Review: Capitolio by Christopher Anderson


Book Reviews, Photobooks

The history of Latin and South America is filled with episodes of the United States meddling in the affairs of other countries - and “meddling” here includes a vast range of activities, most notably invasions and putsches (for a sobering account of this history see the book Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, written by a respected US mainstream journalist). There are a lot of very unfortunate consequences of this history, one of them being that in Latin and South American countries, somewhat shady politicians can always run on a strictly anti-US basis, dismissing all criticism by simply pointing out that the US has very little moral authority in that part of the world whatsoever. Of course, the reaction to shady politicians then immediately becomes polarized, and, ultimately, you’re either supposed to be a supporter or an opponent; but regardless of what you are, discussions always become ugly.

Hugo Chavez, of Venezuela, provides a “wonderful” example. There is a lot that could be said about Venezuela, but it might just suffice to note that even though the country has a lot of oil, poverty and unemployment are widespread, while a very tiny number of people enjoys excessive wealth. Mr Chavez so far has failed to solve the problems he promised to take care of - and, not surprisingly, he has increasingly started to created diversions internationally. If you can’t fix your mess at home, pretend it’s the US who is the source of all trouble - regardless of whether that is actually the case. The fact that I’m pointing this out might make a lot of people think that I’m anti-Chavez; but in reality I reject both an anti-Chavez stance and Chavez’ own anti-US stance - cheap political posturing does not solve any problems, and it does not start fixing the crippling poverty and unemployment rates in Venezuela.

This is the background against which Christopher Anderson’s Capitolio needs to be seen. I think you can’t take photos of a place like Caracas - Venezuela’s capitol and currently the “murder capitol of the world” - without getting embroiled in this kind of history, and inevitably, whatever images you come back with is your own, subjective take on things - and people will then project their own thinking on it and react accordingly.

Capitolio is a book filled with what I’d call classic b/w photojournalism. By now, I’ll sound like an old, broken record when I repeat my concern that this type of visual language has lost its original punch, simply because we’re so used to it.

But here’s the thing, when taken just on its own, without any text, and when images are assembled the way they are in Capitolio, you can still work with this style of photography - except, of course, that it’s not photojournalism any longer. It’s photography. There’s no journalism. It’s a very subjective take on things, and it’ll make people react to it.

I don’t know whether Christopher will be happy about me saying that it’s not journalism, but I don’t mean to criticize the work. I’m making an observation. There is no story - and Christopher says as much in the comments underneath Jeff’s review. I think we need to see more work like that, especially in cases where there is no debate any longer. What’s the point of a story if at least one side won’t listen anyway?

This is not to say that we should get away from stories. What I mean is that not telling a story might be a good way to break up those non-debates where there are two opposing camps (of about equal size) who won’t listen to anything other than what they believe in. Capitolio is a good example of work that does just that, a book which, provided we are willing to do that, might tell us more about how we are reacting to something than about the actual subject matter. Maybe observing how we react can make us question the mechanisms - so that, ultimately, we might get back to the point where we can debate the other side again. In the meantime, there’s Christoper’s view of Caracas, smartly put together in Capitolio, sure to provoke a reaction.