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Suffering for Sale

By
August 24, 2006

A trio of refugee girls walks through the Sudanese desert. The rusty red headscarf of the girl in center breaks up the monotonous bluish gray of a cloudless sky that stretches behind her for untold miles as she sets out to look for firewood. Her clothing is immaculate: a broad piece of gauzy off-white fabric tied like an impromptu obi around a pale ochre dress. She is one of over 70,000 refugees in the camp Abu Shouk, where she has taken shelter from a brutal civil war.

In 2003, African farmers in the Sudanese region of Darfur rose in defiance against the Arab-dominated government. They were repressed by government troops and by the Arab militia known as the Janjaweed (literally “men on horses”), who attacked their villages. The conflict has displaced over two million people, who live in political limbo as the international community takes tentative steps to appease the conflict.

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The photograph of the three girls was taken at 7:03 a.m. in northern Darfur. Photojournalist Ron Haviv was carrying his digital camera, a heavy, black Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, and had, in the past four weeks of traveling between refugee camps, already taken over 10,000 photographs. As the sun rose over the desert, he encountered the three girls. They were shy, as Haviv approached with his interpreter. But soon they told their stories and spoke of their lives in the nearby camp: they were provided with shelter and food, but no means to cook. They were too poor to buy the little firewood available in the severely deforested area. To help their families, the girls often walked up to ten hours a day to find firewood, and sometimes spent the night in the desert—where there is ever-present danger.

Haviv was in Darfur for UNICEF to document the lives of children in the refugee camps. These three girls were only 12, but Haviv had heard of girls as young as eight being raped by the marauding Janjaweed, government troops, or gangs. At Abu Shouk, young women usually collect the firewood. “They hope that if it is the young girls they won’t be raped because of their age,” said Haviv. “Unfortunately it does happen.”

The early morning light infused the sand with an orange glow as Haviv photographed the group headed by the girl with the rust-red headscarf. With an aperture of 2.8, the shallow depth of field made her determined expression become the focal point, as her friends and the landscape blurred behind her.

The following day Haviv left Darfur, and the photograph began its peculiar journey.

Almost three months later, as the trees in New York’s Washington Square Park began their autumnal color-change, photographers from the collectively owned agency VII (pronounced Seven) were displaying and discussing their work over a two-day conference at New School University.

Haviv and a colleague sat at a desk on an auditorium stage, their laptops open, as a video flickered on the screen behind them. The girl with the rusty red headscarf stood in the middle of the frame. Her movements were tranquil, her back held straight. The still photograph of her and her two friends was also included in a new photography show that opened the night before. At the minimalist art gallery in Chelsea, the natural starkness and muted tones of the desert environment in the photo were contrasted against the constructed white wall. The photograph cost $3,000.

The gallery’s co-owner, Bill Hunt, was one of many guest speakers at the VII conference that weekend. A former actor who claims to have entered the art world “to get better discounts,” Hunt is tall with messily swept back salt-and-pepper hair and a considerable talent for public speaking. Alongside his gallery, he actively supports many AIDS charities and teaches part-time. He spoke about his collaboration with VII, whose photographs opened his new gallery, Hasted Hunt.

The abattoir reds of exposed flesh and the silvery white of tendons glistened from his skinned skull, contrasting against the dust-covered black skin of his bare back and buttocks.

The nine photographers in the VII exhibition define themselves as “conflict photographers”—encapsulating Haviv’s image from Darfur, but also his colleague Lauren Greenfield’s photograph of an anorexic American teenager. With images from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia, but also from Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C., the show had less of a specific theme than most gallery shows. And without the captions that accompany photographs in the news media, the VII show decontextualized the images.

There is the assumption that when an image is published in the news media, it is there to raise awareness, to educate media consumers about the world. In the art world, these photographs become objects for individual consumption. It raises the question: is it ethical to sell pictures portraying other people’s suffering? Is it ethical to buy them? The images at the Hasted Hunt show were often difficult to look at; they depicted as much blood and despair as they did beauty and hope. And in contrast to older prints, many of the subjects were still alive, and if dead, killed in conflicts that still rage.

