In my novel SHOT IN DETROIT, the protagonist is a photographer trying to find a project that will succeed artistically and financially. When an opportunity fortuitously presents itself, she comes up with the idea of photographing the dead clients of her mortician boyfriend. All her portraits will be men under forty. Aside from her aesthetic and economic concerns, her interest has always been to reflect the city she lives in.
But she also worries, and others will confront her over the course of the novel, about whether she is exploiting these men. Is she bringing needed attention to the deaths of black men in Detroit or is she merely looking for a good subject?
As I have been preparing to talk about this book, it occurs to me more and more that photographers are held to a different standard in their subject matter due to their portrayal of live (or dead) people. One only needs to think of Sally Mann and the criticism she came in for from photographing her half-nude children. Diane Arbus took pictures of what we then, politically incorrectly, called freaks. Shelby Lee Adams made his name photographing the impoverished (and often deformed) peopled of Appalachia, Roger Ballen took pictures of the mentally ill in South Africa. Robert Mapplethorpe was notorious for capturing sado-masochistic poses of gay men.
Whether these subjects are appropriate for photography or not is in the end in the eye of the beholder. I began to think hard about what other genre of art was held to these standards. What impressionist-era artist was critiqued for painting a beautiful landscape or city scape when just out of sight was the teeming masses of impoverished Parisians, the day-laborers in vineyards harvesting crops for pennies with bleeding hands.
A photograph has the ability to display truths about our society more cogently than any other form of art. Look away if you must but think hard before denying it a place on the wall. Artists can be faulted for what they don’t paint or sculpt just as credibly as what they do.