What Can Photography Do? | Hilde Van Gelder | Montag, 18.06.2012

Aesthetic Ruptures

On June 20, 2012, at 7 p.m., Fotomuseum Winterthur will screen Renzo Martens’s Episode III - Enjoy Poverty (2008). For several years, I have been researching (and lecturing on) issues – related to photography and beyond – addressed in this film, which was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This has been especially the case within the framework of a research project that T.J. Demos (University College London) and I have been jointly working on. Entitled “In and Out of Brussels: Aesthetics / Histories / Politics Between Africa and Europe,” this project investigates how the figuration of Africa in films such as Episode III confronts Europe – in particular Western Europe – with the image it is keen to uphold of itself. The first chapter of the book that is the outcome of this project (forthcoming this fall) is entirely devoted to Episode III.
One of the central themes in Episode III is the desire to stimulate debate about photography’s impact and current function in society, particularly with regard to the representation of poverty. A heavy moment in the film occurs when Renzo Martens, whom we follow on an extended travel journey throughout the country, talks to the European owner of a Congolese palm oil and coffee plantation. This takes place in a commercial photography gallery context while he is cheerfully observing, accompanied by presumably his wife, photographs representing his own workers. They’ve just acquired some photos for their private collection. Martens acts out the role of the rather naive interviewer, but the general context in which the scene becomes integrated, i.e., particularly within the larger setting of the film, does not make the conversation come out as neutral. We encounter the same photographs later on in the film, when Martens and the plantation owner discuss statistical data mentioning malnourished children living on the plantation. Then, the images are qualified by their owner as “artistic.”
Episode III incites us to reflect on the commodity value of art photographs, especially in relation to the contents that they depict. The film also powerfully demonstrates how photography has become a major tool in the generalized endorsement of neoliberal hegemony. Martens directs his attention to the activities of non-governmental organizations in the region and the way they employ – or should one rather say exploit – the photographic image for the sake of maintaining the status quo in advanced industrial society rather than for the sake of solving the problem of poverty in Africa itself. He extensively films the NGOs’ omnipresence while particularly focussing on their habit to print logos on basically anything that they use―thus sharply bringing to mind Naomi Klein’s pressing analysis of this matter in her book No Logo (2000). Martens’s main point is that poverty in Africa is an increasingly globalized business in its own right: 5% of the profit from the exploitations of the Congo’s natural resources goes to the local elites, 95% is sent to the industrialized countries, and local workers are left behind poor and deprived, living off of a starvation wage.
Renzo Martens, still from Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, 2008. Color video, sound, duration: 88 minutes, English subtitles. Courtesy of the artist, Wilkinson Gallery London and Galerie Fons Welters Amsterdam.
In his film, Martens not only makes this point crystal clear but he also aspires to move beyond the sheer analysis of African misery by deconstructing the ideology of the representational systems and myths surrounding the current photographic depictions of disastrous situations in certain parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. In an attempt to actively dismantle the conventional relationships that determine the spectatorship of depictions of miserable situations in mass media-oriented fundraising campaigns, he engages in a fundamental dialogue with an Italian press photographer about the ownership of the images that the latter shoots in the Congo. He teaches local photographers to take photographs of starving children (sometimes with logos added), to subsequently find these snapshots dismissed in a humiliating way by a local representative of Doctors Without Borders (MSF, or Médecins sans Frontières).
While both engaging with and problematizing the photography business this way, Martens demands that we, as spectators, move beyond passive contemplation of photographic images. Like Ariella Azoulay in her famous book The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), he urges us to understand photography’s various uses and to clearly differentiate between all of them. Azoulay defines this move beyond passive contemplation in terms of civil spectatorship. This implies that we come to see our perceptual relationship towards the subject depicted in a photograph and to the artist that produces the work in legal terms: it is a triangular, contractual relation between the depicted subject, the photographer, and the spectator. A contract implies that all parties involved in signing it are entering its terms on an equal basis, having an equivalent status as subjects or individuals of free will. If a photograph creates benefits for only one or two of the parties involved, leaving behind the depicted subject matter in an unprotected or deprived state, the contractual relationship is unbalanced and null. The rationale behind Azoulay’s claim is based on the photographic depiction of human beings. But this claim can – and I want to argue, needs – to be expanded towards the protection of animals, inanimate nature, or legitimately constructed architectural settlements.
While working on location – in Congo – and immersing himself among the locals, Martens wants to visually prove the impossibility of a dismissive attitude of distancing in our current era. The film ends with the artist steering away on a raft on the Congo River, displaying the neon letters “Enjoy (please) Poverty” that he had been dragging with him in colonial boxes from the Compagnie Anversoise all along the entire trip. Its concluding message at first sight appears to come out rather cynically, leaving the Congolese behind with the tragic notice that our wealth is their poverty, and for them, contrary to us, there is no hope. But since 2008 – when the film was released – the financial crisis has also hit hard in the Western world. When seen as a holding a mirror towards the European continent, Episode III’s disappointing final frame soon may predict a future in which, for Europeans as well, hope for a better future becomes less of a certainty, and poverty a greater reality.
While integrating photography as a key tool for engaged reflection, Martens’ film installs the kind of disruptive aesthetic experience that allows us to think through its message beyond its apparent borderline ethical attitude. By erasing the clear line between fiction and fact, Episode III challenges our consciousness, with the deliberate intention to encourage us to launch ourselves into collective action, to allow for the political and economic will to not only imagine but also make a different world in which the distribution of wealth and resources is more fairly negotiated. As Eyal Weizman powerfully writes in his latest book, The Least of All Possible Evils (2011): where there are now camps, there could be cities; where people are now policed by humanitarianism, a polis could develop.