Welcome to America

Notes on crossing the cultural ocean between Europe and USA

Photonica catalogue 43

March 8th, 2000Stephen Mayes

One of my last duties before leaving London was to publish a catalogue of photographs for sale to the commercial creative market (advertisers, designers and the like). It was a joy to introduce artists such as Julia Hember, David Hiscock and Calum Colvin to the commercial world and immediately an Ajamu image was snapped up for poster sites across London: a delicious adventure in cultural cross pollination. So when my company transferred me to USA in January I arrived full of curiosity to see how the same catalogue has been received in the New World.

The cultural pollen has had a mixed reception in USA and if anything fertilises I expect to see some peculiar hybrids! Reactions have been mixed: while the East and West coasts have expressed curiosity about Ajamu’s two images of naked men having sex (nothing revealed but everything suggested), the same images provoked an immediate allergic reaction in the central plains. I am not so naive that I am surprised by the calls offering opinions about Adam & Steve’s place in the natural order, but I have been fascinated by the magical qualities attributed to the photographic image. All callers have remarked on the inclusion of photographs depicting children in the same catalogue (on different pages) as though this exacerbates Ajamu’s images of male sexuality. It seems that (in the minds of the callers) the two dimensional men in the pictures have intent to crawl between the pages to assault the two dimensional children. Leaving aside the specious association between homosexuality and paedophilia, there is a common failure on the part of these professional picture-users to distinguish between the photographic image and the act that it represents: it is the theory of “equivalence” taken to an alarming extreme. Any suggestion that these images might be open to alternative readings (for health education messages, social commentary, etc.) is met with disbelief simply because the photographic “evidence” is overwhelming: the act is bad therefore the representation is bad.

Similar reactions have been sparked by Julia Hember’s (self) portrait of a wounded woman who appears to have been beaten (published in the same catalogue). Callers are outraged by the representation of abuse because the representation is automatically understood to be an endorsement of the action. I patiently explain that the image is offered without commentary and that in the appropriate context the meaning might be very positive; there is a disbelieving pause until I point out that European advertisers have used a near-identical image in public awareness campaigns about domestic violence. Maybe in a society where representation is overwhelmingly wholesome it is unreasonable to expect images to be understood with critical awareness.

I have only put my toe in the cultural waters in America but this episode has given me a cold shiver. I am presenting images to professional communicators whose work revolves around the creation of context for imagery, but somehow the intent to stimulate adventure has stimulated alarm and concern. Is this an example of two nations separated by a common language? It will be an exciting investigation to discover how wild the West can be.


At time of writing Stephen Mayes was COO, Photonica USA