C Magazine


Issue 128

Artefact: Explaining Man to Man
by Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen

The exhibition The Family of Man was a landmark event in the history of photography. Curated by Edward Steichen, a photographer and former Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the show was composed of 503 photographs, taken by 273 photographers. The images were grouped thematically, focused on the commonalities that bind people and cultures around the world, leaving behind national borders, yet with an impulse for a hetero-normative social order. Themes such as love, marriage, childbirth, family, work and death organized the images into an installation of independent panels. The layout of the exhibition invited visitors to create their own pathways through the photographs, generating an essay-like experience. The exhibition was presented initially at MoMA in 1955 and various configurations of the show toured around the world for the next decade, thanks to the sponsorship of the United States Information Agency (USIA).

The exhibition served as an expression of humanism in the decade following World War II. Steichen describes this humanistic sentiment in the accompanying publication, writing that, “[the] art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and explaining man to man. It was conceived as a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everydayness of life – as a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” The exhibition became an instant success and during its 10 years of exhibition, it attracted more than 9 million visitors and 2.5 million people purchased the catalogue. The exhibition is now permanently housed and displayed in the Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg, as part of the UNESCO Memory of the World register.

Roland Barthes, a fervent critic of the exhibition, dismissed Steichen’s attempt to create a universal language through photography, and accused the curator of producing a modern myth fuelled by “conventional humanism.”1 The French philosopher’s observations shaped the initial wave of criticisms of the exhibition. Following in the footsteps of Barthes, photographer Allan Sekula condemned the instrumentalization of the photographs as the “epitome of American cold war liberalism.”2 For Sekula, the images function as overt racist expressions similar to earlier forms of colonial enterprise, yet the “humanizing of other” was intrinsic to the discourse of neocolonialism. In spite of these earlier disapprobations, a more recent wave of critical writings, heralded notably by Eric J. Sandeen, Blake Stimson and Ariella Azoulay, exhumes the role and modes of reception of The Family of Man. More specifically, Azoulay’s re-reading of the exhibition proposes to read the photographs not as descriptive statements, but rather as prescriptive statements for universal rights, a harbinger of the civic potential of photography for global citizenry.

The Family of Man can be seen as a diplomatic tool for a new world order at the height of the Cold War and, concurrently, at the emergence of a new world economic order managed by the United States. By the end of World War II, much of Europe was devastated and in great need of rapid reconstruction. The United States gave funds for the rebuilding of Europe, which was known as the Marshall Plan or the European Recovery Program, and this intervention was a “crucial moment inthe transition to global capitalism,” as observed by political theorists Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.3 Sekula’s argument is that the making of the images for The Family of Man coincides not only with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as Azoulay suggests, but also contemporaneously with the transition to the free market economy. But to suggest that the practice of photography is entirely and inseparably bound by capitalist modes of organizing would be too reductive. The issues at stake are more complex than they appear, and may not only be described as a simple manifestation of how photography is practiced. However, the very fact that the The Family of Man bypasses representations of nations reinforces what Panitch and Gindin define as the very mechanisms of global capitalism. Even though globalization may seem a natural outcome of an unstoppable process, the rise of global capitalism was made possible through the interferences of nation-states and the regulations that were implemented by these very countries. If The Family of Man is only seen through the lens of human rights,may face its own humanist claptrap.

This exhibition becomes a locus for fostering new globalist subjectivities, man as consumer thus as citizen. We might imagine this exhibition not as a rupture from a colonial past, but rather as a continuation of its imperial condition of unstoppable movement for progress. On the facing page, the exhibition catalogue of The Family of Man is presented in the tradition of the ethnographic object, as Steichen’s exhibition could be seen to uphold the tenets of a colonial enterprise with a humanist veil.