The Curtis project

The Exoticism Paradox

 
As a photojournalist, it’s often much simpler to photograph a woman wearing a hijab instead of a man wearing a baseball cap in a demonstration involving the Muslim community. Hijabs « sell » better than baseball caps. We are naturally alert to whatever is different from us and the media are no different. Photo editors from large newspapers ask for that kind of imagery and we often deliver it, contributing to reinforce sterotypes and stigmatize a segment of the population; something we are fighting against actually. This is the paradox of exoticism in photojournalism.

Most large photojournalist associations warn against this trap in their charters and disapprove of it. The purpose of photojournalism is to be faithful to the event in order to inform. Fidelity is often boring and not very spectacular, or doesn’t confirm our beliefs or what we would like to believe.

Edward P. Curtis was accused of falling into that trap in the early 1900s when he documented the North American Indians throughout America. His goal was to create a photographic archive of the vanishing Indians. After close inspections of the photographs, historians have found that Curtis must have « decorated » some of his subjects in order to make them look more « exotic».

In order to illustrate this phenomenon, ten years ago, I created an exercise for my photojournalism students to get them to experience it for themselves. The idea was to recreate Curtis’s photographic conditions among the students and to see how they would react to the exotic component of the pictures created. I supply them with accessories and catalogues of Curtis’s pictures  and shoot them individually in natural light at one second of exposure surrounded by the « tribe » (i.e. fellow students).

Throughout the years the technology has evolved and I shot 8x10 negatives to medium format digital backs. On the other hand, the original requirements stay the same : only one shot per subject, natural light, one second exposure and a deep blue filter to darken the skin tone

The success of the exercise is ambiguous. Fascinated by the aura around the pictures created, it is difficult for the students to withdraw themselves from what they experienced during the shooting and to really evaluate the impact of the exotic components. However, they have a great time participating in the masquerade. IT would be interesting to really understand why. Roland Barthes wrote in La chambre Claire, “Si je pouvais sortir sur le papier comme sur une toile classique, doué d’un air noble, pensif, intelligent, etc.!”. (If I could come out on the paper as if I were painted by a classic painter looking noble, thoughtful, intelligent, etc.!.)

Special thanks to everybody who participated in this venture especially Sébastien Lévy and France Godin for their photographic documentary of The Making of in 2006.

 

Martin Benoit


 

Martin Benoit has been teaching at the photography department of the CEGEP du Vieux-Montreal since 1989. He specializes in ethical issues relating to photojournalism.

 

Click on one of the following links

 

Gallery of some of the pictures taken during the ten years of the project

( Please switch on your speakers and click on PLAY button when Gallery page appears)

 

A video of the 2006 shooting

 

The Life of Edward P Curtis

 

Controversy about Curtis’s pictures

 

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