February 2, 2016 | by Geoff Dyer
Have you ever stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai? I'd warmly recommend it. It’s super luxurious and, right next door, there’s a classic slum. So you can do a quick slum tour and get back to your sanctuary without any inconvenience but with some excellent snaps. The great Indian photographer Raghubir Singh termed this genre of photography “the abject as subject.” It has a long and distinguished history—and not just in what used to be called the Orient. In the 1930s, photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange produced images of sharecroppers and Okies, which drew attention both to the conditions in which these unfortunates found themselves and to their heroic fortitude. This resilience was easily incorporated into the ideology of ceaseless endeavour that continues to underpin the system of exploitation that condemned them to destitution in the first place. It’s just that now, instead of loading up your jalopy and heading for California, you take a second, badly paid job; The Grapes of Wrath has turned into Nickel and Dimed. The iconic photographs of the Great Depression, meanwhile, have acquired a kind of stonewashed glamour.
The photos here, many of them depicting the trappings of glamour to which we aspire, are neither harrowing nor heroic. Artistically driven—but politically informed—they remind us that the adjacency which is unignorable at the Four Seasons in Mumbai is the very condition of globalization. And while they have the aesthetic perfection or stylization that fascinated Scott Fitzgerald, they gently insist on the context he provided in Tender Is the Night. For the sake of Nicole Diver, Fitzgerald writes, “girls canned tomatoes in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve; half-breed Indians toiled on Brazilian coffee plantations and dreamers were muscled out of patent rights in new tractors.” Elegance and degradation turn out to be neighbors. While admiring the pleasing evidence of wealth we become complicit in—or, at the very least, recognize the extent to which we too are beneficiaries of—an economic system we routinely deplore. To take just one example, those screen graphs which at first sight seem to be recording a patient’s health—an assumption encouraged by the picture being adjacent (that word again) to one of a patient undergoing rhinoplasty surgery—are showing streams of financial data and figures. These abstracted patterns and flows are transactions whose consequences will somewhere be as tangibly manifest as surgery. The effects are all around us, like the water in which the man floats serenely in Singapore—but, as the crashes of 1929 and 2008 proved, the edge might not be as infinitely safe as it appears.
These photos and others are collected with this note by Geoff Dyer in 1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality, edited by Myles Little.
Geoff Dyer’s new book, White Sands, is due out in May.