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the flaws and freaks of diane arbus

Giselle Storm Hyam

Diane Arbus was an American street photographer, born and working mainly  in New York she photographed those marginalized from society. Ugly, broken and outside she was criticized by Susan Sontag of showing 'people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings.'

'My favourite thing to go where I've never been'

It's hard not to agree with Sontag, there is an air of loneliness and isolation to Arbus' portraits. Flaws are not hidden but held, glaringly obvious in the harsh black and white images. She does not shy away from ugliness, but places it at the forefront of her images, so much so that the person, their story, identity, even their very humanity is forced into the background. 

Her work becomes a fairground freak show, indulging our fascination with the different, ugly and odd.   

Yet there is a sense of defiance within this, flaws are flaunted, there is a sense that we are being dared to look at those whom we would usually avoid staring at in the street. The portraits are bold and brave, subjects often staring straight into the camera, daring us too stare. 

Sontag is right in saying that the images do not arouse compassion, but she is wrong when she describes the people photographed as pathetic and pitiable. These people do not necessarily deserve pity, they do not deserve to be overlooked in the street and ignored. Arbus' photos are defiant. She does not demand compassion for her subjects, she demands simply that they be looked at, noticed and seen for what they are in all their flaws, and they look back. 

There may not be beauty, in the conventional sense, but there is a confrontational honesty which we cannot shy away from. 

“I’m very little drawn to photographing people that are known or even subjects that are known. They fascinate me when I’ve barely heard of them."

Photographs by Diane Arbus.

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