“I know that Divola’s work isn’t about running away from cops, I know his work is not about running or jogging.
But seeing those two images next to each other is haunting.” — William Camargo
CALLUM BEANEY: So you sent me this post over Insta. This happened early 2020, after William Camargo, a photographer & arts educator posted a reworking/reinterpretation of John Divola’s ‘As Far As I Could Get’. Divola was trying to outrun the camera timer in the desert; Camargo saw this image of sudden, intense running and associated it with police killings. [Ed. — For context, Camargo is of Latin American descent.]
I know we already had a short conversation over DMs, but why not make this a back & forth on Docs and see where we go?
ANDY PHAM: Yeah, I was immediately struck just by the image itself, and honestly did not even know about Divola’s series. Looking further into the context and then the discussion that occurred in the comment section, I immediately knew it was something worth further discussion.
Let’s start with the obvious – Camargo and Divola made separate series of images in different decades and entirely distinct social, cultural, political, and even artistic contexts. That being said, Camargo posted his image on May 16, 2020. It was partially in response to recent incidents of police brutality at the time, such as those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
Chillingly, a little over a week later on May 25, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, which of course was the historical inflection point that catalyzed worldwide protests and calls for social justice and political change. But the reality is that black Americans, and people of color in a broader sense, have been victims of not only police brutality but also a multitude of other forms of systemic racism and discrimination in America for the nation’s entire history, essentially. So in this case Camargo was reacting to the current events, using his camera and a conceptual and technical framework “borrowed” from Divola, to make a visual statement about what had already been a major social issue for decades.
CB: The technical framework is the same, however it’s not just context that’s different, but also the physical place; Divola seems to miss that too. It’s a normal parking lot, right? To a black American, suddenly breaking into a sprint in such a day-to-day place is much more likely to have connotations of “police pursuit” more than “conceptual art experiment”. Divola uses that as an attack to accuse Camargo of laziness, saying “at least you go [sic] up off your ass”. It seems like Divola can’t/won’t see that where he’s outrunning the camera timer, Camargo’s image is treating the camera as a stand-in for a gun’s line of sight.
AP: Definitely. There’s obviously a lot wrong with Divola’s comment. What’s interesting to me is that these comments on social media are usually made pretty instinctively. In this case his immediate reaction was to be defensive, condescending, and dismissive of Camargo’s work and intent. I think there are a few key aspects at play: the technique or process used to make the image, the actual visual content contained within the image, and finally the wider social and cultural context in which the photograph is made. Like you said, the technique is essentially the same. But the content of each picture is totally different. Divola had the luxury of conceiving of the idea of running in the desert, isolating himself as the subject against an empty background, whereas Camargo makes his picture in a parking lot in Anaheim, California, part of one of the largest and most diverse urban areas in America.
This difference in content, to me, makes a striking point. Camargo’s image could easily be seen and interpreted by a viewer, especially someone who looks like Camargo or Floyd, as a still frame from the evening news or a police body camera. There is an instinctive reaction to a picture like this that is based on personal experiences and feelings of fear and distrust. Divola totally misses this because he’s unable to make that connection between the content and context, and instead focuses solely on the technical/conceptual aspect, which he believes has been stolen from him to make his own work.
CB: Divola seems to feel that he has intellectual property to the process behind his work (camera on tripod, timer, runner, running distance). He can’t see that the process only means something in the context it’s executed. It’s a very alienating position, both in terms of social privilege, and in terms of how an artist thinks about their work in relation to both society and history. Even conceptual artists don’t need to hold this kind of ivory tower approach; Hal Fischer made work that ran parallel to conceptual art in the 70s, focusing on language and his life as a gay man in Gay Semiotics. Plenty more experimental artists own their work’s position in society.
Camargo is looking at his own life, and takes both his study of art history, and his immediate circumstances, and adds to discussions around both. Sure, he wrote that Divola’s work is about “nothing” which probably helped to trigger the outburst, but is it reasonable for Divola to crucify a photographer for not putting a disclaimer that “about nothing” here is pretty clearly “–compared with cops murdering people with impunity”? Does a photographer who makes images in the context of race and politics need to be nice and respectable?
