Debates about the moral value of photography have to deal with poverty. One might think that there is little to discuss: poverty can be distressingly visible, and photographs have been a principle means for motivating efforts to help those in need. From the classic photographs by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine to those persistent Save the Children ads, images of poverty and particularly of its effects on children have raised awareness, shaped public policy, and opened pocketbooks. All that remains, one might think, would be to continue to produce compelling images of destitution.
This photograph from Haiti may not prick one’s conscience, perhaps because we can’t see the child’s face, but it remains a striking image. It also reflects the other side of the debate about photography’s moral legitimacy. One argument against the image is that the photographic depiction of poverty is in fact highly sentimentalized: a continuation of the stock attitudes–including charity, but also condescension–of the Victorian era. In short, the photograph of the poor child is a transposition of the Victorian waif from illustration into photography. For this and other reasons, photographers such as Gordon Parks and others have been accused, not entirely without cause, of simplifying or otherwise aesthetically framing poverty as an object for concerned contemplation, instead of either exploring the social fabric of the poor community or exposing the causes of its continued oppression.
This photo would seem to fall under that criticism. The image is too good: on the one hand, a near-perfect outline of the waif and, on the other hand, a composition of elegant design and rich colors that belies the child’s lack of resources. Indeed, it could be in a Renaissance painting, and both the cropping and the oddity of the one shoe draw one into a close study of the image itself and thus away from critical attention to the social and economic conditions that lie behind it.
The photograph may reflect another criticism as well. Somewhat paradoxically, photography is faulted (and by the same people) both for not evoking the correct moral response and for wearing out compassion or other charitable or progressive inclinations. (Save the Children does come to mind.) That idea could drive photographers to look for new angles on an old subject, and the image above certainly has been cropped in that manner. Instead of the typical dirty face, we see asymmetrical feet (one shod and one bare); instead of the usual sense of need, there is a strange self-sufficiency in this child’s pose; instead of the same assurance that everyone knows what is needed, wearing one shoe creates a whiff of illegibility. And so a photo that may be making poverty into art could also be reworking viewing habits to suggest that seeing is not knowing.
The debates about photography are not going to be resolved today. I don’t think one can or should avoid the work done by public art, which includes channeling sentiments and thus risking sentimentality. Photojournalism does traffic in stock sentiments, just as intellectuals rely on stock criticisms. I’ll admit that there are days when I side with Oscar Wilde’s comment that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” But there is still reason to take a good look at the other side of privilege, and to consider how compassion must at some point be a way of seeing.