“The Family of Man” is a photography collection curated by Edward Steichen meant to depict, through the photographs of almost 300 different photographers, life around the world. The images are meant to bond all of humanity in all the similar experiences that we share such as birth, death, work, play, family, etc. as well as the typical emotions that frequently accompany such events: joy, pain, humor, sorrow, etc. The images within the collection are quite lovely and diverse, yet there is an underlying side to the exhibition which is not about uniting and celebrating differences. Rather, there is a resounding lack of imagination in depicting events, ceremonies, and emotions associated with cultures that do not adhere to Western ideals.
Photography was, and still is in many instances, seen as the ultimate truth, instead of a conceived truth, ultimately based upon an individual's personality, experiences, expectations, and beliefs. This is in comparison to painting which was seen as the ultimate art form. However, this is without consideration that, when people first began to paint, they probably had the same ideas about painting's ability to depict reality. “The Family of Man” was created on the principle that every person leads, basically, the same existence. Which, in turn, makes it easier to discriminate; a very un-humanitarian aspect of an exhibition with such an apparent humanitarian cause. A species filled with potential can be diminished to the black and white, traditional ideal of life: men hunt/work, women breed, everyone is heterosexual, and brushes their teeth before the go to bed; The End. But this is far far from the end! Early man would barely recognize our lifestyle today, nor would someone who lived one hundred years ago. Our diversity of experience is important and should not be diminished when it does not fall into a stereotype.
Even in one of the “basics” of existence, birth for example, is fraught with dissimilarities. It is, of course, an event that really does cross cultural and social boundaries. However, as Barthes points out, “what does the 'essence' of this process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are perfectly historical?”. There are about a thousand other factors included just in this apparently simple process of coming into the world that are just as, if not more so, important, “whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, [if] his birth causes suffering to his mother, [if] he is threatened by a high mortality rate, [if] such and such a type of future is open to him” not to mention the lifestyle that this child may chose to lead and whether or not s/he will be accepted for her/his choices. What about mothers who chose to abort? Wouldn't such an experience have just as much validity in “The Family of Man”? What about feminists, gay and lesbian couples, transgendered/transsexual individuals, non-white families, native people, tribes, families who adopt, single people, single parents, atheists, socialists, or really any couple/family that just do not fit into that mold? Where do these people fit into the images included in “The Family of Man”? Are these people, in all their vast richness of personal experience not as valid in the world and as human beings as the “normal” families? Beyond the experience of birth there are other just as valid events and adventures that people may hold dear that were not only not included in the exhibit, but which are also not considered “normal” for most people. And since normal is validating, we fall into dangerous territory of non-acceptance. As Sekula notes: "The peaceful world envisioned by The Family of Man is merely a smooth functioning international market economy, in which economic bonds have been translated into spurious sentimental ties, and in which the overt racism appropriate to earlier forms of colonial enterprise has been supplanted by the “humanization of the other” so central to the discourse of neocolonialism. The problem lies in diminishing the human experience, keeping citizens of the world constantly on guard and self conscious about who they are for the fear of not fitting in.
The danger in such an exhibition is to begin to define “normalcy” which is the very thing that creates bigotry and hatred and ultimately induces us to wage wars. “This myth of the human 'condition' rests on a very old mystification, which always consists in placing Nature at the bottom of History”. And when Nature becomes the essence of human existence, that which we do not traditionally see as “natural” becomes wrong, even if it is not harmful. Homosexuality might not be “natural”, but neither are first world modern dwellings. While one can argue that the development of the home was necessary in adapting to our needs and thus our ultimate happiness, so can “coming out” adapt to the needs of an individual who prefers a love life and lifestyle which is inclusive of people of their own gender. Unless a person's lifestyle consists of creating chaos or pain for others. what, exactly is so unnatural about their preferences that their experience(s) should not be validated? The answer is, of course, that they should not and can not be discluded. Photography can not and should not be deemed some sort of universal truth that everyone can understand. “As the myth of a universal photographic language would have it, photography is more natural then natural language” (Sekula). For as long as humans have been around we have been observing many of the same events, each forming our own and often contradicting opinions about them. The only difference between looking in a mirror and looking at a photo is time. When time stands still, reflection becomes easier. It can, however, also become dishonest. Just as eyes can trick us with movement, they can also trick us with stills.
The lack of uniformity is something that makes human beings special. That we do not lack to intelligence to live beyond basic survival needs is truly a gift, yet we have spent so much time and energy in trying to conform to some notion of “normalcy” that is actually just one of the many lifestyles and set of experiences we can chose from. The reality is that every experience can have merit for an individual, regardless of whether or not the masses can relate to it. Photography is just as subjective as any art or indeed any thing we can see. Ultimately, we should stop ourselves from reading too much or too little into photographs as it is a waste of our energy and never conclusive. In this way, “The Family of Man” exhibit leaves much to be desired. After all, the best art should never leave the viewer with what they are supposed to think, it should be open to interpretation so that we can think and wander on our own.