AP: I do think it’s worth looking at how both sides handled their choice of words and tone to get their messages across. Although, in the grand scheme of things, a caption or comment on Instagram is relatively unimportant, they do in this case reveal deeper attitudes and judgments. Camargo’s caption stated that the simple act of running “as a white dude” acts as a mere vehicle for making work about “nothing”, adding that his own images in response to Divola’s were originally intended to “make fun of him” but also to provide a direct artistic response to the concept of white privilege.
Could Camargo have chosen his exact words a bit more carefully? Sure. But in light of recent events that were happening at the time, and that are still continuing to happen, as well as the perpetual nature of racism and discrimination, it is also easy to understand why someone in Camargo’s shoes, such as myself, would have more of an underdog mentality and a feeling of indignation that comes from a lifetime of experience with being treated as inferior simply because of their race or ethnicity. So in this sense, I can understand how that might translate into something as seemingly innocuous as a caption on social media.
I think it’s obvious that there’s a lot more wrong with Divola’s comment and reaction, starting with how he essentially treats white privilege as something that does not even exist. He also calls Camargo’s work “sad and derivative”, suggesting that Camargo’s work doesn’t have artistic merit simply because it’s derived from an already existing conceptual and technical framework.
This leads into another more general issue: the dynamic between the range of existing photographic or artistic ‘language’ and what relationship, if any, that has on the value or meaning of the work itself. Should this be a main consideration when making judgments about art? Should other factors like the actual content and social, cultural, or political context take precedence?
CB: I wonder what an average person would think looking at Divola’s work, not paying attention to his authorship and taking the content on its own terms. I think a lot of people would probably think of road movies or Forrest Gump. That’s not to say I think this work and work like it is just navel-gazing, but there’s often a context imposed on it that very few people arrive at alone.
And the same for Camargo. I’m not saying his intention would be understood every time. But what he’s done certainly taps into a zeitgeist.
This political image of a person running also has a much wider potential significance. What if loads of photographers took up this running/timer process and it became an online phenomenon? It could expand well beyond “the photographic canon” and become a political symbol. Slogans like ACAB [ed. All Cops Are Bastards] have awful press — even people who argue that it means “because law enforcement institutions protect their individual officers when they commit crimes, all individual officers are complicit” have to repeat that argument ad nauseum. The image of a person running away has no face — it could be anybody, and that image places the onus of explanation on the institution and its members, rather than the protestor.
AP: I do think Camargo is making this specific series of images to tap into that zeitgeist as you mentioned and to use photographic history to frame a more urgent and presently relevant social issue through the work. As you said, if enough photographers started using this technique, or any other one for that matter, it would take on its own meaning and sort of live outside of that previously formed artistic or historical box. By that point, Divola’s claim over his creative territory would be rendered essentially irrelevant.
Maybe Divola’s work isn’t about nothing per se. In the artist’s mind, I’d assume it is about something, but for Camargo, this something pales in comparison to the sociopolitical statement he wants to make with his own series of images. And this is only possible because of the existence of white privilege. Divola can make work that is, broadly speaking, “about nothing”, or more generally, oblique conceptual art, as a white man with a high standing and reputation within the art world and nothing to lose, whereas someone like Camargo has to do more just to scratch and claw their way into that same world in the first place, or to make efforts to break down the barriers and hierarchies that insulate that world.
Also, I think it’s somewhat ironic that Divola takes a jab at Camargo’s contextualization of his own work by calling it “incoherent blabber” about “white privilege” when in fact, Divola’s reply, textually speaking, is more in line with “incoherent blabber”. He doesn’t back up any of what he’s saying with facts or even logic and it all just comes off as an impulsive rant from someone who has to put scare quotes around the term ‘white privilege’ because he seems to believe the entire concept is a myth or fabrication like the Loch Ness Monster.
CB: It raises real concerns about gatekeeping, and about intellectual honesty in education.
