The story is known and there is no need to tell it once again. We know what it concerns: two shots of Gian Butturini’s photographic book London, whose combination has created inconvenience and contestation because it seems to re-propose a hateful and execrable colonial and racist stereotype. We know how it was born, that is, with the protest of an English girl, Mercedes Halliday, who by that combination felt deeply offended and humiliated. And we know how it ended, with Martin Parr’s resignation from the artistic direction of the Bristol Photo Festival, his official apologies and the decision of the publisher Damiani to withdraw the book from the market.
Now, I invite you to put the ethical and cultural issues aside for a brief moment, though completely legitimate, and to focus on those concerning photography and the photo book. The latter, we know it well, is a device altogether peculiar, where the editing and therefore the images’ layout has a fundamental role in giving meaning to the work. After all “connecting things together” is an immediate mechanism of perception: the creation of concatenations, of looking for narratives, possibilities or correlations of meaning in the images that accompany and follow one another. The combination of a black woman and a gorilla locked in a cage is therefore something that goes beyond the sum of the two images. It produces additional sense. However, is it a sense that we must entrust exclusively to our automatic perception, to the models and stereotypes that we have assimilated from our culture and that the vision of those two photographs constantly evokes?
The images’ meaning: in my opinion, this is the core of the question, the point to reflect on. But what is this meaning? How is it built? Is it something that is inherent in the image itself since its production?
Actually, the sense of a photograph is not an attribute ab origine, it is not a quality that is part of the image substance. Meaning is always an exchange process between the various actors, which are certainly the author, the curator, the support that materializes it, the context of the exhibition and finally the spectator. An image, like any space of visibility, is a collective place of self-representation, but as it is a dialogic space, it’s expressed through mediations and conflicts, it is not something given once and for all. And this is because of the “tare” that characterizes all the images, the fact of having a polysemous nature, subject to specific meanings and interpretations. In short, the image is irreducible as a single matter, a frame of meaning, defined and immutable.
When someone proposes their own reading, they are doing just that: they are inserting the image in a frame. They are forcing it to wear a meaning, stiffening it in a unique and assertive sense. In order for that reading to lose its character of apodictic rigidity, it is necessary for the reading to throw itself into the fray, to expose itself in the agora of the other readings, entering into a dialectical relationship with them, and therefore also in conflict.
Then, the racist stereotype to which the combination of Butturini’s photographs seems to approach so dangerously? If we look at the colonial propaganda of the time, wickedly taken up by someone even nowadays, however, we can realize one thing: the combination of a black person with a primate, in those productions, is by no means an ambiguous and indefinite message. Moreover, it is always accompanied by slogans and texts – as well as contexts -, which, in addition to their evident vulgarity, leave no doubt about the communicative purpose they intend to pursue.
In the case of the photographs proposed by Butturini, however, we are talking about a book of photographs, which is a complex, organic device that cannot be dismembered without radically altering its meaning. Two photographs cannot be isolated and extrapolated from their sphere, which includes the author’s preface – which already offers a key to the reading -, the style and language used, the other images of the book, its historical context, the readings of which has been the object of these years and even the life of its author.
Race tropes are a serious matter, not to be taken lightly, which require constant vigilance, critical sense and condemnation. In the recent past, images that reproduced these disparaging stereotypes have caused a sensation. For example, in 2012, a despicable cartoon published in the Italian newspaper “La Gazzetta dello Sport” depicted Balotelli as King Kong on top of the Empire State Building. Equally known are the outpourings of local politicians who have continued to associate people of African origin with the animals who are the ancestors of all of us.
A few years ago, a protest against a Prada doll led the fashion company to remove it from the market, because it proposed a black face clichés. A figurine is an object that has no context of its own but still has a great impact on the collective imagination. Withdrawing trinkets from the market represents a well-sustained solution; on the other hand, the market is the place of fashions, of ephemeral objects by definition. In the case of London, on the other hand, we are talking about a photography book, which is approachable in a way similar to a book of poetry, in the sense that it uses a metaphorical language, which combines lyric and biting irony. In short, it imposes its own interpretative context that must lead us to have a different look from what we take by skimming through the Gazzetta or looking at a Prada doll.
So what? Let’s get to the point. The need to make distinctions. Because a photography book, created by an author, with Butturini’s human and professional history, is not a cartoon from the Gazzetta. It is a different matter. This is what critical spirit means: being able to make the necessary distinctions and to grasp the nuances, otherwise our accomplishments would behave like those new generation algorithms that operate image classifications, rigidly applying their automatic recognition schemes, for which data ‘a’ and ‘b’ necessarily follow ‘c’. The elaboration of meaning cannot be reduced to a computation or a comparison of parameters based on predetermined models: especially in complex contexts such as a photographs book, the combination of two contents can’t always have the same value that it can possess elsewhere. There are also characteristics such as the style, expression, language used to be taken under consideration. In the case of the condemnation of Butturini’s photographs, no surrounding elements, including the linguistic ones, were taken into consideration. All criticism was limited to the combination of two semantic contents – the black woman and the gorilla -, not the ones of two specific images within a peculiar context.
