An African woman stares at the camera and purses her lips. She seems upset, but her eyes are in shadow, so it's hard to determine her exact state — or even who she is. We know her occupation, though. "I am a whore," she writes on the photo itself, in big letters the white of bones. Unsettling truths — beautifully photographed truths — are everywhere in "Face of Our Time," an exhibit of photos from Africa, Central Asia, Greenland, and America's Gulf Coast that are bittersweet to regard.
Bittersweet because these are the types of photos — of prostitutes, street beggars, migrant workers, and ordinary lives — that once flourished on the pages of American newspapers but now must find a home elsewhere, including in the corridors of august museums and galleries. Bittersweet because many of the photos, while technically gorgeous, spotlight people and places that fell over a precipice and badly need help. Bittersweet because the photographers themselves have bittersweet feelings about their own work.
"I'm frightened to take photos because I feel like I am violating [people's] space," Jim Goldberg, who's based in San Francisco, told an SFMOMA audience that came to hear him and three of the exhibition's featured photographers. "To be honest, it's frightening to go into the world."
To Goldberg's credit, he admits his fears and overcomes them, journeying to Africa and involving his subjects by letting them write on his Polaroid images. The prostitute photo at SFMOMA is Goldberg's. So is the wall-sized one of the Senegalese farmer who wanted to immigrate illegally to Europe for a better economic life but wound up working as a forced laborer in Libya. It shows the farmer standing with his flock in a garbage-strewn street in Senegal. The farmer's narrative is written on the panorama's horizon. In effect, the farmer and the prostitute have autographed Goldberg's photos, giving them a seal of approval or what might be called a fair-trade imprimatur. The farmer and prostitute get their stories told in a more personal way; Goldberg gets a better photo.
Contrast this with the more elitist photography of previous generations, which clearly exoticized or eroticized foreign nationals. I'm thinking of the work of early-20th-century photographer Rudolf Franz Lehnert, whose images of bare-breasted North African women were sold throughout Europe. Even Irving Penn, acclaimed for his Vogue magazine covers, celebrity shots, and globe-trotting images, fell into this exotic-erotic trap, as when he went to New Guinea in 1970, photographed five native warriors in a makeshift studio, and said of their headdresses, nose bones, uncovered skin, and longbows that these were "men who seem to have just emerged from the Stone Age." Coincidentally, Penn's photo is on view at San Francisco's Fraenkel Gallery, where no wall text explains the reality of New Guineans' lives.
Such a lack of information on photographic subjects is almost unacceptable in the 21st century. Every one of the lesbians and transgender people who posed for South African photographer Zanele Muholi has a name. Muholi — the only female photographer in "Face of Our Time" — is a lesbian activist who wanted to show portraits of people whom her country often dismisses or submits to violence. Some of the 20 people we see were victims of "correctional rape." Their photos were taken in the past four years, and some have died under disheartening circumstances. Knowing this gives her work even more resonance.
All five photographers at SFMOMA's exhibition are spiritual colleagues of Sebastião Salgado, the French-Brazilian who makes it a requirement to spend time with his subjects before photographing them. A native of Denmark, Jacob Aue Sobol lived in a Greenland village for months, became ensconced with a woman named Sabine, befriended others in the settlement (population: 134), learned the language, and learned to hunt seals there. Then he took photos of everything he encountered, including Sabine and the seals. After Hurricane Katrina hit, Bay Area photographer Richard Misrach went to the Gulf Coast and focused on damaged houses that residents had covered with writing, such as, "I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns, and a claw hammer," and "Yep, Brownie. You did a heck of a job." Swiss photographer Daniel Schwartz has spent years traversing countries of the old Silk Road, repeatedly finding people like the legless young man in Kabul who was sitting on a crowded street in the rain, his crutches beneath him, his hands in a begging posture as people walked past.
In Kabul, it'd be easy to bypass that man. And at SFMOMA, it's easy to sidestep the photo and move to another. What awaits, though, are more photos that challenge your compassion but also deepen your understanding of the world.