the lens is up to them, but the critical point is whether or not the photographer consciously decides to centralize their focus to reveal the dynamic of relationships that exist either subtly or candidly within the subject. The photographer has an ability to observe this phenomena and reveal it; but must understand that to capture such phenomena one must be granted access. Capturing the dynamics of function or synergies between the subjects, their immediate surroundings, or their environment offers the viewer a visual window into understanding what those dynamics look like and allows them to determine if those revelatory dynamic functions can facilitate questions about the genuineness of their own interdependent and inner/independent relationships.6 Is the subject within the pictorial frame functioning authentically as themselves or with the other forms? How do we evaluate those functions? How do we measure authenticity? Should the viewer even consider whether the photographer was aiming to depict a subject’s authentic self or the subject's relationship to their sense of self, to others, to their immediate surroundings, or to their environment? These are crucial questions, since technology and social media have dominated how we use photos and video to project an image of who we are (or want to be) to the world.
Photographs that authentically depict relationship of the self, or oneself in front of the lens, or off-the-radar relationships occurring in private, remote settings offer us a historical context that we often neglect, as opposed to staged images shaped by public opinion, social pressures, or social expectations. Photographs that reveal deeper interdependent/independent relationship dynamics that we tend to overlook can provide a visual way to learn more about what directions we could take, independently or as a social collective. Having a photographer capture those private histories and make them visible requires timing, and the privilege of being granted permission to live momentarily within that private, sacred space. It is these types of images that supply societies with a micro-world history, micro-national history, micro-communal history, micro-cultural history, micro-family history, and necessary archival history. They immortalize the quiet, hard-to-reach moments of meaningful interpersonal, interdependent, or inter/innerself 7 relationships not consumed by the noise of life, status, wealth, or power. If Lange or Wolcott, both wonderful female photographers, had not been at the assigned locations at the precise times, we wouldn’t have the images we see today in catalogs, history books, and museums. Acknowledging photography as one of the biggest contributors to visual culture fosters appreciation for the medium’s involvement in history. What a precious gift we have.
Photographer Alex del Canto’s David and Noa evokes a similar moment of quiet relationships with the self and with others. Del Canto’s work usually takes the viewer on lonesome walks through almost-forgotten parts of Florida containing old, iconic motels and homes, but in recent works such as David and Noa the viewer gets to step onto the front lawn of one of those homes. This time, the viewer has the privilege to see two human forms tightly intertwined: the shirtless figure of a man and a smaller figure, a child, wearing a vibrant yellow tie-dyed shirt. There is a sense of protection or guarding. Both forms have their backs turned somewhat towards the camera. The man and child stand on a lawn next to a yellow house. A tree reaches overhead, with a rope swing resting on the man’s shoulder. The man bends his head tenderly towards the child. We see the man use his body to secure the child’s body. We understand the interdependent relationship between the father and child. Del Canto zooms in on that specific moment of interconnectivity. In Lange’s Mother and baby of family on the road, 1939, the viewer is allowed to see a functional relationship; the mother uses her body as a structure of comfort and support, a structure her child will familiarize through time. But in del Canto’s image we see an interdependent relationship between father and child that focuses our gaze on the immediate function between the subjects that is so that both subjects seem far removed from their immediate surroundings. They are unaffected by the world around them; the world exists only between them. Very different dynamics and functions exist between the subjects in del Canto’s work compared with Wolcott's subjects in Taking a drink and resting from hoeing cotton, Allen Plantation,1941. Although both images point out the same simbiotic functions between the subjects and their children, the woman in Wolcott's image however, is enslaved to her immediate surrounding. This is where the viewer is beckoned by the photographer to take a closer look at what is being archived.