First, in the artworld, yes, they have to claw. Only recently have organisations been more eager to show a more diverse roster of artists, and even then, it’s conspicuous how many black photographers in particular are often only “let in” if their work adheres to pre-existing aesthetic rules. Just as East-Asian photographers are so often “Orientalised” by galleries, the artworld rarely gives photographers of colour a chance unless the work appeals to prejudices or “looks the part” just like how e.g. Richard Billingham’s work was originally fawned over in part out of condescending classism. Work that really confronts people — political art with a big P — doesn’t get a look-in.
Second, Divola is currently a professor in the art department of The University of California. I find myself wondering: if students make work that engages with or challenges the kind of social benefits and positive biases typically exclusively experienced by white people, how would he respond to his students? In light of these comments, how would students who are trying to explore these ideas feel knowing that a member of staff they are supposed to look to for critique doesn’t debate Camargo’s ideas so much as just puts the concept of white privilege in scare quotes and dismisses Camargo’s OP as blabber?
I’m not suggesting that we use this as a reason to put Divola through a struggle session, or to “cancel” him. The point isn’t “so let’s get him fired” or to attack him here. Camargo’s OP and Divola’s reply feel like a good reflection of the kind of distance a lot of people in the arts & academia alike have from most people’s daily reality, and the remoteness of the art world from real life.
AP: Speaking of reality, the fact is that these remain prevalent issues and events that continue to occur on a regular basis. Just in recent weeks, police in Minnesota and Chicago yet again shot and killed two minorities, including Adam Toledo, an unarmed 13 year old. Not to mention, the untold number of other incidents of police shootings and race related violence that never make the mainstream media. It’s really a shockingly pervasive thing. Based on his response to Camargo, Divola seems to have blinders on and lacks any kind of realistic perspective of the events happening in today’s world. It’s interesting that he’s “teaching” the art of photography at the university level, indicating he presumably has a certain amount of leverage and judgment over his students’ work, and as such, acts as a sort of frontline “gatekeeper” for the industry at large. And in today’s political and social climate, it’s safe to say many photography and art students are seeking to make work that challenges the status quo in relation to these issues, or to make a statement, like Camargo did, by incorporating historical photographic or artistic processes with their own beliefs and values in an effort to work toward social justice.
CB: Do you think that folks like Divola have mental walls built between those kinds of murders (even if they do find them shocking/upsetting), the art world, and how racism exists in popular consciousness, that they can’t make the connection?
Gatekeeping is a difficult thing. Often it’s thought about as an active thing, a direct action just like shutting a door, where someone is kept out. But actually, it also involves biases that manifest in terms of who is let in — it’s not that we just have a few big names damming the river, but rather that the choices made by people in the industry bring about overall trends in who gets more or less of a chance, right? Many photographers who find themselves at a disadvantage — be they women, people of colour, or folks with disabilities — don’t even bother to join the club because they’re aware of this, and so their representation becomes even scarcer. If they do keep making work, they often do so on their own terms, and so they never get their voices heard, even when they deserve to be. Just look at how Aint Bad’s issue on the southern states ended up with not a single black photographer in it.
In this case, Paul Kopeikin Gallery’s Instagram account later replied to Camargo, saying that he had done nothing more than intentionally create “a platform to needlessly attack him [Divola]”. This is in spite of the fact that Camargo’s work is clearly about a wider social issue and not about Divola personally, and that most of the engagement on the OP prior to Divola’s comment is a response to this statement on racial violence, and not an attack on Divola. This itself is a kind of gatekeeping — calling for “dialogue” only if it’s initiated by them, or undertaken on their terms, implicitly controlling where, when, and how these discussions happen. It’s not uncommon for white folks to make racism about themselves, but when gallery directors choose confrontation and denial over a more open-minded response, it’s a pretty clear indication of where hands are on doorknobs.
