Conscientious on Supanit Riansrivilai in Poland

I’m aware of the Black Snapper site, but so far haven’t noticed too much there that’s really grabbed my attention — may be my fault for not looking closely enough.

However, Joerg Colberg points to a an interesting “kerfuffle” about one of the sequences published there. The kerfuffle is around the question of whether the photographer (who is from Thailand) was misled by preconceptions about the country (Poland) where the photographs were made, and how that relates to the validity of the photographs.

In reaction, Kolouker elaborates: “Dear Mr. Kloos,

I happen to disagree with your view above. I find Supanit’s experience biased by her assumptions about the country of Poland. In her introduction to the photo essay she says that ‘memories of the struggles suffered through are still visible in the faces of the country.’

She exploits the common misconception and stereotype of Poland as a depressed post communist country where war wounds are still present. I am happy she did not mention Auschwitz.

Being a person with a completely different cultural background (I did take that into account) and with little knowledge in the subject, she fell victim to the stereotype. She ’saw’ what she expected to see, and overlooked everything that did not fit in her assumed image of Poland.

This is of course a familiar type of debate, although typically it arises when first-world photographers visit third-world destinations and produce images of helpless poverty or exoticism. But the principle is not substantially different. (Although certainly the stakes are.)

Colberg’s take is this:

Instead, the main issue seems to be that there simply is no realistic versus an unrealistic or a true versus a false depiction of Central Europe or any other place. A photographer will see things based on his or her background, and while we can disagree with it and claim that “no, that’s not a good depiction of this place”, it still doesn’t automatically mean that that photographer’s view is less valid than ours (the lack of smiling children or whatever else notwithstanding).

Which is perfectly valid, of course. Certainly there is no objective standard by which we can measure authenticity. And truthfulness in photography is and always has been essentially mythical in nature.

However, I do think that there is a fundamental shallow-ness that comes from experiencing a place as a traveler or visitor, which I think often drastically limits how much the traveler can really tell us. Of course, this applies just as much to the photography of, say, Robert Frank as to that of Riansrivilai. (Other than, I suppose, that Frank’s attack on America’s myths of itself was somewhat unexpected, whereas Riansrivilai is accused of regurgitating familiar myths. I honestly don’t really know enough about Poland to have any idea whether this is true.)

(Also, I do think Frank’s American photography is weakened by the same token.)


Should I also add that I didn’t find the photography in question very interesting? I don’t this is a question of the sociological or historical implications of the photographs; I just don’t like them very much. I don’t think it is horribly relevant to the authenticity problem, although I wonder whether those who attack Riansrivilai’s perception of Poland might like it better if it was better articulated….

Also, should I add that I certainly don’t think I have ever succeeded in telling the truth about any place or people, whether it was one I have known all my life or one I have only just met? Then again, I’ve never presumed to do so, so perhaps it is not at issue.

Comments are closed.