At the beginning of the 21st Century, photojournalism finds itself in a somewhat uncomfortable position. On the one had, it has become an established and widely accepted form of journalism. On the other hand, its main language - grainy, crooked, and/or partially blurry images, often still black and white - has lost most of its impact because of the fact that it has become so ubiquitous. Of course, I am somewhat exaggerating, but while some of the most egregious facts of life on this planet have not changed at all over the past thirty, forty, fifty years (take, for example, widespread poverty and starvation, combined with political corruption, in large parts of Africa), we, as the viewers of photojournalism, simply are not quite as affected any longer, simply because we are so familiar with the imagery. Just the other day, I read a comment where someone talked about the work of an American photojournalist who had covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the complaint being that the photographer had failed to deliver “something new”. Just covering the wars, it seems, is not good enough. Just showing what war does - what our war does - is not good enough, we have to see something new. This is because I do not envy photojournalists, especially since I know, from having talked to some of them, that they often are very engaged and very interested in making the world look at the injustice and/or violence they are trying to cover.
Add to that another recent development, the fact that we have become disengaged. We have become used to the fact that we are not supposed to “judge” any longer. All positions are equally valid, regardless of how insane they actually are. If we show one side of the story, we have to show the other side, just to be “fair”. So for example, even though the vast majority of scientists is convinced that global warming is real (because there is overabundant scientific evidence for it), we have to listen to the few crackpots who still deny this, simply because we have to listen to all sides. Sure thing, the planet, after all, is a flat surface placed in the center of the Universe, which was created 6,000 years ago, and the stars are fixed on spheres that move mechanically around us (if you listen carefully, you can hear it).
As a photojournalist in such a world you can either throw up your arms in horror, or you can keep going - and, after all, why wouldn’t you?
Jonas Bendiksen’s The Places We Live (for which Aperture created a microsite) is centered on showing us how the inhabitants of four large slums (in Caracas, Nairobi, Mumbai, and Jakarta) live. The book is centered on showing the insides of homes in these slums in the form of panoramas that cover the entire place - all four walls. If there are walls - at least one of the people living in one of the slums calls a bench in the street her home. In the book, you look at these photos by folding out pages and by thus exposing the panorama. For each such panorama, one of the persons living there is describing his or her home: “If we tell people about our house, will anyone believe us?” (Nagamma Shilpiri, who lives in Mumbai)
In the foreword, Philip Gourevitch writes that “it would be a grave mistake to regard The Places We Live as a message book.” Oh really? What are we to make of it then? Are we to look at it, with a neutral eye and refuse to be affected by what we see? To put the book back on the coffee table and continue drinking red wine with our friends? I have been very puzzled by the foreword, and I still don’t really understand what Mr. Gourevitch, whose writing I have admired for quite a while, is trying to say with it. But maybe that’s how it fits in so well with the photography in the book: You read the foreword, and you set your mind to the “fair and balanced” setting, and then you look at the photography, and then you maybe go back to the foreword and find out what you think about it and about what you’ve just seen.
The Places We Live offers a fair amount of “new” in its photographic language - not that that’s necessarily what I want to see - and for that reason alone it deserves to be viewed widely. I can’t think of a better way to depict the lives of people living, for example, in the narrow space under a concrete bridge, and Jonas Bendiksen has done an amazing job showing this. Maybe we ought to take the book as a much needed jolt to snap out of our combination of boredom and nonchalance and, when looking at people living in utter poverty, start asking questions again. After all, as the book’s title says it’s the places we live and not the places they live.