This does not mean that the combination can create profound discomfort and even rejection and condemnation. As soon as I saw it, it provoked discomfort in me too, before realizing that I didn’t have to look at those images with guilt as a white and western woman or with the distorted lenses of that self-righteous and politically correct moralism that often does not do anything besides disguising a guilty conscience. Instead, I had to open my gaze to empathy, to lead it to an elevation that the very face of the woman and the animal ask from me.
Looking at these two photographs side by side, a work realized by Didi-Huberman came to my mind, In front of the image, in which the philosopher develops the concept of symptom referring to the use and study of art. He says that the western image is agitated by a work that oscillates between two opposing tensions: the vision on one side and the laceration on the other, the meaning interpretation and the trauma. In short, the image contains symbols and symptoms at the same time. By symptom Didi-Huberman means precisely what ‘escapes’ the symbolic-semantic decipherment, what is not translatable, which is not completely attributable to a consolidated meaning. The symptom is crisis, laceration, collapse. It is what does not speak to us according to a conventional iconographic code: it is “the cry or mutism in the supposed speaking image”.
The discomfort, the symptom, the laceration shape the profound enjoyment of the images. And living and expressing one’s trauma, generated by the vision, is difficult, sometimes painful. But censorship is another thing. Censorship is the obliteration of that dialogue – even if hostile – which is the only possible context in which meaning is elaborated. And in which the sense can be suffered and rejected.
The reading that led to the appeal without condemnation of this book probably stems from the fact that the image is considered as a self-evident message, not as a text that needs different levels of reading, even very sophisticated ones. It arises from the claim to attribute at all costs a clear truth to these images, which they do not and cannot possess. You can challenge a book without getting it pulped and it is, on the other hand, impossible to put the politically correct breeches on everything from the past that upsets the moral ideals of the present. This is the main accusation made to Parr: he should have adapted the book to the present, by eliminating or modifying that juxtaposition in some way. However, if we accepted this approach – which is that of the so-called Cancel Culture – we would have to extend it to all republications. It would mean cutting a little here, amending a little there.
Books, films, photographs … And who should decide what is morally acceptable and what is not? Should we establish a new laic Inquisition movement for small ethical purges or for creative restorations in order to adapt the works to contemporary morality values? The spirit of the Enlightenment from which our vision of the world originates has allowed us to understand that it is not with repression that the critical thinking is implemented. Indeed, this represents his denial. The critical thinking is the dialogue and the confrontation, which also becomes the conflict, of different positions, not the imposition with the strength of one’s point of view and one’s morals. This does not mean that all opinions are on the same level, but that none of them can erase the others.
Perhaps we do not realize the gravity of a censorship demanded and imposed by force, albeit coming from below, of the pledge that this act places on our culture and on our way of being together. The counterpart did not request a public confrontation, did not evaluate the author’s professional and human history in the slightest. She went straight on requesting the cancellation and branding him with the infamous racist remark. All the best reasons of this world, the most legitimate, the most ethical, can be adduced, but a censorship remains a censorship, a cancellation, a sentence without appeal, that a part of society claimed by force. Someone said that this lawsuit served to raise awareness about the civil rights issues faced by dark-skinned people. But the truth is that, in addition to a book withdrawn from the market, the outcome of this affair left disoriented and embittered those who were already not only sensitive to those issues but who had committed them in full and who suddenly found themselves held up, exposed and pilloried as racists.
But this story has left another bewildering legacy. What contributed heavily to the withdrawal of the book is a gesture of self-censorship. By embracing the accusations, Martin Parr not only condemned Butturini’s book by supporting and legitimizing an act of force, but he also made photography in general took a heavy toll on his being a complex and sophisticated medium. He relinquished not only the freedom of expression, but also the potential of imagery language. By judging the book as “offensive and humiliating”, he impoverished the very same medium he uses every day, he suddenly stripped it of the rhetorical nuances, interpretative possibilities, contradictions and paradoxes, in short, he stripped it of everything that distinguishes a devised image, chosen to convey complex messages.
As the meaning of an image is not simple, it is not self-evident and it is never given all at once; it is rather an ongoing dialogue, without conclusion, in which everyone can take part, in which everyone can make their own contribution. It is not a rigid decoding based on a given code (which does not exist), nor is it the result of an algorithm, but it is an intersubjective movement of construction and negotiation. In short, reading an image is always a work in progress, a construction site, a collective enterprise that knows from the beginning that the building will remain unfinished and open to further contributions. Because of its open and intersubjective nature, culture is almost never a painless process, as it requires mediation. And by mediating – and also by conflicting – it generates and builds. But culture does not obliterate. Never.