A series of photographs by a man called James Mollison recently came to my attention – they have received a lot of press, in the NYTimes, for example. My first reaction to his photos was one of slight horror (sometimes), awe (because even rubbish dumps in Phnom Penh acquire some sort of aesthetic charisma through his lens) and profound humbling. It’s a strange word to employ, ‘humbling’: Oxford dictionaries define it as a verb – to “cause (someone) to feel less important or proud” – and a noun – “(of a thing ) of modest pretensions or dimensions”.
Of course these photos are all of these things: a stark reminder that even the innocent life of children is sometimes shut in by iron bars, or reduced to a used tyre in a dump. How sometimes it is inflated to excesses of pinks and frills. They tell wider socioeconomic stories: somewhere behind the glitz and glamour of Chinese urbanity are little rooms with faded portraits of Mao Zedong on the wall; somewhere in Kenya, a boy sleeps under the stars. They are poetic and tragic and awesomely inspiring all at once.
Susan Sontag wrote that “photographs cannot create a moral position [although] they can reinforce one—and can help build a nascent one”. This encapsulates precisely the potency of Mollison’s photographs: they appear to be taken first and foremost with an almost Arbus-ian sense of detachment from the political in favour of the aesthetic, with a staunch refusal to tack on any sort of ‘social conscience message’. But they are let loose, nonetheless, as little snippets of other worlds and realities, bare truths offered out to inexperienced eyes. By putting art first, politics second (if anywhere at all), these images make people face up to realities which are otherwise too easy to ignore, too ‘other’ to really care about.
I know Mollison didn’t take these with any specific sociopolitical/charitable agenda (he says on his website that he “didn’t want it just to be about ‘needy children’ in the developing world”, and perhaps that is why they are so extremely powerful in their ability to move the viewer. They are lacking in self-consciousness, without any of the dramatic qualities that underlie appeals, pleas, and the image-heavy social-conscience attacking of people (which by and large people are immune to, now). They force the observer, firstly, to observe at all, catching the eye with their distinctness, their lack of conversation. And secondly, they make that observer consider those very sociopolitical dimensions and contexts so cleverly left unsaid (but so entirely captured) by these photographs.