Intrusion as “art” or “journalism”

Right now the London South Bank Centre is playing host to the World Press Photo exhibition, containing “approximately 200 award-winning photographs from across the globe that capture the most powerful, moving and at times disturbing images of the year”. Among the images are some of the “Turkmenbashi” personality cult in Turkmenistan, the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake, the lives of Japanese “salarymen”, boxing in Brazil, and various war zones.

Among the latter is a set of pictures taken in a mental hospital somewhere in Africa, including a picture of a naked man (from the front, although the intimate details are not prominent due to the lighting) sitting alone in a cell-like room. I thought this inappropriate, because such a picture could never have been taken in a mental hospital in England and justified in the name of journalism or art. No photographer would even bother asking permission to take such a picture. (Even if one was used as evidence in an investigation into the conditions of the hospital, it’s highly unlikely that it could be printed in newspapers and circulated around the world.) This would be true regardless of whether a patient had given his or her consent (and no doubt there was a reason for this man being in hospital, which might well have had an impact on whether he could give informed consent).

Clearly some people’s privacy and dignity matters more than others’. When pictures of Lady Diana in a gym, in gym clothes, were printed in the Daily Mirror in the early 1990s, sourced from the gym’s unscrupulous owner, Diana sued the gym and won. The outrage against the Daily Mirror (admittedly, some of it from a rival tabloid with a sleazy record of its own) was enormous. If staff at any concert venue took pictures in the dressing room of a visiting artist in a state of undress, the result would have been similar, and the person responsible would be out of a job pretty quickly.

I intend to send a letter to the director of the centre, and perhaps also to a couple of mental health charities, because the picture is voyeuristic, inappropriate, in bad taste, and essentially racist. They can get away with this because, to paraphrase the Canadian military officer in Hotel Rwanda, the man in the picture is “not even a nigger - he’s an African”. I might also suggest that, if the director thinks such a picture appropriate, then a picture of him or her in a similar state of undress be displayed in the exhibition as well.

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