Disposable People - Slavery Exposed At Southbank Centre

By Jennie Gillions | 03 November 2008
A black and white image of children sitting on a bench in a room.

Children inhaling fumes from solvents in the outskirts of Kiev. Commissioned by Autograph ABP for Magnum Photos. © Jim Goldberg

Exhibition Review – Jennie Gillions visited Disposable People at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, which is running until November 9 2008.

It’s 200 years since the abolition of slavery. However ‘Disposable People’ reminds us that such barbaric abusers of human rights have not died out.

From Alex Webb’s photographs of Haitian cane workers in the Dominican Republic, to Abbas’ depictions of street children working in the Bangladeshi fish trade, it is made painfully clear that slavery and its effects still exist on a massive scale.

This is an exhibition that imparts an important message, and deserves a setting where visitors can appreciate its poignancy. The choice of the Clore Ballroom therefore seems strange; considering how much poverty and misery is on show, displaying the photographs in the middle of an expensive, noisy bar feels slightly disrespectful.

Each photographer has submitted a foreword to their work, and in addition some have contributed case studies to complement the photographs. The case studies work, but for some collections, the subjects’ anonymity makes the photographs all the more touching.

As in Jim Goldberg’s collection that shows a photograph of a young man wading through water. The landscape is luscious and verdant, the water sparkling and the subject is almost incidental.

Maybe this is the point. Goldberg’s photographs are of Ukrainian citizens lost within the brutal business of people trafficking; the people he depicts are to be bought and sold as personal property, and his photographs strip them of personality, just as their ‘owners’ would surely do. None of the subjects have names. There is no context for the scrawled words ‘My life is sick because of what they did to me’.

Chris Steele-Perkins, on the other hand, deliberately creates a relationship between visitor and subject. He has interviewed and photographed 10 South Korean women, held as sex slaves in Japan during WWII. His portraits are of faces only, in black and white, with each woman’s story below.

A black and white image of three boys standing. The boy in the centre holds a big dried fish on his shoulders.

Commissioned by Autograph ABP for Magnum Photos. © the artist

(Above) Abbas' photograph of Dublar Char Island. Five months a year, during the dry season, the island is used to dry fish caught off the coast. Three young boys, probably slave workers, pose with dried fish.

He reasons: “I wanted to photograph these women as I fundamentally saw them; strong women who had survived the most degrading atrocities unbroken and with dignity.”

His work, unlike much of the rest, is empowering. Yes, these women deserve our sympathy, but they do not want our pity. Abbas also offers a glimmer of hope. He suggests that, despite their lives of servitude, his Bangladeshi subjects ‘feel secure’, laughing ‘like all children their age’ when in front of the camera.

This provokes an intriguing question; if people know no other life, are they content to be slaves? The Sudanese chattel slaves depicted in Stuart Franklin’s works, kidnapped as children, are unlikely to answer yes.

As Franklin points out, the 20 people he interviewed are the ‘lucky’ ones, who have escaped or been freed. Visitors are made aware that ‘lucky’ is comparative; testimonies unflinchingly describe rapes, beating, torture and, in one case, a boy being given a paralysing injection to stop him escaping.

Like Steele-Perkins, Franklin wants visitors to know his subjects. To know them is to empathise; all the artists are human rights campaigners, and it is safe to assume they intend visitors to leave engaged with the cause.

Those who choose not to read the forewords or case studies and view this as purely a photography exhibition, will find a lot to admire and appreciate. Ian Berry's stunning, sunlit photograph of Ghanaian agricultural workers digging through rock is technically and aesthetically impressive.

The Haitian ‘Restavek’ slave children in Paulo Pellegrin’s portraits are perfectly framed, and Jim Goldberg’s compositions are at times breathtakingly beautiful.

The intention though is clearly to make people think; this is not an exhibition to enjoy. A message from Kevin Bales, president of 'Free the Slaves', should bring the message home; unfortunately on this occasion the audio is broken.

Disappointingly, the open petition that completes the exhibition contains a number of frivolous, irrelevant comments. The blurb next to it asks visitors to leave their thoughts, and its intention is twofold; it should work as a sort of impact evaluation as well as a general petition to end slavery.

Perhaps the lack of atmosphere is to blame; whatever the reason, on the evidence of the petition alone, this fascinating and distressing collection fails to make the impact the photographers or the subjects deserve.

Admission to the exhibition is free.

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