Guilty Pleasures: One Way to Negotiate the Ethical Uncertainties of Images Is to Consider How They Serve Our Understanding of the Subject

Article excerpt

LOOKING AT PHOTOGRAPHS BY ENRIQUE METINIDES RECENTLY HAS THROWN ME INTO A SNAKE PIT OF ETHICAL UNCERTAINTY. PRINCIPALLY, IS IT WRONG THAT THE IMAGES COULD BE DESCRIBED USING EASY ADJECTIVES SUCH AS BEAUTIFUL OR THAT THEY ELICIT IN THE VIEWER SOMETHING COMPARABLE TO PLEASURE? Is it morally incorrect to assess Metinides' images of calamity and civilian disaster under regular conditions of aesthetic appreciation in the safety of a clean, well-lit gallery? What could be wrong with me that I find it possible to look at such awesome carnage and notice things such as composition, light and the photographer's virtuoso technique? Fortunately, there is a wealth of anecdotal one-liners, ethical templates, entire philosophies and vast wells of history to momentarily assuage the sense of guilt that arises from such a dilemma.

For half a century, Mexican photojournalist Metinides has chased death and destruction in his native Mexico City. Metinides' photographs of crime scenes, mangled corpses, suicides, car wrecks, plane crashes, derailed trains, buildings on fire and urban catastrophe have regularly graced the front pages of the Mexican tabloid La Prensa. Metinides has been both a major proponent and antecedent to la nota roja which roughly translates as crime news and is a style of journalism that supposedly caters for the tastes of the people. La noto roja has a proven track record as a reliable means for selling newspapers. What this means is that disseminating violent imagery as a commodity is a viable strategy for generating revenue. Nothing especially new there, but one of the things that is remarkable about Metinides' work is what happens to it in the context of a gallery: how this context reinforces the conditions set by a relatively neutral space (for the presentation of information) and also how it reaffirms the strange power that still images retain, as opposed to moving ones.

It is hardly a unique experience to encounter images of death and destruction. Anyone who uses the internet as a news source, watches the news on TV, or reads the papers is constantly made aware of death and destruction with mind-numbing regularity. So it is interesting that Metinides' photographs have such a powerful resonance both in their original context of tabloid papers and in the context of a gallery. Viewing these types of images in a gallery disrupts the normal way in which we are accustomed to receiving these images. Images of civilian disaster on TV and in the papers are almost always accompanied by an interface and a narrator. In effect, it might be characterised as a passive experience interrupted from time to time by advertising. A gallery show provides the viewer with a taxonomy--a group of images removed from the commercial white noise and the political agendas of newspapers and media groups. It is also unusual and rather valuable to encounter images of this type without any accompanying text, although Metinides has made it quite clear that the viewer should be aware of his picture titles, which also operate as short descriptions of what happened. For instance, Adela Legarreta Rivas is struck by a white Datsun on Avenida Chapultepec, Mexico City, 29 April 1979. In this image, as is typical of the majority of Metinides' photographs, the viewer is pulled straight through the surface of the photograph, which momentarily breaches the temporal distance as well as the geographical distance of the event. Metinides does what all good photojournalists do which is to transform the viewer into one of the stunned passers-by caught in a state of dumb stasis where action is hijacked by absorbing information and incomprehension. The viewer is also given purview of the very centre of a spectacle that produces a complex range of communal mechanisms and emotions. The longer we look at the photograph the more we see and yet the more is obscured by our distance from the event. There is the eerie stillness that makes one wonder if it is a film set. …