Picturing Diversity: The Democratic Eye (part 1b)

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.

For Part 1-A of this article, please visit : Part 1-A:The Democratic Eye


In Rita Rivera’s photograph of the legendary baseball pitcher Mariano Rivera, a formerly exotic face is now graceful, classy. There is a severity to Rivera’s expression, a resignation. He poses in front of the photographer, not to be subdued, to be imprisoned, but to showcase his demeanor. There is no arrogance, no threat. If this is fame, he says, I’m undisturbed. What matters isn’t how I look but what I do. The player’s stoicism is a lesson. He is neither arrogant nor condescending. He simply affirms himself though his representation.

Rita Rivera, Mariano Rivera, Closing Pitcher for The New York Yankees, Latinos in Major League Baseball series, 2002/2013. Selenium toned gelatin silver print, 14 x 11"
Rita Rivera, Mariano Rivera, Closing Pitcher for The New York Yankees, Latinos in Major League Baseball series, 2002/2013. Selenium toned gelatin silver print, 14 x 11″

The democratic eye approaches its theme with decorum only when its subject demands it. For the most part, that eye is restless, mendacious, critical, even condescending. It stops at nothing. Its basic tenant is the demystification of reality. Look at Bradford Robotham’s marvelous image, The Kiss. The couple in it makes a fool of themselves. Isn’t that what people do before the camera nowadays? Happiness is skin-deep: everyone smiles, everyone kisses. These characters could be descendants of Diane Arbus’ circus: while they aren’t freaks, they are unrefined, trashy. This is how we live life today, they say, without etiquette. One might argue, of course, that a summer day on the beach is just an outlet for folks to relax, be silly, to let their hair down. And that if we don’t take context or the artist’s intent into account, aren’t we doing what we’re accusing condescending photographers of doing? Robotham doesn’t look down at his subjects. His eye is that of an anthropologist: he is objective, clear-minded, leaving it to the viewer to judge.

The effect is numbing. It implies a fostering of relativity. Truth is spelled with a lower-case t. Clarity has opened the door to the nuance of minorities, to complex degrees of shade. Everything is deemed notable. And memorable, too. People used to create albums of their lives with a set number of images. Today that effort is done less curatorialy, and more haphazardly. A sheer accumulation of images becomes a shareable past, one to be paraded on by friends. It is a selective pass, fluid, malleable.  Plus, it is easy to manipulate that past. All it takes is manipulating the photographic content: the sunset might be presented in sharper tones, a person’s face less tragic, more upbeat. And, should the landscape be deemed inappropriate, it takes nothing to refurbish it. The world, as it is, only constitutes a draft.

Bradford Robotham, The Kiss, Coney Island series, 2008. Archival pigment print, 19 x24"
Bradford Robotham, The Kiss, Coney Island series, 2008. Archival pigment print, 19 x24″

What has all this democracy, this pluralism done to us? It has made us unruffled, relaxed, blasé to the point of ignorance. And it has brought down our defenses. The effect is a cheapening of experience. Timidity is seldom an issue anymore: to be on camera is to be real and to be left out of a photograph is to be ignored, to lack significance, to be as good as dead. Worse, pictures constantly stress the performative qualities of our social interaction, making us rude, aggressive, nervously flamboyant, uncontained.

Life is a party orchestrated so that photographs will be taken. It isn’t bad to be fake anymore, to become impostors, to exist in a permanent state of pretense. We are all actors. We are always being asked to be in shape, to display happiness, to joyful. Smile and hide your belly. To be depressed is to be non-photogenic.

In its egalitarianism, in its classlessness, photography makes us reflections of ourselves. It isn’t interested in eternity. Instead, it loves the normal, the average, the dull. We are all unique in our difference, it clamors.

Next Article, Picturing Diversity: I Am Stereotype (part 2-a).

Ilan Stavans, one of today’s preeminent essayists, cultural critics, and translators, is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College-Fortieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. His books include Spanglish (2003), Love and Language (2007), and Gabriel García Márquez: 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 Steve Sheinkin). He is the editor of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998), The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (2003), the 3-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories (2004), 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).

Rita Rivera is a NY based photographer, photo editor and awardee of En Foco’s first New Works program in 2001. Her recent book with writer Rafael Hermoso is Speak English! The Rise of Latinos in Baseball, Kent State University Press, 2013.

Bradford Robotham has been photographing the Coney Island area since 1998, and featured that work in an En Foco Touring Gallery exhibition in 2013. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Robotham was an assistant to John Coplans for over eight years, and lives and works in NYC.

Leave a Reply