Picturing Diversity: The Democratic Eye (part 1a)

Esteemed author and cultural critic Ilan Stavans, will be writing a series of ten essays specifically for our photographic journal, Nueva Luz and our blog. ‘The Democratic Eye’ is the first article in the Picturing Diversity series, which will later become a book on photography. In discussing how the medium has changed, Stavans challenges assumptions on how society sees the world and how we view each other. It is a pleasure to be able to bring this exciting series to our readers. 


Cover of Nueva Luz vol. 18#2. Photo © Ayana Jackson
Cover of Nueva Luz vol. 18#2. Photo © Ayana Jackson

Photography has become mundane. It is no longer an art. It has stopped delivering an aesthetic judgment. Instead, it stresses the banal. That banality is our joie de vivre: nothing is exceptional, everything is worth a picture. Ordinariness is cool.

There used to be a peculiar synergy between the “I” behind the camera and the camera’s eye. That synergy was a synonym of elitism. The photographer used to have a trained eye. The “I” made visual decisions and the eye was its conduit, its tool, its bridge. Sometimes the decisions were accidental. Click, click, click: one among the hundreds perhaps thousands of these reproductions, hold a secret. There is magic in that secret. It was a mysterious, an instinctual choice.

The camera lucida was an optic device invented by Johanness Kepler (Dioptrice, 1611) that allows artists to superimpose an image on a surface, thus having a better perspective on the object they sought to portray. The strategy serves as a metaphor: to photograph was to inject meaning, to superimpose a layer of meaning on reality. In 1980, French thinker Roland Barthes, in La chambre claire, eloquently meditated on what makes photography snap. A few years earlier, Susan Sontag, in her collection On Photography, released in 1977, established the parameters to rethink it in aesthetic, social, and ideological terms. To see an image is to set the mind in motion. It is our duty to trace that motion: Who are we when photographed? And how do photographs transform us?

Once upon a time, we left photographers to the task of patiently, selectively freezing the river of time, of isolating a sight, an emotion, of say that what matters is often beyond the surface, inscribed in the essence of things. Taking a picture was like crafting a narrative: it had depth, complexity. We trusted the craftsman’s choice, grateful for trumpeting a moment above others, for makings us differentiate between seeing and looking, between looking and observing, between observing and understanding. Truth in photography was about clarity, about light as well as lightness. Truth was spelled with a capital T.

Nothing like it remains. We have allowed ourselves to be bombarded with images. A succession of pictures overwhelms our consciousness. They come at all times, in all sorts of shapes, mercilessly, unimpeded. For non-artists, the use of technology makes them artistic, yet the images are sheer merchandise. The commitment to devote oneself to photography as a career, to make a successful profession out of it, is non-sustainable. Everyone is a photographer now. The camera’s eye has become ubiquitous. That eye is in phones today, in laptops, in iPads. It requires no formal education. My intent is not to diss but to describe: photography is more important than ever as well as more unrestricted, egalitarian, even uncensored. We all are guilty of trafficking with images, of abusing the “I.” The masses are in control and control is in the hands of the masses. There is no longer anything sacred, selective, or unique anymore about freezing time, about search for the essence of things. The medium has the message. Photography has finally become democratic.

And pluralistic, too. There used to be a relationship based on power between the professional photographer and that which was photographed. Perspectives meant control: to capture someone in a picture was also to arrest their self, to govern them, to control them. That control—that power—belongs to all. It isn’t centralized. It has no owner. Is such relationship still in place? The omnipresence of the camera today has reduced its sphere. Some photographers, whose commitment to the trade is unabated, proudly engage in it. And others abuse it. In either case, the relationship matters less than it used to because photography, in nature, has changed. The photographer is no longer a privileged conveyer of visual verity. That verity belongs to every Tom, Dick, Jane, and Alice.

A camera not only is a factory of mementos. It is also a weapon, a subversive tool because pictures are more dangerous than ever. They denounce atrocities, they embarrass governments, they foster revolutions. In the hands of the people, cameras are political instruments. They record, they confront, they reclaim. As a result, control has become uncontrollable. Movements spring around easy-to-send images. Those who once were subjects of photographic fetish have become manufacturers of their own profile.

Each nation has its photographic tradition, defined by its own motifs, its own obsessions. Photographing the nation has been a strategy to build consensus, to create a collective identity, to foster a sense of history. The result is a fracturing of the ancient order. It used to be that white faces projected panache, superiority, durability. They were the sources of beauty, of morality, of civilization. Non-white faces, in contrast, projected vulnerability, primitiveness, exoticism. Ethnographers photographed indigenous populations as a way to record their habits. That equation is no longer viable.

Next, Part 1-B of ‘The Democratic Eye’.

Portrait of Ilan Stavans
Portrait of Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans, one of today’s preeminent essayists, cultural critics, and translators is a Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five Colege-Fourtieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. His books include Spanglish (2003), Love and Language (2007) and Gabriel García Marquez: The Early Years (2010), Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for his Roots (Rutgers, 2012), and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic, 2012, with Steven Sheinkin). He is the editor of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (2003) Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (2009), The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010), and The FSG Books of 20th-Century Latin American Poetry (2011), and a guest writer for Nueva Luz, volume 10#1 (2004).

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