Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Fine Line of Sensitivity in Photographic Portraiture

I happened upon a post on the Hey, Hot Shot! Blog today discussing the work of contender Melissa Kaseman. The image posted shows the bandaged hand of a women hanging benignly from a yellow sweater, presumably after some sort of treatment. Sara Distin, Hey, Hot Shot! blogger of the day, states:

It's hard to make compassionate photographs about illness, especially the illness of others. Remember Nicholas Nixon's show Patients at Yossi Milo earlier this year? What was he thinking?

I found this comment/question really interesting. It continues to fortify that we all interpret the meaning of photographs very differently. I happen to think that Nick Nixon's Patients images possess both uncompromising honesty and tremendous beauty. There is something unyielding about his portrayal of mortality, which often finds a balance between acceptance and apprehension. I have never considered them insensitive, exploitative or cruel, nor are they necessarily benign. They are honest; they reflect a state in physical and cognitive development that may be unpleasant to look at, but which is an absolute inevitability.

The question posed above seems to imply that the divulging of a truthful, albeit intense portrayal of death crosses the line of artistic decency into the realm of pictorial insensitivity. Often times the photographs that show us precisely what we do not want to see are the ones that have the greatest impact on our psyches.

I want to know what you think. Where does the tenuous line between compassion and indifference in photographic portraiture meet? What makes one artist's portrayal necessarily more sensitive than another's? And ultimately, do you respond more to a candid, unflinching portrayal of a person, or conversely, to a more allegorical image which insinuates rather than shows?

I think this is an interesting conversation, so comments and discussion are welcomed and encouraged.

From Top To Bottom:

Melissa R. Kaseman, Bandage, June, 2008

Nicholas Nixon, Ruth Burnett, Dorchester, 2005

All Images © The Artists