Writing on photography

Due Indiligence: Photo London’s Partnership Problem

Human interest is often taken to be a rather cynical journalistic tactic, exploiting our emotions for an easy response to a story. But the fact is that we connect to a story or an issue which has a face behind it, whether that face is a real person we can actually see, or our imagined sense of a distant person wronged. It’s far harder to care about problems which are abstract and intangible, where the victims are invisible, and where the line between cause and effect is blurred or unclear.

This challenge is evident in the inconsistent views expressed by the photography community towards two of the partner organisations for Photo London, our city’s only dedicated photography art fair. One of those partners is (or was) the Dorchester Hotel, a luxury venue in the city’s swanky Mayfair district. The other is the Pictet Group, a Swiss private bank. What these two relationships suggest is that Photo London doesn’t do much due diligence on its partners, or that perhaps even more worryingly it doesn’t actually care who they are. But the responses to these relationships also raise questions about us, the photography community. About our inconsistent moral judgements, our tendency to engage gut over brain, and our willingness to raise our voices only when doing so comes with little personal risk.

The Dorchester is a five star, £685 per night hotel, and was the Photo London’s accommodation partner for housing VIP guests. For the last thirty years the hotel has also been owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, the Kingdom of Brunei’s sovereign wealth fund. The government of Brunei has been much in the news recently over its intention to introduce a particularly harsh form of Sharia law, which includes statutes prescribing the stoning to death of gay people and those accused of adultery. Such was the global outcry over these plans the Kingdom finally announced last week that it would extend an existing moratorium on the death penalty to include these new laws (but take note that this is significantly different from repealing the laws, something which has not happened).

Before the Brunei moratorium was announced, members of the London photography community were rightly criticising Photo London’s relationship with the Kingdom of Brunei. Photo London’s response on Twitter was to say that it was horrified by the laws, was attempting to pull out of the partnership, and was unaware of them when they made the agreement ‘months ago’. However, the Kingdom’s intention to introduce a hard-line interpretation of Sharia law was announced five years ago (or sixty one months to be more exact) and it hardly took a theological expert to extrapolate what this might mean in practice. Read the reports from any number of human rights organizations and it is also clear that what Brunei was doing was really just harshening laws that were already in place. The information was there for Photo London if it checked, which suggests either that it didn’t check, or it didn’t care. In either case the response was the same, a classic public relationship solution, when faced by an embarrassing relationship. Look contrite, drop the source of the embarrassment, and hope the conversation goes away. This was what duly happened, but for anyone involved in photography who really considers themselves to be a moral agent the problem has in fact only illustrated another one close by.

The second Photo London partner of interest is the Pictet Group, a private bank based in Geneva, and probably best known by photographers for lending their name to the Prix Pictet, an annual award focused on sustainability with a prize of roughly £75,000. The Pictet Group itself specializes in ‘wealth management’ which is finance industry parlance for a spectrum of practices intended to help the very wealthy protect and grow their assets. These practices can include helping wealthy people legally avoid tax through loopholes and complex methods of structuring their finances, a practice known as tax avoidance, and which is distinct from the illegal practice of tax evasion. A 2012 article in Der Spiegel accused Pictet of doing the former, legally taking advantage of loopholes in the German tax code to help high earners avoid paying the rate of tax that they would otherwise owe to the German Federal Tax Office. Around the same time Pictet was reported to be amongst 13 Swiss banks subjected to a tax evasion probe by the United States Department of Justice. Confusingly, Pictet seems to have at different times both confirmed and denied being on this list.

We can’t determine very much about Pictet’s actual activities for ourselves because the nature of this field is opaque even by the standards of the murky world of finance, and even among private banks Pictet is notable for the scarce information available. 2014 was the first year in more than two centuries of operation that the group published financial reports for its business activities. One thing we can tell is the going seems to be good for them, with Pictet on something of a hiring spree in recent years, bringing a significant number of new wealth managers (and most likely also some of their clients) into the fold.

My suggestion is not that the Pictet Group has done anything illegal, but that is also the crucial point about wealth management as a field, and even more so it’s sub-field of legal tax avoidance. These are practices which often exists in the ambiguous territory between laws and jurisdictions, utilising opportunities that arise from mismatches in regulation. You can think of legality and morality as two lines on the ground, which usually overlap but sometimes diverge, opening a gap between what the law and popular morality feel are acceptable or unacceptable. By way of example, until 1967 homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom, despite a significant and growing number of the population having no moral objection to it. today it’s hard to find many people who feel that legal tax avoidance is a morally acceptable practice. Governments for their part also seem to recognise it as a problem and organisations like HMRC are constantly trying to identify and close down the loopholes that facilitate legal tax avoidance schemes. In other words, legality and morality are very different things, and it’s quite possible for what was legal one year to become illegal the next.

