Sunday, July 14, 2013

art vs exploitation (or: what makes me feel weird)

Did you guys read this article on Jezebel about the secondhand tshirt trade in Haiti? It's in response to this project by two Haitian-based photo-journalists, Paolo Wood and Ben Depp, who documented Haitian locals wearing secondhand sloganed tshirts from America.

Here is one.

The pictures, and the tone of the accompanying text, make me feel really uncomfortable. I even feel a bit uncomfortable posting one of the pictures here, but I hope that the respect I have for this man makes it okay. I assume there was an ethics process with the project (though I wonder if artists consider ethics a form of censorship?); I really, really hope so. But I'm not sure, not least because the text says that the slogans would be "amusing and ironic" if not for the fact that tailors in Haiti are rapidly going out of business because of the tshirts. I don't find anything in this project amusing, and I find the idea of amusement at these pictures repulsive. These are PEOPLE. Not "subjects". PEOPLE. According to wikipedia, radio is the primary information medium for most Haitians. How many of the people in these photos will ever see the project in its entirety? I don't know.

The fact that the pictures are on the internet makes me feel incredibly protective of the people in them. In a gallery, most people who viewed them would see them in some kind of context; at the very least, most people would have gone there to see "art". People browsing the internet... could be looking for anything. I don't trust enough of them not to look at the photos and laugh because someone "ignorant" (ie understands a language other than English) is wearing a tshirt incongruous with their appearance.

I agree that the  accessibility of the tshirts putting local tailors out of business is, as an isolated fact, sad (and a phenomenon see all over the world, although in countries like NZ, the tshirt sellers are KMart, or The Warehouse). However, I think that's also only part of the story. Most Haitians live on $2 or less per day; cheap clothing is, for most Haitians, probably a means to spending more on other things, and that's not sad. Someone outside Haiti saying that it's sad is, I think, out of line. Our local Marbecks closing because it can't compete with Amazon and JB Hi-Fi - that's sad and unnecessary, because what they sell is not essential; it's a luxury (though many might disagree), and as such, people buying what they sell are more likely to have a choice. If they want that luxury, they can allocate their money accordingly. People in Haiti, living on $2 a day, are barely in a position to do this, and the item in question here is necessary; clothes. So this observation about the tailors seems, to me, simplistic and verges on judgemental. Projects like this are supposed to enlighten, but I feel as if so much here is left shadowed, and shadows allow for confusion.

I agree with the issue the Jezebel writer raises about being aware of what happens to your clothes before and after you're done with them, but again, I'm uncomfortable with this issue having human faces... It feels crude, and exploitative, which is a good description of my feeling about the entire series.

I want to explain that I'm posting them here because I know my main readership to be comprised of thoughtful and intelligent people, whom I trust, and I'd really like to know what you think about the project. I still have a lot more to work out in my head about it all (and I'm struggling to work through everything in my head at the moment; more on that soon).


  1. It is upsetting! It suggests that they are powerless, or "voiceless" as the trashy over-consumed American voice on their tshirts symbolizes.... it's pretty disgusting that the artist would find it "amusing and ironic" IF it wasn't for the local tailors issue... huh? the decline of local tailors is sad; contributes to presumed 'powerlessness'. but at the same time i wonder how the tailor trade has been held together by America's over-consumption in the first place? I'm assuming 'local tailors' means those working in factories & sweatshops producing the likes of those tshirts.

    I'm pretty clueless when it comes to trade laws or anything, if i knew more i'm sure i'd be able to contribute more. but I'm really glad you've forced me to think about this! and you're right; getting to the bottom of it should be these journalists'/artists' duty, rather than just skimming the surface; "being amused" at "the irony" i might add is my #1 peeve about art these days. such a lofty perspective.

  2. p.s. when i looked at the photos i instantly thought of C. F. Goldie's 'dying race' Maori portraits....

  3. looking at the pictures i feel like i'm in on a mean joke and the haitains are just there looking clueless. it sucks that the world is like this, that's such a cruel cycle.

  4. They ARE like Goldie's paintings! Oh my god, that makes me feel even more strongly about them... I wish I knew more about trade laws too. I so agree about "irony" in art; is that because of post-modernism? Or are people still supposed to ascribe their own meaning? So many questions!!!

    And I totally agree; I feel as if I'm in on the joke just by looking, too, and I hate it xo

    Thank Nietzsche for you two. It's been almost a month, but seeing the picture again makes me feel just as strongly.