John Pitman Weber, Visual Art Today, September 10th, 2008
Lynn Hill, documentary photography
Curated by John Pitman Weber
Chicago: Lynn Hill’s portfolio of sidewalk portraits from Delhi, India is engaging, beautiful and humane. Of the two dozen odd images, ten are individual portraits, six are images of parent (or grandparent) and child, the rest show groups or objects, apparently belongings of these same people. The subjects are all sitting on what appears to be a sidewalk, camped out on spread cloths, with handpainted poster-like signs and banners behind them. Unless we read Hindi, the signs are as far from self-explanatory as are the photos themselves.
This is not, however, candid “street” photography, but the very opposite. No one has been caught unaware by the camera. We feel no ironic distance. The people of these photos are consciously in control of their self-presentation. When the subjects are not looking directly at the photographer, we nonetheless feel they have allowed the photographer into personal or group space, as a trusted and already familiar, even if new, friend. Eight of the thirty or so characters are smiling, including almost all the individual portraits. The photographer is comfortable with her subjects and she invites us to take her place, to feel equally comfortable with them, to be warmed by their smiles.
The people present themselves with an easy dignity, the women in particular dressed in traditional fabrics, worn, to Western eyes, with an unconscious grace. As non-Indians, it would be hard for us to “read” the social situation of these people, if not for their apparent camping along the street and their humble belongings. The street-camp is neatly organized. No one is unkempt, although one child is wearing torn pants. This portfolio defeats our expectations of classic social advocacy photography; we are disarmed by the smiles, engaged by the human presence. We follow the empathetic photographer into lives before we know what the gathering is about. Our only clues: a few English words, which we do not notice at first, on the background banner in photos 15, 18, 19, and 21: “Support Bhopal & Not Killer US Multinationals…Take legal Action…” But to decipher these we must look past the foregrounded faces.. In them, we see here some of the serious looks found in Walker Evans, but no overt anxiety.
All images are ambiguous. They allow for multiple readings and rarely contain their self-evident explanation. Only by reading the artist’s accompanying explanatory text can we begin to grasp the context of suffering and injustice. Then we can also begin to guess at the healing power of group political action. The people in these photos have completed a 500 mile protest walk from Bhopal to Delhi and are in the middle of a non-violent sit-in, demanding government action. Looking neat and clean, they have already been sitting on the street for 40 days. Weeks more will pass, including a 21 day hunger strike, a “die-in” in front of the Prime Minister’s home, several arrests and an international internet FAX campaign, before the government gives them some more promises. They have been given nothing at all, except promises since 1984, when 27 tons of methyl isocyanate (an industrial cyanide) gas escaped from Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant, in the largest industrial accident in world history. One has to be 40 years old to possibly remember Bhopal. As one of Ms. Hill’s fellow plane passengers said to her, “Bhopal was a long time ago. That’s done.” Except for the thousands of survivors still struggling with chemical injuries, chronic illness and the thousands of children born damaged or damaged by the toxic water, around the abandoned, but never decontaminated site. Ms. Hill brings the quiet but impressive efforts of these survivors to us. She jogs our memory.
Now we can make sense of the two children who seem to have birth defects. Now we take another look at the children the photographer identifies as severely disabled. Now we pay attention to the signs and banners behind the sitting, friendly, people. Now we can understand the calm sense of accomplishment and purpose evident is many of these faces.
Examining Ms. Hill’s portfolio, reading her text, and re-reading the photos, I am still struck by how different these photos are from those of classic social advocacy. They are neither the iconic, heroic, action photos of the Civil Rights Movement (Danny Lyon’s for instance) or of the Anti-Apartheid struggle (Magubane comes to mind), nor the stark and somber photos of Depression era poverty registered by the great FSA photographers. The most obvious comparison of theme has to be the portfolio Wm. Eugene Smith did of the chemical poisoning victims of Minimata, for whom the symptoms of mercury poisoning (Minimata disease) was named. Smith’s portfolio shows us a catalog of horrors, grotesquely twisted bodies, wasted away to remnants. The photos are stunning and rise to the level of art in their masterful chiaroscuros. But the subjects are reduced to only their suffering, to victims. Pity and fear ovewhelm us, we are brought to share a bit of the photographer’s outrage, but we do not empathize. This reduction of the subject to pure victimhood is equally effective as polemic as it is problematic on a human level. Such reductivism characterizes much, but not all, documentation of the Holocaust as well.
Why is Lynn Hill’s approach to advocacy photography so different in its look and in its effect on us? Lynn Hill is still surprised by her conversion to documentary photography, the result of a life changing “crisis” during her second trip to India, July 2007. This second trip, six months after her first, was undertaken to attend an international seminar on crafts. Finding the seminar cancelled but with a round trip ticket to India, she turned to her Indian friend from previous trips, Sharada, who told her to come anyway: they would plan something. Lynn, who had been reading about Bhopal since her first trip, mentioned that interest. Sharada immediately contacted the leader of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, who was then in Delhi with the sit-in (dharna). Lynn found herself staying only a 10 minuite walk away. Ms. Hill recalls asking “Why can’t I do something useful?” and her friend replying “You can take the pictures so that others can see.” She states that Bhopal is “a project that chose me.”
Professor Hill does have a history of social activism: soup kitchen, homeless shelter, summer programs with the children and mothers from the shelter, -all on Chicago’s South Side. But not a history of activism in art. As a multimedia artist, her previous work was invested in process; the photo image only raw material, to be altered, reworked in the computer. Taking straight forward documentary shots was a new experience, a novelty.
Now after three trips, Ms. Hills feels a deep commitment to her subjects. “I’m in it thick.” She deeply admires the undefeated spirit of the Bhopalis, who, 24 years after the disaster which forever altered their lives, simply say “The struggle will take longer than we thought.” Yet there is an important connection between her earlier work and this new focus. Much of her earlier work involved family albums, of which she is an avid collector. She also admits to being “the keeper of the stories” in her extended family. I read the Bhopali protesters portfolio very much as a family album, or at least the start of such an album. Ms. Hill attempts to be a transparent as possible. We see through her eyes, but we do not feel her as an editorial, polemic voice. Rather than imposing her own outrage, she allows the first speakers their own calm voices, their own persistent presence. She respects their own agency. And that is the point, that these Bhopalis be heard, be seen, be present to us, refusing to be erased and forgotten as they have been in our media world of almost instant erasure and forgetting.