Monday, April 6, 2009

Subhankar Banerjee's Propaganda

Subhankar Banerjee's photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge make for moderately effective propaganda.  Put into use as propaganda, first by democratic Senator Barbara Boxer in her opposition to drilling in ANWR, they follow the rules that govern propagandistic imagery to a T.  

1. They have a relatively simple message that most anyone can understand.  Though not explicitly stated, the basic message is "don't drill in ANWR".  The images and the text that accompanies them give several reasons for this: 
a) It is beautiful.   
b) The native people of this area depend on the natural resources there to survive.
c) Many species of animals use it as an important stop on long, sometimes intercontinental migration routes.
d) Exploitation of this area's reserves of coal and oil would mean large scale disruption of one of the few areas in the US that has gone largely undisrupted by human presence.

2. Almost all of the images are aesthetically pleasing.  Some are romantically beautiful, some rely on abstraction and formal balance, and some use traditional compositional tropes.  The images are not at all far removed from those you see in nature magazines, in calendars, and in nature documentaries and television programs.  They are not surprising, visually challenging, or difficult to look at.

3. The imagery itself does not do a whole lot (this is why it is only moderately effective).  Much of the content of the work is contained in the very long captions.  The images get your attention, and if you stick around and feel like doing a little work, the captions do the heavy lifting.  This is a problem - I'm sure many viewers of this work don't read the very long captions.  More on this later.

Let's look at one of his pictures as an example.  This is a screen shot from his website (which can be seen here); click on the image to enlarge it so that the text is readable.  

Ok, so this picture, Snow Geese I, is pretty typical for Banerjee.  It is quite nice to look at - the golden yellow and the deep blue are a complementary and traditional color pairing, we see lovely curving abstract shapes punctuated by countless points of while, it depicts an unpeopled landscape (which we like), and the landscape pictured is vast (we also like that).  The text tells us that we are looking at migrating snow geese in ANWR, that they are one of ninety bird species to spend part of the year there, and that the US government wants to drill for oil there.  The text carries the content.  It tells us what we are looking at, how we are supposed to feel about it, and why it is important.  The image tells us that the place is beautiful and big and has animals that move through it.  

This is basically the format of a National Geographic image (though oftentimes NG pictures do much more).  As someone who has always been in a household with an NG subscription (including now - you can get a year for only 12 dollars!), I'm pretty familiar with how those pictures function.  It seems that the main difference is that Banerjee's pictures are usually presented on the wall in a museum or gallery, that they are much much bigger, and that, perhaps, they are formally stronger, with more careful and controlled compositions. 

Here is a National Geographic example from their website (see the image in context here): 

Not a whole lot of difference.  Aesthetically pleasing image, caption that warns of the destruction of the landscape.  The caption is shorter, but this image is part of a long article about drilling for oil in Canada.  Of course, I chose an image and topic that would easily compare, but it is not at all out of character for NG.  

More of Banerjee's work:

Our readings this week rave about Banerjee.  Kelley Wilder, in Resource Wars (available here), says, "These are thoughtful and intelligent pictures, made to please the senses in an almost tactile way.  But their raison d’être, their main purpose, is to compose a powerful argument and to feed the intellect."  Wilder argues that his photos depict a "subtle ecology" and counter ideas about wilderness popularized by typical nature photography.  In Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (available here) Finis Dunaway argues, "...Banerjee's exhibit and catalog offer a different way to see the Arctic, a perspective that challenges not only the worldview of conservative politicians but also the prevailing wilderness motifs deployed for a long time by mainstream environmental groups."  

While Banerjee's photos are far more nuanced than the "white nothingness" that proponents of drilling described ANWR as, I completely fail to see how these images challenge traditional wilderness motifs.  Both writers argue that, by presenting a lovely picture accompanied by text that describes the location's ecological importance or the doom that might ensue if Republicans have their way, Banerjee is doing something unexpected.  He's not.  These images are expected and unsurprising.

I'm glad these pictures exist.  If they can help protect habitat or change one person's mind about whether or not we should drill in ANWR, they have served their purpose.  During the Bush years and the "Drill Baby Drill" of the 2008 election, this type of imagery should have been plastered on billboard and buses, published in every newspaper, and shown in every museum.  In a world where anyone is uninformed enough to actually think that ANWR is a white nothingness, the environmental movement needs all the propaganda it can get.

The story of the controversy over the Smithsonian's censorship of the captions is a testament to how dangerous the political climate is for the environment.  But it also indicates how little power the images have on their own.  Perhaps it is really the text we should spend the most time talking about.  

In the long run, these pictures don't do anything different.  Tossed around on the internet, they will become unattached to their captions.  Visitors to exhibitions will neglect to read the text, or will forget it as soon as they leave.  Some certainly will be profoundly affected by it, and they will write their senators and protest and pursue careers as ecologists.  But in the end, these images contribute to the myth of the vast wilderness, valuable for its beauty and for the animals it harbors.  They contribute to the notion that humanity and nature are separate things (except for the primitive natives).  They don't ask us to deeply reconsider how we visualize nature.


1 comment:

  1. I might have made somewhat similar comments about what the photographs say *as photographs* before having seen him lecture. But upon learning that he juxtaposes the images of caribou hunters (in snowsuits and riding snowmobiles, covered in the blood of their fresh kill) alongside the aerial views of caribou migrations, I realized there was indeed a message in the images themselves, in addition to or complemented by the text.

    Plus, while it seems easy to dismiss as unrealistic the expectation that audiences will read the text, it has been my experience that a surprising number of people do indeed read the text in museum exhibition spaces. Especially when that text so heavily illustrates and connotes the meaning of the imagery. I do agree, however, that the hard part is getting audiences who may be unfamiliar with visual literacy to see the juxtaposition of hunter and aerial migration as intentional and a complex elaboration of the role of humans in nature.

    Lastly, I don't know that the Gwich'in people are shown as primitive natives when they ride on snowmobiles and obviously use store-bought high-powered hunting rifles to make their kills.