Because it’s so difficult to know what goes on in an individual organisation like Pictet Group, it’s even harder to quantify scale of wealth management as a field. That also makes it difficult to determine its on broader society. The services of wealth managers invariably come with an impenetrable cloak of secrecy about them, and indeed for some of the people who use these services that secrecy is as attractive as the financial advice on offer. There have been a few interesting studies into what this means in practice, for example Brooke Harrington’s fantastically researched book Capital without Borders gives an excellent insight into the secrecy of wealth management, something which runs so deep that Harrington trained as a wealth manager herself simply in order to get access to it. For a very different perspective a study by the economist Gabriel Zucman has suggested that as much as 10% of the world’s wealth is held offshore, much of it as part of schemes intended to legally avoid or illegally evade tax. In the UK legal tax avoidance is estimated to have cost the Government £1.6 billion in 2017/16, while illegal tax evasion is estimated to deprive the UK treasury of £5.6 billion per year.

Why does this all matter? Because we are still living through a time of government austerity, and these systemic cuts to care and health programs (not to mention policing and other vital services) have unquestionably caused people to die who would not have otherwise. One study by academics at UCL proposes 120,000 extra deaths have occurred in the UK since 2010. £1.6 billion might be a drop in the ocean compared to the overall budget reductions being made, but even if that figure accounts for a single unnecessary death that is still one more death than Brunei’s Sharia laws have so far actually caused. This is to say nothing of the far more pernicious effect of these practices on the majority world, where other problems exacerbate the impact of these practices. The problem is the difficulty of putting a human face on these figures, of being able to unambiguously say that one of these things contributes to another. It’s hard for each of us to visualise the victims of these practices, even when the data and common sense tells us there must be a relationship, between tax avoidance/evasion and falling government revenue, between falling revenues and cuts to government spending, between cuts to spending and suffering and death which otherwise would not have occurred. We can’t wait for these links to become more visible; it simply won’t happen. We need to use our imagination to visualise them now.

The problem though is not just one of visibility, but also ultimately a matter of the fear of power. As the organiser of the Prix Pictet, the Pictet Group wields enormous influence over the world of photography in a way the Sultan of Brunei does not. This makes the Sultan someone who can be critiqued relatively without consequence, while to challenge an organisation like Pictet, and those who work alongside it, comes with the possibility of leaving a black mark against one’s name which could have reaching consequences in the claustrophobic world of photography. But if organisations like Photo London won’t do their own due diligence, then the photography community must do its own. And if people in positions of photographic authority are unwilling to exercise moral authority and call out organisations who engage in troubling practices, then the community must do it for them. If as ordinary photographers, curators, and writers we want to feel ourselves to be moral agents we must put moral actions first. We must stand up to the appropriation of our work, and say no to its reduction into a mask of public relations for big business and finance capitalism.

Photo: Pictet Group’s offices in Geneva, Switzerland (Google)

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

1 comment

  • In a 1969 essay entitled “Revolutionary Undoing” John Berger observed that, try as artists might to make work which criticizes Capital and Wealth, that same art is valuable, rare, and is therefore a desired possession of the wealthy. In short, Capital doesn’t care what awful things people say about it. Set that aside for a moment.

    In general any pile of money over a certain size is tainted. I am not wealthy, but I did accumulate a small pile sufficient to retire and cover expenses during the interval while my wife’s small firm grew to a size adequate to support the family. Where does my little pile come from? Well, I wrote software for 20-odd years. My area of expertise was data security. My employers made a good amount of their money selling to military and spy agencies of the US government. My employers were founded with venture capital, which is money raised from other wealthy people and mixed together into funds, which funds in turn make investments. The blood on that money is nigh untraceable, but we may rely on its presence.

    The Tate bravely rejects all the OxyContin money it has not yet been offered, and in so doing distracts from its own origins in a sugar fortune.

    To run a photo festival, or grant a prize, or operate a gallery, one needs money, I suppose, although let us revisit that in a moment. If you’re going to lay out, say, a million pounds on something or another, there will be blood on that money, and it will not be difficult to find.

    It is, I dare say, reasonable to put up some barriers, to say “I will endeavor honestly to find sources of funds that are less grubby than average” but to hope that you will only get pure money, honestly gained without harm, when what you need is a million pounds, is absurd.

    Therefore you must also take steps to firewall your work from the source of money. Recognizing that taint from the source can leak into your operation, whatever it is, you should acknowledge that possibility, and take (transparent, I suppose) steps to prevent that. “The committee in charge of making sure that our asshole money doesn’t make us assholes” or something. Sinclair said that it was difficult for get a man to understand something his salary depends on him not understanding, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Still, you end up being an ornament to whatever your sources are, you end up whitewashing their names, pretty much no matter what you do. That is the point, and you won’t get the money unless you do.

    My solution to these problems, as well as the one stated by Berger, is to make art which has little to no value. Not, I hope, without artistic value, but without cash value. My work is free, or close to it, and often infinitely reproducible. I am not an avowed Marxist, I don’t even understand Marxism. I believe that free markets, while not very good solutions, are the only known solutions to operating economies on very large scales, and so on. I did grit my teeth and work at one remove from the US Military. But I would prefer that my artistic output, such as it it, be freed from the stain and constraints of money at all levels, from the awkwardness of asking someone to part with cash money for a shitty photo all the way to avoiding the Odious Sacklers.

    Which leads us around to things like festivals, where it is a given that you will need a few million of some currency or another to really do it properly.

    Do you? Can you imagine how to put on a festival without cash? Operate a gallery with no money? Grant a meaningful prize that is not monetary, and costs nothing to grant?

    I can… a little. The details are not clear, but the general shape of the thing feels possible.

Writing on photography