Known and Unknown Tracks, Oil and the Geese, 2006
For over a hundred years, socially minded photographers have been grappling with how their images can make a difference; by raising public awareness of situation to actually enacting change through legislative measures. Lewis Hine's photographs helped to reform child labor practices at the beginning of the 20th century and Nick Ut's image of a girl after a Napalm attack in Vietnam contributed to the anti-war sentiment of the 1960s. Could these images, however, have had such an impact without a specific context? Hine's work was presented with lengthy blocks of text describing the conditions of the factory and were distributed via journals. Ut's image circulated through the popular media and was also framed through the use of text. For photographs to truly have an impact, to spur change, they need to presented in a particular context in a receptive social climate.
Photographer and scientist Subhankar Banerjee's images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are so powerful because of their titles, accompanying text and the locations in which they are presented. As author Finis Dunaway points out twice in her article, "Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge," on their own, Banerjee's photographs could be mistaken for images of "pure nature" that would slot into a kitsch aesthetic of calendars and greeting cards. While Banerjee draws upon a visual aesthetic influenced by painters like Bierstadt and nature photographers like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, he eschewed a romantic, golden light in favor of a flat light more reminiscent of Robert Adams. He also takes a more ecological standpoint, rather than presenting an untouched nature, Banerjee presents birds and animals in the landscape, as well as the native people who live in this area.
Banerjee's scientific background influences his photographic work-- he seems to systematically approach his subject and the resulting images serve as evidence of a particular phenomena (like global warming) or documentation of a natural cycle (migratory patterns of birds and animals). The accompanying blocks of text, which provides information on geographic location, information about a particular bird/animal species and the human impact (in terms of drilling, land use, etc) furthers this evidence quality of the images.
Dunaway begins her article with a scenario that took place in the Senate in 2003-- when Senator Barbara Boxer held up one of Banerjee's images as "visual evidence" of why drilling should not occur in ANWR. Banerjee's images played an important role in this context, because Republicans had previously downplayed the ecological richness of the ANWR, portraying it as a vast, frozen land that had no distinctive qualities to the landscape. One senator went so far as saying that the ANWR was as empty as a blank, white piece of posterboard and thus had no aesthetic value. Banerjee's photographs demonstrate that the ANWR is not a "flat, white nothingness" and that it remains a vibrant place throughout the year.
When the Smithsonian censored the first show of Banerjee's images after the Senate debate, it had the opposite effect of what they intended-- while the photo show may have been regulated to the basement, stripped of their context due to the exclusion of the accompanying text; the censorship and consequently Banerjee's images received national attention when the major media outlets and government officials like Senator Dick Durbin publicly decried Banerjee's treatment by the museum.
Banerjee has been savvy in the way that he displays his work; his photographs have almost exclusively been presented in natural history museums (like the Field Museum here in chicago) versus fine art museums and galleries. He also enrolled an extensive list of influential environmentalists, scientists and art historians to write essays for the exhibition catalogue. These texts, along with the text accompanying the photos, allowed for a richer understanding of the project.
What becomes problematic is the tension between Banerjee's intentions and the cultural myth that surrounds the ANWR-- it is often described in terms as "wilderness," "the last frontier" and as a "place frozen in time, a blank space that provides the setting for imperial nostalgia" (Dunaway, 11). These sentiments actually come up in some of the essays published in the exhibition catalogue and is also reflected in many environmental groups' vision of the ANWR as a pure, untouched nature separate from the modern world. Dunaway sees Banerjee being able to overcome this in his the way he documented the migration patterns of birds (emphasizing how they connect the ANWR to other parts of the world) as well as his inclusion of human communities in his images, which undermines the ideal of a pure wilderness.
I look forward to hearing Banerjee describe his own work and what caused the shift in the way he viewed the ANWR, from initially searching it out as the last untouched region of America to now seeing it in a way that connects it to our everyday lives.