THY BROTHERS' KEEPER
In 1999 The Alternative Museum, while still at its location on Broadway in New York City, presented an exhibition of photographs titled, The Pursuit of Happiness, which I was able to see. The exhibition featured several photographic essays made at different times and in different places around the world depicting incidents of man's inhumanity to man. The photographs portrayed man's seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to inflict hardship and suffering on others. Each picture was a reminder that even in this age of visual overload, a single static photographic image has the power to elicit a reaction. The message in each essay was clear: whether motivated by jealousy, greed, or power, there are people in this world who cause others to lose in order that they might gain. Some of the images revealed the consequences of acts of violence and force on individuals while others seared the mind with unthinkable atrocities.
I was so moved by the experience of the exhibition, I asked my friend and colleague, Geno Rodriguez, the Director of The Alternative Museum, if I could borrow the collection to exhibit in Flint, but unfortunately, the loan period for the works could not be extended. For the Flint Institute of Arts, this became an opportunity to create a new exhibition, larger and broader in scope, curated by Geno and several other guest curators from around the world.
The FIA project began with enthusiastic support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which felt the objectives of the exhibition were in line with the Foundation's interests. The Foundation first provided a planning grant in 2002, followed by an implementation grant received in 2003. With offices in Flint, South Africa, and Russia, and its stated vision of “a world in which each of us is in partnership with the rest of the human race—where each individual's quality of life is connected to the well-being of the community, both locally and globally,” the Foundation expressed interest in the exhibition reaching audiences globally as well as locally. To that end, Geno developed a website for the project and planned for a cyber catalogue while the FIA staff worked on local collaborations within the Flint community. Originally scheduled to open in the winter of 2004, the exhibition was postponed twice as the FIA underwent an extensive renovation and addition to its facility. Despite the delays, Geno continued to refine the exhibition with edits and selections of new works by some of the most recognized and respected photographers in the world.
It has always been Geno's professional nature to organize exhibitions that stimulate and challenge the viewer to react and respond, however, the job of curating an exhibition of disturbing imagery can be especially difficult because photographs in a museum are viewed very differently than when they are surrounded by headlines and subtexts in newspapers or magazines. As Curator, Geno had the responsibility to create a balance in his selections between the subjective narrative of the photo-essays and the aesthetic success of the photograph. To this point, Susan Sontag wrote in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others:
Transforming is what art does, but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems aesthetic; that is, too much like art. The dual powers of photography—to generate documents and to create works of visual art—have produced some remarkable exaggerations about what photographers ought or ought not to do.
Additionally, as Curator, Geno had to demonstrate impartiality in selecting the photographer and the images, and not simply choose those that support his own personal point of view. Photographs are unique among other art forms, like paintings or sculpture, because they are perceived to be a picture of reality. In their article in this catalogue, Vered Siedmann and Charles T. Salmon address this issue:
The photograph is real, but not necessarily authentic; it is a sampling of experience, but not necessarily representative; it is subjective, but still captures a piece of what has transpired.
So, the curator also must be sensitive to the fact that photographs can be deceptive but still be taken as fact, and can make images of disasters attractive, even beautiful.
As Project Director and Senior Curator, Geno has done an outstanding job of balancing the exhibition's aesthetics and subjective messages. Using his years of experience, he has found highly qualified curators from around the world to assist in selecting the twenty-five photographers represented in this exhibition. By seeking photographers from different regions, the exhibition has become diverse in location, subject matter, and cultural experience. The contributing curators are to be commended for acquiring outstanding work from some of the world's most renowned photographers and for the pictorial stories they have chosen to represent their region. Geno arranged for the curators to be joined by researchers and scholars to provide insightful interpretations of the images and issues for the catalogue, and for the photographers, themselves, to prepare statements about their work to accompany the photographs on the gallery walls.
The Flint Institute of Arts' exhibition is like the one Geno presented in New York in its presentation of images that attract attention and elicit a response from everyone who lays eyes on them. In his words written for this catalogue, Nissan N. Perez, Senior Photography Curator at the Israel Museum, describes the photographers in this exhibition as:
trying to raise the level of awareness of injustices of all sorts, and through their work incite the viewer to reconsider opinions and attitudes, and eventually take action toward creating a better and more just society.
The title of the exhibition, Thy Brothers' Keeper, is a quote from the Book of Genesis in the Bible, which refers to Cain's deceitful response to God when asked about his slain brother Abel's whereabouts. In his attempt to cover up the murder of his brother, Cain replied, “Am I my brother's keeper?” We know that throughout the ages, mankind has continued to inflict acts of violence and treachery on his fellow man. It is the nature of some men to resort to such methods in order to gain what they want but do not have. The exhibition considers this and other kinds of calamities that can cause human suffering such as poverty, sickness, and loss from natural disasters like earthquakes, fires, and storms. The exhibition is a reminder that there have always been and will always be human suffering but that we must not use that as an excuse to become passive and assume there is nothing we can do to alter the course of events. The essays in this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue certainly will not change events in the world but it is hoped that they will raise awareness among those who view the images and read the texts. Colin Bossen and Howard Bossen aptly summarize the FIA's intentions in presenting these photographs:
They remind us that no matter what our conditions, by merely being human, we have more in common with each other than not. We are all our brothers' keepers, the photographs whisper to us, if we'll listen.
John B. Henry III
Director, Flint Institute of Arts
Flint, Michigan, 2006.