Breaking through Compassion Fatigue

Article excerpt

Contemporary Slavery

Exit Art

New York City

June 3-August 5, 2011

Compassion fatigue is a common complaint when faced with the all-encompassing topic of human misery at the hands of global capitalism. Exit Art's exhibition relies on images' aesthetic power to reach viewers. "Contemporary Slavery" is a project of Exit Art's "SEA (Social Environmental Aesthetics)" program and its second annual "ECOAESTHETIC" exhibition. The exhibition addresses multiple aspects of the issue of exploitation through a day-long symposium and poetry series, a month-long film screening series, and a two-month exhibition in Exit Art's gallery, featuring slideshows of photographs by a collection of fourteen artists and photojournalists.

The photographic exhibition grapples with four main forms of slavery: prison work, domestic and migrant work, child laborers, and sex work. Perhaps the most intriguing in subject material, Bruce Jackson's prison series presents sweeping vistas of American prisoners toiling in southern cotton fields under the watchful eyes of armed guards on horseback. Taken from the 1960s through the early 1980s, these images also include intimate portraits of inmates on Texas' death row, haunting for their inescapable humanity.

Many of the images are notable not for their documentary qualities, but for their arresting beauty. Tiana Markova-Gold's series "Macedonia 001" (2010) and "Macedonia 002" (2010) offer subjects silhouetted, their identities partially obscured thanks to the personal danger and shame they face in their sex work. Heartbreaking synopses of Markova-Gold's subjects in the gallery's desk catalog of images reveal their between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place choices. In the photograph Macedonia 001 (2010), we are told that "Kristina" is a "22-year-old transgender Roma sex worker who was raped and coerced into prostitution as a teenager and has been the victim of countless incidents of violence." As the "only transgender sex worker in Skopje who regularly works in the street," we are informed that she is "often homeless, struggles with drug abuse and has numerous health issues. She does not want to continue in this life but doesn't feel she has any alternatives." The quiet portrait shows little of the violence and struggle in Kristina's life; what we see instead is a domestic living space with the blurred shape of a refrigerator visible behind a darkened figure. Kristina's gold-painted nails, an outline of her gold hoop earring, and her vibrant red-sleeved shoulder are evident as Kristina prepares for what could be a night out. Her face, obscured in shadow, reveals the only hint of the danger she faces in her line of work. …