"The annual banquet. Los Angeles. April 17, 2010," by Julie Platner. Via nytimes.com.
I started following the Lens blog at nytimes.com after it was suggested in the comments on my post about literary vs. unliterary photography. Most of the stories I’ve encountered at Lens since then have been fairly uninteresting — a mix of straight photojournalism and fluff.
I’m not sure yet whether this piece about photographer Julie Platner’s work documenting white supremacists — the death of one of her subjects being the occasion of the post — is really any better than all those other posts. It’s basically a hash combining news coverage of the event with bits of Platner’s resume. But the subject matter is certainly compelling.
Hate groups are a fascinating subject. To someone like me — a person of mixed race, raised in diverse urban areas — they have a distinctly fantastic quality to them. They are a sort of boogeyman or storybook monster. They are scary and loathsome, but it is hard to escape the emotional certainty that they belong to a different time or a different world, or both.
This is not to say that I am unfamiliar with hate and bigotry, or that I do not understand their reality — just that I am accustomed to encountering them in different forms. I am used to seeing overt, hard-core racism go consistently (if sometimes thinly) veiled, except among the deranged and the drunk. The idea of it organizing, holding bake sales, and attending conventions is bizarre and strongly counterintuitive. The outfits don’t help, either; I can’t resist the urge to read them as cosplay.
Is that wrong? I am not sure. On the one hand, it would be a clear error not to consider these people (especially the cosplayers) foolish; on the other hand, it would be a mistake to take lightly the capacity of fools to do evil. And the question for our purposes is not only whether or not we are to take these people seriously, but also whether or not a photojournalist documenting them has a responsibility to guide us in our perception of them, and, if so, what that responsibility entails.
The Times writers seem to be confused about this as well. They seem to weave back and forth between humanizing and demonizing them. The humanizing elements seem to arise partly from journalistic habits, and partly from bemusement or novelty — as though the fact that these are people with feelings and families was somehow the real news.
Platner’s photographs are similarly ambivalent, although they are more interesting and perhaps more nuanced. Instead of humanizing and demonizing, I would say that they militarize and domesticate — roughly half of them record what is obviously aspiring to be a paramilitary organization, and the other half record families and communities going about a superficially normal (if regalia-heavy) pageant of civic life.
Many of the photographs — especially those in the second category — are surprisingly funny, putting me in mind of @vossbrink’s suggestion/speculation that “photography’s natural state is of mocking its subjects.” In this case, the question is how these photographs mock, and what that mocking means. Humor can serve many different functions in relationship to its objects. It can deprive horrible things of some of their power, for example. It can reveal uncomfortable truths and make it easier for us to face them. It can simply take the edge off of our anger or fear.
I don’t know that Platner’s photographs do any of those things. They put me in mind more of Martin Parr or Lars Tunbjork. Except that those photographers hold up a teasing or satirical mirror to normally unquestioned mainstream lives, whereas Platner is applying a similar playful, teasing aesthetic to angry, potentially violent people whom the mainstream already refuses to take seriously. It seems peculiarly out of place — except in the photographs that include children and young people, where the light-heartedness of the depictions underscores the ugly, heavy, bitter fact that childhoods are being warped in service of adult hatreds.
It’s interesting to compare Platner’s photographs to Bruce Gilden’s series for Newsweek last year. Both projects refer to two key factors in the contemporary relevance of white supremacist groups: the poor economy and the election of Barack Obama. The photographs are also similar in content, depicting substantially the same sorts of people in the same sorts of situation — except that Gilden’s does not cover the more militant situations that Platner does. There is even some overlap in the kind of humor they use.
What differentiates Gilden’s photographs are their black and white rendition, their close perspective, and their systematic framing of people as subjects, where Platner depicts scenes and situations. The resulting difference in overall tone is surprisingly significant — at least, I feel very different when I look at them. Gilden’s photos imply personal judgment to me, partly his judgment of the people he depicts, and partly an invitation to make my own judgments about them. Where they are funny, Gilden’s photos seem to me to imply a laughter that diminishes. Looking at them, I feel much larger, and I feel the supremacists to be smaller.
If this were almost any other subject matter, I would present those observations as clear evidence that Gilden’s approach is problematic compared to Platner’s. In this case, I am honestly unsure.