IAP 3 exercise 3.3 unhelpful portrayals

We don’t need to look far today to see marginalised or under-represented people and groups being badly or unhelpfully portrayed. While I suspect that the brief for this exercise was written in kinder times and is intended to get us to think about portrayals that are unconsciously bad or unhelpful, today this question inevitably also raises the issue of the conscious and deliberate negative portrayals that have become an integral part of the daily discourse on social media, in the right-wing popular press and even on mainstream TV programmes such as the BBC’s Question Time.

But as I said, I think this exercise is probably intended to prompt us to address our own unconscious unhelpful portrayals and to become aware of whether we are portraying our subjects from an insider or outsider perspective. I have already written a blog post about the inside/outside question so won’t repeat that here. Instead I will consider an example of the way a photographer consciously thinking about their perspective informed the way they approached the work and influenced its outcome.

My example is Émeric Lhuisset, whose series of unfixed cyanotypes L’Autre Rive was shown as part of Brighton Photo Biennial 2018. As one of the volunteer invigilators, I had the privilege of attending a pre-opening talk in which Lhuisset described his determination to avoid presenting the refugees who were the subjects of his series as either invading hordes or tragic victims as they are invariably seen in the media. Instead, he wanted to show them as ordinary people doing everyday things like taking selfies on the beach.

It is not hard to see that there are good reasons for avoiding even well-meaning outsider-perspective portrayals, not least that depersonalising minorities such as refugees by presenting them as tragic victims reduces other people’s ability to relate to them as fully rounded human beings who have the same hopes and fears as everyone else. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to imagine that the consequence of the depersonalisation engendered by even these well-intentioned stereotypes might have helped to lay the ground for the overtly hostile attitudes towards all minorities that have become so ubiquitous in recent times.