The Vulnerable by Olga Michi
Olga Michi’s project “The Vulnerable” is a story of cultural uniqueness of small (and disappearing) ethnic groups of our world. But even at first glance at the visual material one can see that this is far from a purely ethnographical project. Neither the choice of backgrounds used in portraits, nor the bright and saturated colors and hues of the prints, nor the selection of poses the subjects take for their portraits – nothing in these photos matches the strict scientific goals of an ethnographic photo shoot. It is difficult to think about these images stored away in an archival file – or placed into equally-sized cells of a statistics table. Something – at first untraceable but immediately felt – forces one to perceive these portraits with an irrational subjectivity that is clearly not characteristic of documentary procedure. This feeling alone is sufficient to start thinking about the actual reasons for this series of portraits taken by O. Michi – the portraits that are photographically accurate in their nature but at the same time clearly allowing the viewer to see deeper, to dive below the superficial details.
“The Vulnerable” is first and foremost a project of modern photographic art. Yes, at first glance this project is based on visual images of persons representing ancient indigenous cultures and handcrafted artifacts made using techniques that are almost forgotten now. At the same time it is precisely in the context of these undoubtedly archaic objects that it becomes possible to focus the viewer’s attention on the main aspect of modern history – the issue of global cultural symbiosis. The characters photographed by O. Michi are decidedly not your classic ethnographic archetypes that were sought after by the scientists and the photographers back in the XIX century. First and foremost, they are people who found themselves at the crossroads of several mutually exclusive realms. And here we are talking not just about their ethnic or national identity, age or social status. They are in any case the residents of the modern world – no matter how strong their desire to stay in their own world and to completely shut out that modernity from their life. To a greater or lesser extent, any person – a representative of one of the indigenous peoples of Asia or Africa, or hailing from the West European conglomerate – is always squeezed between the Scylla and Charybdis being the past and the future respectively. It is unlikely that anyone would challenge a statement that any person becomes vulnerable to a certain extent if he or she is forced to make a choice. This vulnerability exists not just in a literal sense, arising from direct physical threat posed by modern technologies – but first and foremost it means vulnerability to the threat of cultural unification and social stereotyping. It is quite surprising that many people (if not the overwhelming majority) prefer a look into the past over movement into the future – even thought the traditions of the past were archaic and its technological efficiency – very low. For those people (and we do not mean here solely the representatives of ethnic minorities) the past is a source of confidence in the face of inevitable change that relentlessly corrodes the material and cultural values of the modern society.
“The Vulnerable” by O. Michi could be seen as letting us have a look at time travelers – figuratively speaking, the astronauts of the modern cultural cosmos. Their concepts of reality surrounding us are largely limited by transportation, financial or communication capabilities of ethnic groups that the models identify with. Their mode of life is dictated by unusual – or downright barbarous (as seen by a paradigmatic European) customs and rites, especially when such customs and rites concern the person’s appearance. This originality is not limited to specific features of the national costume determined by climatic, historic and religious reasons. This originality clearly manifests itself in a desire to change to look of one’s own body – for example to change the shape of lips, ears or even neck. It seems that in those intricate garments, with such accessories (that may seem grotesque to a proverbial European) and with such original appearance these people do look vulnerable. But in all probability this is far from being true. It is enough to look these people in the eye – the whole range of expressions could be seen in their faces, except for one sole emotion – fear. O. Michi’s models remain vulnerable, but at least they are not afraid of it.
Portraits from “The Vulnerable” project are also important because they let the viewer see – and also rethink – his/her system of values. Heroes of O. Michi’s photographs do not use – or do not openly display – any high-tech accessories that are an inseparable attribute of everyday life today and that seemingly form our view of the present day. Here we will not see any sought-after gadgets, fashionable designs or incredibly expensive jewelry. All that, it seems, has no value for “the vulnerable”. For them it is more important, it seems, to demonstrate not their personal uniqueness – but their strong relation to their relatives and ancestors. The only type of implement that is impervious to such cultural quarantine is modern weapons. This is virtually the only attribute that seems to be de rigueur for any tribesman. In that regard one question cannot be silenced: does this make the actual people in O. Michi’s photographs less vulnerable? Or are their own lives as well as their unique culture now even at more and greater risk? And finally – who could become a victim in this clash of civilizations – a person who does not understand the full degree of responsibility for the newly acquired power – or another person, who is prepared to generously share that power?
Taking into account this important problem, the conclusion that weapons are the main threat to O. Michi’s “Vulnerable” becomes more and more surprising. True, guns do put a burden of responsibility on the shoulders of indigenous peoples – and this burden may actually cost some of them their lives. But the main vulnerability of the ancient tribes facing the modern world does not come from that danger of individual death. There is an immeasurably greater threat – loss of national identity and cultural uniqueness in the face of the worldwide information realm that’s instantly appealing to human nature and that projects an illusion of accessibility. Representatives of indigenous peoples – in Africa, Asia or anywhere else in the world – are crushing the stereotypes of ancient traditions and are overcoming the limitations of the cults of the past, and by doing this they face the main vulnerability of modern culture – freedom. Errors of choice – made by every modern person irrespectively of his/her ethnic origin, background or social status – cannot in our days be explained by falling out of grace with gods and deities or by an ancient ancestral curse running through generations. In a world with an overwhelming dominance of popular culture exemplified by TV and cinema, where heroes of sci-fi books become the biggest idols in the pantheon, the choice is made – or at least it is said to be made – by the person and not by force of tradition, such a person becomes vulnerable when he or she faces the overwhelming multitude of available alternatives.
It is truly surprising, but collectively “The Vulnerable” portrayed by Olga Michi are not just your average participants of these global socio-cultural trends (and these persons’ lives are a clear example visibly demonstrating the consequences of such trends); the models in O. Michi’s photos seem to sincerely believe that they are happy by making their choice in favor of limitations imposed on them by their ancient traditions. They look at us from the depth of the shadows that their ethnic culture is slowly submerging into – but in their eyes there is no condemnation. They are fixed for posterity, preserved for the next generations of viewers by the means of modern photographic technology – and that helps them to overcome the transience of time; they can only offer their compassion to the real “vulnerable”.
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