Exploitation and Ethics

25th March 2013

I decided to lift a chunk of my Assignment 1: A Portrait out and turn it into a learning log entry for a couple of reasons; 1.  My tutor thought it was a good idea, and I tend to listen when my tutor says something is a good idea, and 2.  Because these are two extremely important issues that I wanted to open up a bit further in my own internal discussion.

There’s two extremely important issues here; exploitation and ethics.

I definitely believe that I live amongst and am part of an under-class, that is a ‘category’ that falls between the cracks when it comes to public awareness.  If you’re poor and can’t get work, have a large family and receive benefits or you’re a single parent, then your ‘category’ is always being discussed and highlighted.   If you’re older, have medical issues, mobility issues, income issues, employment issues or personal relationship issues, then in general you’re overlooked by government and society at large because you’re no longer strong enough to be vocal on your own behalf and therefore not seen as a priority.

Making images [of my neighbours] to me isn’t exploitative in itself as I always show the subject the result and make a copy for them.  It could become exploitative as I advance, particularly using what I consider hard-hitting captions with them and turning this work into something that may go further than just my BA and I wouldn’t want to cause the subjects any personal or public embarrassment, but this could be the case when I need to make my work remembered.  Images alone of older people may not engender the feelings of compassion I want, and punchy, hard-hitting captions add dimensions to images that change ones perspective, but could contain things that the individual may not wish known.  The dilemma of to use or not to use that particular caption becomes THE big concern if the point needs to be gotten across but if I was to show the subjects the captions I’ve written I feel that they may veto their use, even though by making people feel sorry for ‘our category’ we will be highlighting our condition and hopefully engaging outsiders enough to improve the lot of everyone trapped in this ‘category’.

Comparing my efforts to those of the artists mentioned by my tutor I found this to be difficult because although Richard Billingham’s work ‘Rays a Laugh’ is definitely pointed at a vulnerable group of people, their relationship to Richard is family, and so therefore he can definitely take more liberties with them than say I could as a stranger, and exploitation by him isn’t unexpected, although we’ll probably never know if he informed his family of the eventual publication of them in a best-selling book and sharing the rewards.  Similarly, although Nan Golding used her friends and acquaintances in the alternative lifestyle grouping as her subjects, originally her work may not have been seen as exploitative as it was originally shown in their meeting places to the group who allowed her to make images of them.  Latterly this wasn’t as much of problem as many of those depicted had already died from over indulgence in their way of living.

I wasn’t able to see a close relationship of Boris Mikhailov to Golding and Billingham, although his images are depicting and exploiting the bodily shapes, or misshapes, of his subjects or their desperate situation, and doing so from afar and not as part of the grouping.  So inasmuch as he appears to be making his images without consent then he is exploiting the people he finds.

Larry Sultan I think became very famous for his ‘Pictures of Home’, depicting the strained relationship between his mother and father and their lifestyle.  It’s clear to me that they were willing participants in his image making and they must have known by this time that he made his living from image making therefore I think that exploitation was probably collaborative. I know that he went on to document a study of pornographic film making in ‘The Valley’, but what I can’t discover if this was a real set of situations or whether they were contrived by him especially for the book.  Again, here’s a man who’s exploiting a group of people who have been sucked into the seemier side of life and normally can’t escape until such time as their putative employers have no longer any use for them.   Whether they were willing participants in his image making I don’t know, although if the situations were contrived and not real-life, then clearly the subjects were aware of what they were doing.  If on the other hand they were simply real-life subjects whose employers allowed Sultan access to, then that would be exploitation.

The real question that comes to me from all this research is that I cannot find any evidence that the artists listed were making their works to specifically highlight the exploitation and/or misery they were recording, it would appear to me that of all of them Nan Golding was the least culpable as she suffered herself within her world, whereas the others didn’t.  Although Billingham had suffered from the alcohol problems of his father and his mothers apparent indifference, by the time he was making this work he’d left home and so it could be argued that he was making this work as a way of getting through his problem with his family situation.

So is my work any different?  Of course I’m bound to yes, but I do believe I can point out why.  The most obvious reason is, I’m living in my subjects world and suffering from the indifference that is the lot of older people who’re reliant on the state and local authorities for much of their living.  The second thing is, I want my images to make a difference to our situation.  I don’t see how they can immediately but I would like to think that my subject matter and my images are strong enough to continue in this vein and eventually find an outlet to the wider world for others to be made aware of our plight.  So am I exploiting my neighbours?  Only inasmuch as their images are helping me at this very moment toward my BA, but if eventually they make it into widespread publication at a later date, then I might well be if I receive monetary reward which I don’t share or put back into the object of lifting their situation.  Having said that, I’ve already had one of the images published in Big Issue of the North.  ‘Jono’ appeared in their magazine on 21st March 2013, so a good beginning.

So what about ethics?  Ethics are those things that prick your conscience to remind you to ensure you don’t exploit your subject and also a code that can normally be found somewhere within an organisation that details in writing where the line in the sand is drawn as to what is acceptable and what’s not.  There’s also the court of public opinion that whist sometimes slow to act can be the harshest critic of an individuals moral and ethical standards.  But the most controlling force should be an individuals sense of morality, decency and ethical standards which need to be constantly reviewed to make sure that corners aren’t being cut and advantage being taken when it’s easy to do so.  Yes there are plenty of people out there that haven’t any good moral or ethical code to work or live by, but that doesn’t mean that it’s OK for everyone to follow in their footsteps just because they appear to get away with it, eventually it’ll be a question of can you live with yourself, your memories and your conscience?

I think that after making some very poor ethical and moral judgements in my past it could be argued that I’m not the right person to speak about exploitation and ethics.  However the simple fact that I can admit to having made those judgement mistakes in the past means to me that I have a well-developed sense of right and wrong and that not wanting to make similar mistakes in the future means that I have to uphold a strong personal set of ethics, moral standards and non-exploitative work practices.

4 Responses to Exploitation and Ethics

  1. Catherine says:

    Well-argued Eddy and important points to consider. You’re obviously going to be ‘pushed/challenged’ by your tutor and I reckon you’re well up for coping with this.

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      Thanks Catherine, I’m pleased the argument was clear enough to follow ‘cos at one point I thought it might turn out to be just drivel.

      Sharon is pushing me and I’m up for the challenge so that I can improve on my terrible result of DPP.

  2. Catherine says:

    I know you’re disappointed but it wasn’t a terrible result (I know quite a few people have reassured you about that). Keep going the way you’ve started on P&P and you’ll be brilliant.

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