An interest in current affairs may inspire collectors, but the photography market itself is rapidly changing. This past Valentine’s Day, Sotheby’s publicized the success of an auction of 20th Century photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bringing in over $14 million in total, the estimates given by Sotheby’s were, either naively or intentionally, miscalculated. The photograph “The Pond-Moonlight” by Edward Steichen was estimated to sell at between $700,000 and $1 million. It sold for $2,928,000. No photograph has ever sold at a higher price. The sale enticed spontaneous applause around the room, and the resulting price surge throughout the market has created a demand for new, relatively affordable, work.

The market has become more receptive to contemporary photojournalism, partly because of rising prices of older work and because of the current political climate after three years of war in Iraq. Financial gain was, however, not the sole motivation behind Hasted Hunt’s VII show. For the gallery’s co-owner Sarah Hasted, a blonde, statuesque 39-year-old from New Mexico, the show highlighted the conflicts around the world that media has covered inadequately, such as the genocide in Rwanda. “I think a lot of people just got up and had their cereal in the morning and knew nothing about it,” she said.

On Dec. 1, Hasted and Hunt held an informal soiree at the gallery to discuss the distinction between fine art photography and photojournalism. Alison Nordstrom, the curator of photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, which holds the world’s largest collection of photographs and negatives, soon referred to the 1979 book “On Photography” by Susan Sontag, which presents reflections and critiques of the medium. “You also have to bear in mind Susan Sontag’s quote about capitalism’s insatiable appetite for images,” said Nordstrom. “If you can’t sell a photo to a magazine anymore, because there are no picture magazines, why not sell it to a gallery?” She added, “I am interested in the way you can do photojournalism with an 8 x 10 camera with soft focus. Those black-and-white images… are no longer the only vocabulary that’s an option for making informational photographs about the world.”

Kathy Ryan, the photo editor at the New York Times Magazine, has the freedom to work with both fine art photographers and photojournalists, and spoke of letting them “cross over.”

Of photographer Simon Norfolk, she said, “he lives very much in both worlds,” before she walked across her office to pick up a Norfolk image of a man holding balloons on a road in Afghanistan. Comparing his sweeping landscapes to Turner paintings, she once commissioned him to photograph refugee camps in Chad, Chechnya, and Pakistan in the same style. “The work is extremely comfortable on a gallery wall…” she said, “but it is also a great way to get at a subject in a new way.”

The framed Norfolk photograph that Ryan held in her hands was still and serene, in stark contrast to many of the bloodier images for sale at Hasted Hunt Gallery. Before opening their own gallery, Hasted and Hunt had worked on a show of photographs by French photographer Luc Delahaye. One of the images portrayed a dead Taliban soldier lying, as though in repose, in a ditch. It was bought by a private collector, said Hasted. “He hung it in his living room, and his wife left him,” she recalled.

One of the more gruesome images at Hasted Hunt, taken by Antonin Kratochvil, depicted a grown man, hands tied together behind his back, lying in a street in Haiti. The abattoir reds of exposed flesh and the silvery white of tendons glistened from his skinned skull, contrasting against the dust-covered black skin of his bare back and buttocks. The soft outline of two children looking down at the body took up a third of the photograph’s foreground.

“I will put images, some of which are violent, war-like images upstairs [in my house],” he said, “but I don’t want a picture of a machete-hacked Rwandan over my fireplace.”

“The reason that it’s in the show is the theatre of the whole show,” commented Hunt. “When you are putting the whole show together, you’re selling a couple of things, you’re selling pictures, but you’re also selling yourself,” continued Hunt as he leaned back into the red leather of a steel-frame chair in the gallery’s reception room. “Some woman was in here the other day and kept saying, ‘The show is so haunting. It’s so haunting.’ You just wanna go like, ‘Well great, that’s good, maybe you’ll come back once the demons go away and see some stuff that won’t haunt you at all.’ We want to be fresh for people.” Hasted Hunt sold the photograph, but denied requests for the name of the private collector. “He’s someone who is very risky, who has a house full of risky pictures,” Hunt said.

