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Meret Buser

Depicting Inequality — Still-Life as an Expansion of Documentary Photography

In Switzerland, women on average earn around 12 per cent less than their male colleagues. Thus, even in one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, the gender-based pay gap is still quite considerable. Social inequalities such as the wage discrimination of women are often a result of complex processes that are, de facto, invisible. The medium of documentary photography – the practice which helped visualize social injustice and concerns – has a lot of inherent conflicts. Above all a photograph can – after Roland Barthes – only depict what was, in that particular moment, placed in front of the camera. As a result of this indexical nature of photography in depicting complicated processes, many documentary photographers make use of what Abigail Solomon Godeau names their instinct as photographers. – Complex topics get personalized and humanized and, as a result, many humanitarian catastrophes of recent times have acquired a sort of mascot. For the Great Depression, this might be Florence Thompson, better known as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother; for the Vietnam War, it probably is young Thi Kim Púc and her siblings, who are depicted on Nick Ùt’s famous photograph Terror of War. This personalization of complex topics always is a reduction, too. Disadvantaged social classes become particular cases. The depicted persons are transformed into a minority. Such a documentary practice is dangerous because it tends to convey a distorted image of reality.

The opening up of a merely documentarist photographic tradition towards one that acknowledges the role of the photographer more consciously and also allows the photographer to take action and express thoughts and ideas using staged photography, metaphors, or allegories offers a new dimension to this field. In times like these, when discussions about representations are and should be politically driven, a mere depiction of victims is not satisfactory anymore. Discussions of post-photography, which Martha Rosler started in 1996 and which, as a term, inserted itself into the theory of photography around 2010, offer a theoretical framework for this work.

The use of allegories, symbols, and metaphors offers a certain level of abstraction – away from the particular towards the more general. Within the scope of her Master’s thesis, Meret Buser explores the possibilities that still-life photography offers to depict social injustices on the example of gender inequality. By the production of visual allegories and metaphors, Buser strives to add to the discussion.

Buser uses visual allegories to create a pictorial world that takes the topic of gender inequalities and wage discrimination to another level. Although no personification or trivialization takes places in her images, her images are quite touching, albeit in an odd way. Because the photographs are more general and do not bluntly point out the topic of gender inequality, her work reaches a much broader public. The goal of depicting inequality is not to indoctrinate onlookers but rather to create an image that communicates with viewers on several layers and make them think.

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