In one of my own works, Solo: In Quarantine, 2020, I photographed myself in a series of images that privy my domestic space, explore physical gestures (body movement, dance phrases), and expose an inanimate object (the bed) I depend on for rest. Significantly, my intention was to reveal my inner/inter relationships to the viewer. Solo: In Quarantine, 2020 exhibits my body wearing pajamas, laying on the bed with my arms splayed out, in a low-lit bedroom space. The image portrays body language that could be interpreted as hopeless and the moody lighting adds a solemn layer. Contrary to what the viewer may think, both the temperature of the light and the body language are intended to be relaxed and removed from any emotional, physical, or environmental stimulation. What I aimed to capture was the quiet and stillness I experience in my daily life, despite the anxieties people are feeling during the COVID-19 pandemic. I embraced the freedom and time in isolation to develop a deeper relationship to my inner self, seeking to tune my inner/inter relationship to the outer/exterior world.
During the creative process, I danced through a series of movements which were drawn from a passing thought: “Am I supposed to feel despondent due to the global pandemic?” I wondered why we allow the media to cripple us with fear which not only dampens our ability to fully develop a sound inner/inter relationship with ourselves, but also affects our relationship to the immediate surroundings. Contemplating that thought challenged me to photographically capture those intrinsic moments of stillness that I experience in my personal space; a privilege not granted to anyone outside my immediate family. At the start of the pandemic there were advertisements on social media offering emotional support. It appears that many people were hit hard by the shift from a socially active landscape to a self-isolating one. A wave of fear rolled through countries and the internet. Advertisements informed us how to feel, yet social media postings proved otherwise. Ironically, most images depicted families dancing routines on TikTok, women in workout gear breaking a sweat in their living rooms, men flexing their gym-toned bodies in the bathroom, or celebrities complaining about quarantine while sitting in their mansions. But I wasn’t complaining. Time spent in isolation meant devoting time to developing a stronger inter/inner relationship to myself while imbuing time with my child. Perhaps there are many individuals who can be happy in solitude and are fine with sharing unpolished photos on social media. Posting my photograph on social media privileged others to live that moment through me. At the same time, it gave me the chance to defy characterizations; after all, there is a certain standard we must measure up to on social media and it’s what we usually pay attention to in photographs, rather than humanistic subjects exemplifying real relationships to themselves and others.
As the weeks turn into months during the era of COVID-19, I wonder if photographers could reshape the public’s perspective on what life should look like, or perhaps capture and share moments that go unnoticed. Thinking of photography as a tool to bring about conscious awareness of the functions between relationships by photographing subjects who experience dynamic relationships with others could position society to appreciate meaningful synergies we often take for granted. Perhaps photography could bring us closer together during this time of isolation and separation, by providing a space for us to visually experience humanistic relationships we often neglect.
1. Great Depression History, WWW.History.com , Accessed February/March 2020, Great Depression Economy, WWW.Britannica.com, Accessed February/March 2020
2. Interdependence Theory, WWW.psychology.iresearchnet.com, Accessed February/March
3. Lost on the Frontline: A caring neighbor, a nurse who pulled double shifts: the US health Workers who died from Covid-19, WWW.theguardian.com, Accessed May/June 2020
*Additional Read: Del Nord, Romano, The Culture for the Future of Healthcare Architecture, Alinea Editrice, 2009
4. Marion Post Wolcott: A Biographical Sketch by Linda Wolcott-Moore,people.virginia.edu, University of Virginia, Accessed May 2020
5. Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990): A Biographical Essay, Prints & Photographs Reading Room, www.loc.gov, Library of Congress, Accessed May 2020
6. The Inter-Processual Self: Towards a Personalist Virtue Ethics Proposal, by Kleio Akrivou, German Scalzo, WWW.books.google.com, Accessed May 2020
7. Tolle, Eckhart, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle,Penguin, 2008
Rei Ramirez, When Pigs Fly, 2016, Paint/Mural
by Evo Love
edited by Fara Greenbaum
IS PUNK ROCK DEAD?...
I ask this because I’m sitting here in the year 2020 thinking of all the artists I know personally- and some I don’t know- wondering why the hell I’m not seeing more artists speaking truth to power. Especially when it comes to street and graffiti artists. Here we are with a president who has taken the KKK off the terrorist list, we’re witnessing the up rise of neo Nazism and it seems like this would be the perfect time for street and graff artists to be hitting the walls hard with some sort of visual political commentary expressing how we are not going to take this shit. But no, all I see is another pin up girl on a wall, another 80’s B-boy holding a spray can, a five letter colorful throw up on a back alley wall. Don’t get me wrong, I need that in my life too but where are the artists making people think, challenging the system and saying Fuck You to the American nightmare becoming our new norm? Where is the Punk Rock?