A handful of visitors perused the gallery on a Saturday afternoon in December as two of Hunt’s acquaintances entered the reception room to say hello. Hunt rose to greet them. “This is where we get the clients drunk, so they’ll give us money,” he said, motioning around the welcoming room. “The Darfurs are astoundingly beautiful,” said one, as Hunt whisked the two men into the gallery. A few minutes later, as the entrance opened, Hunt interrupted the murmur of chatting visitors by theatrically exclaiming, “Ah… Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ron Haviv, the world famous war photographer.”

A scruffy, once-black baseball cap covered Haviv’s soft black curls streaked with grey. At 40, the native New Yorker retains the light enthusiasm of a Brooklyn kid. With a boyish face frequently illuminated by smiles, the photographer went from NYU’s journalism undergraduate program to photographing the war in the Balkans in just a few years. “Most artists have this sociopathic self-consumption that is just exhausting. It’s just draining,” commented Hunt. “Ron’s not like that, not so faaar….”

On the wall opposite the entrance, Haviv’s photograph from Darfur hung next to a 1994 image by fellow VII photographer, James Nachtwey. A young man, portrayed in profile, cradled his throat with his hand. The pinhead scars of healed stitches traced a deep cut sweeping from the edge of his mouth towards the base of his jaw. A second scar lined his cheekbone. A third lay above his hairline, a slice taken off the upper part of his ear to accompany it. A fourth dug into his skull. As though mauled by a grizzly bear, he was marked for life from a machete attack in Rwanda. The photograph cost $6,000.

“Are you the kind of person that goes to see the movie Hotel Rwanda?” […] “Or are you the kind of person that says, ‘Oh, that’s so depressing I can’t go to that?’”

Management consultant and photography collector Alan Paris was one of many visitors to the show. An erudite, mild-mannered man who carries copies of his favorite photographs on his iPod, Paris organizes the New York City Collectors’ Club for George Eastman House in his spare time. He later commented, “I will put images, some of which are violent, war-like images upstairs [in my house],” he said, “but I don’t want a picture of a machete-hacked Rwandan over my fireplace.” He did not buy anything at the Hasted Hunt show, yet his private collection of photographs in his yellow, suburban home, a half-hour by train from New York City, shows he does not veer away from political art. The famous image of a Spanish Civil War soldier, in mid-fall as his body is propelled backward from the force of a bullet, hangs on one wall of the welcoming home that Paris shares with his wife and son.

Paris’s father was a photographer with the U.S. Signal Corps in Italy and Africa during the Second World War. His son’s house is filled with his images, but the collection also contains several photographs by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who co-founded the agency Magnum in 1947. A few are signed—Cartier-Bresson’s handwriting deteriorating from tidy italic script into a shaky sprawl on the photographs he signed later in life.

Paris linked photojournalism’s entry into the art world with political consciousness after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “I think it is absolutely the case that when the United States is at war, these things become more interesting,” said Paris.

Shortly after the VII show opened in October, Sandy and Ellen Luger, both in their sixties, visited the gallery determined to buy work from the photographers they had long admired. Ellen, a petite, attractive woman with short hair and discrete square glasses, took a pen and paper and walked around the gallery. Her husband, whose equally silver hair is cropped even shorter than hers, did the same thing. Ellen, a retired family-planning consultant, and Sandy, a retired pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, were about to add one or two images to their private collection. Pen and paper in hand, they walked past an image from Iraq of a dead marine, then past an image of lanterns floating down the Tigris. They then walked past the photograph of an emaciated teenage girl, and then the photograph of a grieving man.

As with so many other visitors, the Lugers did not find it an easy exhibit. “Are you the kind of person that goes to see the movie Hotel Rwanda?” Ellen would later ask, “Or are you the kind of person that says, ‘Oh, that’s so depressing I can’t go to that?’” Sandy’s parents were working-class refugees from Europe. The Nazis murdered several members of his extended family. It is a period of history from which he would like to buy photographs. “It is not artful, but it’s meaningful to me,” Sandy later commented.

Eventually, Sandy and Ellen came together to compare their lists of photographs to buy from Hasted Hunt. “We then had a conference and eliminated those that we didn’t mutually pick,” explained Sandy. They had both chosen Haviv’s image of the three young girls in Darfur.

