Merry Alpern’s work was very provocative for more reasons than just the very obvious. Her photographs were taken in the early 1990s, at a greater distance from the then-latest financial scandal than we are blessed to have experienced as of late. However, I couldn’t help but think that some of the concepts that have emerged in the aftermath of the late 2000s Great Recession in the counter-culture scene, can beautifully describe photos that Alpern took. Men in expensive suits, likely working in high finance on Wall Street, some of them perhaps senior executives in the very banks that helped bring about the financial crisis, paying poor women in shabby underground sex clubs. The photographs could very well serve as a contemporary illustration at a Occupy Wall Street rally as the one percenters’ exploitative interaction with the ninety-nine percenters.
However, the discrepancy in wealth is not visible only on the superficial level, but also between that of the financiers themselves and the establishments they choose to frequent, the women exposing themselves in the most vulnerable ways possibly for money. One of the photos that shocked me the most was that of a partly-naked woman with a wad of cash in her hand, out of which it was mostly one dollar notes that stuck out. The hocking and selling of one of the most intimate experiences that a human being can experience for a few dollars spoke to the desperation that these women found themselves in, while the small amounts that the bankers were willing to pay spoke of Gordon Gecko-like levels of greed.
However, thinking about the person behind the lens, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Merry Alpern herself was participating in the same exploitative relationship. Crawled in the ventilation shaft of a building across the road, she was certainly aware of her status as an unwelcome voyeur on the transaction. Was she not, also, exploiting those women for her own benefit? Can the artistic cover of showing the reflection from shards of a hidden world defend Alpern against that charge of exploitation? Was she doing it out of a humanitarian instinct or for her own artistic process? I can see that the women were not easily identifiable, but it got me to wonder about some ethical implications of candid photography. While Alpern’s case is obviously extreme, there have been cases of even Google Street photography causing marital breakups, fights among friends and other conflicts, by revealing that someone was some place they had claimed they would not be, or doing something they shouldn’t have been doing.
I don’t have a perfect answer for this, other than that my photographs are only of people in very public spaces, where they can expect to be seen by hundreds of others, and my own photographs will at most reach a similar audience to that on the streets that my subjects were walking on.