Right before the 2016 elections in Miami, Cuban/American artist Rei Ramirez did this amazing piece off of 83 street in Miami called When Pigs Fly. It was a mural of Donald Trump as a flying pig. At the time, not many of us thought this snake oil salesman would win the election back then, but he did. Shortly after that the landlord and Ramirez were pressured to take the piece down fearing of retaliation by the cult known as Trump. I’m not shaming (nor judging) Ramirez or the landlord. I get why they were in fear for the community and local businesses: especially knowing that area is populated by many immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. Trust me, I get it. But damn that pissed me off. And I’m sure Ramirez was even more upset due to the money spent on paint and the hours of labor that went into that piece. But what angered me most in this situation: the artist was being censored. That should be unnerving to every artist. Around the same time this happened there was another anti-Trump mural by the Bushwick Collective. It was a collaborative effort in Wynwood depicting Donald Trump as the villain, the Joker from Batman. The Joker held a knife up to the Statue of Liberty’s neck. Above the iconic image the words “Come On...What Do You Have to Lose” were written. After Trump won the election, this piece was revised to be less controversial. The Joker t hen changed into a gorilla.
For 3 years now those two walls haven’t left my mind. I’ve watched and waited for someone in the Miami graff and street art scene to go out anonymously and without permission, spraying a fierce no holds barred political commentary on how fucked up shit has been since Trumps been in office. It’s been scarce. Once in a while a “Fuck Trump” paper piece will appear in Wynwood but not much else. Since when have artists cared so much who they were going to piss off? I understand artists have to eat, have bills to pay and must care for their families and kids. The city of Miami is being run by a bunch of conservative republican leaders that collect art and shop owners who delegate the artists to paint a nice, pretty mural in their stores or restaurants. But really, come on. Where is the outrage? Did we all forget how graffiti came about? Graff wasn’t legal, it wasn’t done with permission. Nor was it done to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. In most countries this art form has been used to resist a government that has been fucking over its people: to send a fucking message! That’s Punk Rock. That’s also Hip Hop.
Before I end this piece, I would like to remind you of a well known street artist named Banksy- one of the most collected street artists of our generation, and the history of street art as we know it. And let me emphasize a Highly Paid living street artist of our time. Why do you think that is? My husband says it’s because of his elusiveness and yes, that is part of it, but not in its entirety. Really, think about what made him so famous? What makes him so brilliant, so bad ass, so well collected? What put this British artist on everybody’s radar in America and the rest of the world? Let me refresh your memory in case you forgot, or maybe didn’t know... In 2005 he snuck his pieces into four major museums in New York City and hung them up- Harry Houdini style. What was the subject of his work? Every one of his pieces had some sort of political and/or social commentary that made you think. That stunt at the museums was the most Punk Rock shit I had ever witnessed in my life when it comes to art, an artist, or artistic decision. People can say what they want about Bansky, but the fact is he’s the only one putting his ass on the line for things that matter. Whether he’s doing a piece on a police state, climate change, Guantanamo Bay detainees, Air Pollution, Homophobes... his work is always hitting a nerve. He’s the only artist keeping Punk Rock on life support.
Here, I am living in Miami, what is long thought to be known as one of the mecca’s of street and graff art, with talented artists from all over the world living here, and it's nothing but walls that whisper sweet nothings into your ear. Street after Street filled with conformity, keeping it light. Where are the artist ruffling feathers?- or fighting the good fight?
Additional Notes: This article focuses on Street Art commenting on President Donald Trump, and the Trump Administration. We acknowledge the Powerful Street Art honoring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery during the recent Nationwide Protests in America, and Stand in Solidarity with All Street Art that Honors the Victims of Police Brutality and Deaths in Black Community.