AP: I think we can agree that there’s a lot of work to be done, by everyone, both inside and outside of the photography and art circles. This includes us here at C4 Journal as a platform. There’s no reason for anyone to sit in a proverbial ivory tower and pretend as if these issues don’t exist in this day and age. The least we all can try to do, just as members of society, is to acknowledge that these problems exist and that there are people whose lives are affected by them.
In terms of gatekeeping, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot, especially over the last year or so. Ever since George Floyd and the BLM movement, many institutions, such as Magnum Photos and Aperture, have made pretty clear efforts at more inclusive representation, whether it be through membership, awards, or featuring their work. As you said, it’s also about who is let in. In these cases, at least in my view, the ‘letting in’ came after the fact mainly as a response to the events that occurred, and not as a preemptive measure to ensure more diversity and equal representation in the industry. But I can see why this would still be a helpful step forward, as many BIPOC and other underrepresented artists at least have a chance to get their foot in the door, so to speak, and then once inside, to try and work their way toward an actual ‘seat at the table’.
Finally, I do think a large part of the problem is subconscious. Perhaps part of the usefulness of the two of us in particular having this discussion, between a white Briton and a non-white American, is to parse out these things from varying perspectives and engage in an open dialogue.
For people like Divola, I think their social, cultural, and political tunnel vision pushes awareness of these issues to the subconscious level. For people like Camargo, and others who have to live this reality within their own skin every single day, it exists on a very conscious level and at the forefront of our minds.
I remember listening to Zora J Murff as a guest on a podcast where he was asked by the host, who was white, (paraphrasing) “how can we (white people) help, or what can we do to show that we are allies in this cause (BLM)?” Murff simply replied, (paraphrasing) “That’s not my job, that’s yours to figure out.” I think that says a lot.
The onus is on white people, gatekeepers, and people in positions of power to make more of a conscious effort to think about these things and to find ways to make institutions, and society at large, more inclusive and unbiased. The ball is in their court, so to speak, to do their part in working for social justice and equality. It’s pretty clear that’s not what Divola is interested in at all.
March 18 2018: The shooting of Stephon Clark, which prompted Camargo’s work
February 23 2020: The shooting of Ahmaud Arbery
March 13 2020: The shooting of Breonna Taylor
May 5 2020: A video of the Arbery’s shooting was uploaded to the internet
May 16 2020: William Camargo posts on Instagram
May 16 2020: John Divola responds to William Camargo’s post on Instagram
May 25 2020: The killing of George Floyd
May 25 2020 onwards: Black Lives Matter protests take place in over 60 countries
March 29 2021: The killing of Adam Toledo
April 11 2021: The killing of Daunte Demetrius Wright
April 20 2021: Derek Chauvin found guilty of murder of George Floyd
- Image: Documentation of We Run With Ahmaud by Denver Smith Foundation (link), exhibited at “Murals That Matter: Activism Through Public Art” at National Building Museum (link). Taken by Elvert Barnes Photography (link) and used under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license (link). Image has been lightly straightened and cropped.
- Image: BLM Protest Signs along the fence erected a block around the White House in Washington, DC. Taken June 8, 2020 and posted on Flickr (link) by Eric Purcell (link to professional website). Used under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license (link). No changes made to the image.
- Image: “Logan Square Rally – Adam Toledo 4-16-21 – B” taken by Bart Shore, used under the CC BY-SA 2.5 license (link), via Wikimedia Commons (link)
- Images: “As Far As I Could Get (10 Seconds) R02F11” (left) and “As Far as I Could Get (10 seconds) R02F06” (right), from John Divola’s series “As Far As I Could Get”. Scans taken from “John Divola: As Far as I Could Get” (ISBN-10 : 3791352911), authored by Britt Salvesen and published by Prestel Publishing (link). Reproduced under Fair Use for criticism & commentary in accordance with Title 17 of the United States Code / in accordance with Section 30(1) of the United Kingdom’s 1988 ‘Fair Dealing’ Act.
- Quote at head of article: William Camargo, taken from “Disarming the Photographic Canon” an interview between William Camargo and Efrem Zelony-Mindell on Humble Arts Foundation (link)