Jan Banning: Down and Out in the South

BY Felicia Feaster, July 12, 2013

Jan Banning, left: David, Columbia, S.C. Right: Sharlene and Elliot, Atlanta

Dutch photographer Jan Banning has made a career out of photographing people whose suffering we might prefer to avoid: children maimed by the chemical defolliant Agent Orange in his series “Children of the White Mist,” and women forced into prostitution by Japanese soldiers during WWII in “Comfort Women.” In Banning’s latest book project Down and Out in the South (Ipso Facto), he documents a more quotidian, but no less scarred subculture, homeless men and women. The book is available on his Website, and a selection of the portraits will be on view at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery in October during Atlanta Celebrates Photography.

Taking a cue from the 17th-century Dutch portraiture of Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, Banning photographed more than 40 homeless men and women whom he encountered on his travels through South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. With their dark, muted backdrops and soft light illuminating skin tones, the photographs recall the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. But the resemblance is a matter of tone as well. Banning’s portraits treat their subjects, who gaze directly into the camera and out at the viewer, with dignity. Banning’s work is distinct from other depictions of homelessness such as Andres Serrano’s Nomads series from the early 1990s. Whereas Serrano amplified the isolation of homelessness, shooting his subjects masked or cloaked by sunglasses, hats, heavy clothing and blankets, there is a directness to Banning’s work that resists accusations of exploitation. Banning’s subjects feel like participants in their image-making.

Jan Banning, left: Carla, Atlanta. Right: Pierre and Cinthia, Atlanta

The portraits allow viewers to look into the eyes and faces of people whose gaze we routinely avoid, stripping away our reflex to distance and dehumanize. Because of the formality and dignity of his subjects’ postures and the staged nature of the works, the pictures enter the canon of portraiture rather than documentary.

These detailed images present real people – not anonymous, hopeless cases — many of whom hold on to dignity and self-esteem with makeup, jewelry, and careful grooming. They are painfully young and just as painfully old, and you read their struggles and their histories on their faces. Banning’s subjects wear expressions of defiance, confusion, damage, and an almost unbearable vulnerability: perhaps the reason we so often turn away.