The Potential of Privilege

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Jerome Liebling, Outside Claridge’s Hotel, Mayfair (1967), London, UK

 

I felt like penning a quick follow up to Colin Pantall’s piece ‘Don’t be a Crybaby because you are Rich’ published yesterday. It’s a good read on a topic I often find myself thinking about in relation to photography. The medium remains painfully exclusive as a profession, dominated particularly at its higher echelons by the relatively privileged. To be sure the proliferation of cheaper cameras and new methods of dissemination have changed things somewhat, but not nearly so much as the ‘photography is inherently democratic’ crowd like to claim. There is much more to any notion of democratic photography than everyone owning a camera.

Photography has the potential to be democratic, at all levels, and we should consider it a key goal to find ways to make it realise this potential, so that it better reflects the make-up of the world that photographs circulate in. This is particularly important for practices like documentary photography, where the subjects covered and the subtlety with which they are explored often hinges so critically on the photographers own background. Lots of rich white men documenting society inevitably has consequences for the images produced, and the information they impart.

From the perspective of understanding a work of art, I think the artist’s background does matter. Pantall cites Dianne Arbus as an example of someone who made great work, and whose background isn’t relevant. It might not be critical, or even hugely important, but it is relevant, since what we know about Arbus (that she was a woman, Jewish, married, and from a wealthy family) can all help to shape how we understand her motivations for photographing, the dynamic between her and her subjects, and the ideas she was seeking to express in her photographs. We might still draw different conclusions from her images than she intended us to, but this information is part of the process of reading her photographs, and lacking it means the reading is incomplete.

The trouble of course with decrying privilege or attacking a privileged group is that it’s a deeply relative term. I am privileged, if only in the sense that I was born in a wealthy country, to loving and supportive parents, although we didn’t have that much money when I was a kid I didn’t want for anything (apart perhaps from some toys that weren’t home-made). I grew up in a house full of books and art, and generally had a pretty nice childhood. That is a form of privilege, and one to which know I owe a great deal in getting where I am now. I think Pantall’s key point is that a big problem with privilege is when those that have it often fail to recognise it for what it is. We too easily believe in the seductive myth of our own individualism and hard work.

It’s easy to laugh at the idea of the likes of James Blunt decrying the handicap of an upper class accent (and to some extent we should laugh, when there are so many more important things to complain about in Britain today). We have to recognise though that Britain remains a deeply class riven society, despite what we might like to tell ourselves about equality and egalitarianism. In the last century one might have been able to guess a huge amount about a person’s class from their dress. Something noticeable in photographs of the early twentieth century are the ‘class uniforms’ that working men invariably wore. The bowler hat and flat cap being particularly strong markers.

Today it’s much hard to make these sorts of visual judgements, but that dosen’t mean the divisions have dissolved. Instead accents are perhaps the most important marker of status, and whether we recognise it not we make all sorts of distinctions and calculations based on perceived class, privilege and geography as soon as we someone opens their mouth. This cuts both ways, the ‘privileged’ and ‘under-privileged’ having the upper hand in different scenarios. Aware of these prejudices and how they shape how others see us, many of us take on different aural personas depending on the people we find ourselves talking to, often without even recognising it. It always amuses me that my sister, who normally talks with a fairly thick London-Essex drawl switches to a fine impression of received pronunciation whenever she speaks to our elderly grandmother.

I’ve long felt that denigrating people because they were born rich or privileged is counter-productive. My attitude towards all things is there is no point being prejudiced against people for things they didn’t choose and have had no power to change. What really matters isn’t where you come from, or what assets you have on your side, but what you ultimately do with these things. I am a white, middle class man. I can’t change this, but I can be aware of it, and I can use the assets that this privilege has given me to try to use it to call out and undermine the systems and attitudes that makes these things useful in the first place. I can only hope that others aim to do the same.