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November 7, 2009

Look of Oppressed: About the Same, Except a Lot Less Blurrier

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by BAGnews contributor Stan Banos

Photographers such as Ed Burtynsky have been dashing about in record numbers chronicling and documenting the incredible industrial and manufacturing transformation that is the current day wonder called China. And while some such as Lu Guang have concentrated magnificently on the horrendously destructive environmental effects, few if any have looked beyond the mainland to notice the impact this emerging powerhouse has had on other developing nations.

One photographer who has is Paolo Woods, and if his overlooked subject matter somehow has the ring of deja vu all over again, it’s because the faces and lives pictured within his work still bear the centuries old scars that are being revisited today. Of course, the pictures back in the19th century were in B&W and considerably blurrier, but the look of the oppressed shine through in any medium, regardless of the century.

Absent today is the blatant genocide and overt military presence that subdued native populations and signaled Europe’s imperialism- local militia and the foreign capital their leaders have been infused with now perform their “sponsor’s” bidding. The West’s reputation may be in tatters in Africa with its history of colonialism, post colonial assassinations (eg- Patrice Lamumba), and failed foreign aid and economic policies. But Serge Michel reports all is not well in the new power marriage between China and Africa, despite all the building and glad handing (and I sure wouldn’t want to live downhill of one of the hastily built dams they’re constructing there).

Then, of course, there are the photographs themselves. The look of subservience, mistrust and isolation is blatantly apparent in so many of the indigenous faces, just as they were a hundred years ago. The body language, posture and physical proximity are also eerily resonant of the classic photos of the Segregationist South or Apartheid South Africa. And although native and foreigner often work side by side, rarely do they do so together-and certainly not as equals. The only time you do witness interaction between equals is when you see the African leaders, palms greased, laughing and “socializing” with their foreign benefactors- each full well realizing the photo op won’t last forever…

Stan Banos blogs regularly at Reciprocity Failure.

(photo: Paolo Woods)

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