Sandy had initially been attracted to the photograph from Rwanda portraying the young man with machete scars. “But it’s not something that I could show easily in my apartment with the grandchildren.”

“It’s a tough one, no matter who’s there,” interjected Ellen.

This overtly political art is emerging partly because of people’s frustration after four years of war, but there is also a purely market-driven explanation for the increased interest in photojournalism. Hunt believes there is a perception of rarity in the photography market pushing collectors to reinvent themselves. “I myself, as a collector,” he said, “I have seen as prices have gotten steeper and steeper, but the intensity of wanting to get photographs hasn’t lessened.” He added that the myth and perception of war photographers helped in the marketing. “These people are charismatic… It’s part of the baggage. It’s how they’re successful, because they have to go into, very often, a hostile place and be charming and get things that people don’t want to give them. One way of doing that is by being charismatic. It doesn’t necessarily mean good looking, but it means charming and quick.”

His appreciation of the serene, attractive photographer James Nachtwey, whose aura is quietly confident, propelled Hunt into storyteller mode. “He’s got this fucking white Oxford cloth shirt on the West Bank, and you go like, ‘What is that?’ Everyone else has got flack jackets and helmets on, and he looks like Gandhi in the middle of this…” said Hunt, spreading his arms out wide as though embracing an imaginary crowd of stone-throwing protesters, before concluding, “He has a luminescence that comes out of him, he walks into the place and does that Abe Lincoln thing, and you go like, ‘Hey, I’d fuck that.’”

Haviv concedes that 50 percent of the profits went to him, which means he will have received just under $13,000 for the Darfur image alone.

“Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible…” wrote Susan Sontag. “Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised – partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror.” Hasted and Hunt worked with VII’s images in enormous format for over two months, yet never felt desensitized. “We were reminded every time someone came in and cried,” said Hasted.

Photography also concerns a search for innovation and rediscovery. Aesthetics evolve. “I do think that what is consistent about all these things,” commented Hunt, “is that people are hungry for stimulation.” His take on selling and buying art is refreshingly unproblematic. “It’s just stuff,” he said. “It really is just stuff. You take it home, and you hang it up. You say, ‘This is my stuff.’” Among his own 200 pieces of art, Hunt identified the most disturbing object as a Joel-Peter Witkin photograph of a decapitated man, only wearing socks, sitting in a chair in a morgue. “I adore this print. I don’t like the socks in it; it’s all about the head for me. When I saw that picture, I was like, ‘Oh Man’ that like breaks every rule ever, can’t do that, bad….” Hunt looked euphoric. “Ultimately transgressive.”

The photograph hung in his home opposite the kitchen for a time until his partner vetoed it.

This succinctly personal connection to owning art is shared by the Lugers. The couple claim not to view the purchase of Haviv’s photograph of the three young girls in Darfur as an investment. Sandy bought his first photograph a few years ago. On a trip to New Mexico, he telephoned Ellen at home in New Jersey to say he wanted to buy a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph. “Good, we’ll have to get an apartment in New York,” she replied. Sandy bought the photograph three days later. The couple moved to New York City soon after. “We bought the apartment to surround the picture,” said Sandy, “so I say it’s the most expensive Cartier-Bresson ever.” The prices of Cartier-Bresson images have increased 500 percent in the last 10 years according to the Paris-based Web site ArtPrice, which monitors the international art market.

Haviv contends that any exposure, even when provided by an up-market Chelsea art gallery, is positive. “It’s just another way of communicating. My work has appeared in schools, in outdoor exhibits free to the public. It’s just another way.”

Hasted Hunt sold eight or nine prints of his photograph, said Haviv. Neither he nor the gallery owners want to speak in any detail of the financial aspect of the venture. “This is not, and never has been, a profession one enters for the money,” said Haviv who concedes that 50 percent of the profits went to him, which means he will have received just under $13,000 for the Darfur image alone. This does not include the profits from the four other images he exhibited at the gallery. On the other hand, Haviv has helpED raise almost $30,000 for Unicef Darfur with events and some proceeds from print sales, and if it were feasible he would have liked to share the proceeds with the girl who dominates the image.

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To comment on this piece: editors@guernicamag.com


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