Objectifying the Abject: Exploitation, Political (In)Correctness and Ethical Dilemmas

Barbara DeGenevieve

In Objectifying the Abject: Exploitation, Political (In)Correctness and Ethical Dilemmas, Barbara DeGenevieve produces photographs and video documentation of the process of asking male panhandlers, all of whom were homeless, to model for her nude. Confronting an ethical dilemma that has been part of a cultural debate about the representation and agency of the disenfranchised, this project is intended to generate questions of exploitation, objectification, and the sexualization of the bodies of a segment of the male population, which is rarely, if ever, sexualized. DeGenevieve's own sub rosa presumptions about the men are revealed as she attempts to expose the difficulties inherent in the arguments that circumscribe discussions on race, sex, and class.

DeGenevieve states: “I don’t make any pretense to create a cross-section of the homeless population in Chicago—there are only five men, all of whom are African American. My intention is to trouble and question issues of race and who is of the appropriate ethnicity to do what to whom. I’m not trying to make a specific statement, but to create a situation in which the viewer is presented with a certain set of questions, some of which will be ethical, others of which will obviously be personal.”

DeGenevieve’s process was to meet the men and through discussion, determine if they were willing to participate in the project. The compensation was $100 for the day, shopping for clothing, lunch and dinner, and a hotel room for the night. The hotel room was the location of the shoot. Video documentation took place throughout the day as well as during the photo shoot. After the photographs and video documentation of the shoot had been made, the model was interviewed and asked for his reactions to the experience. The man then signed a model release and was left to spend the night in the hotel. In the morning, DeGenevieve picked him up, paid him in cash, took him to breakfast and dropped him off wherever he wanted to go. She remained in touch with all but one of the men, whom she could not find again.

According to Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Theory at Purdue University and photography critic for Newcity:

“[In Objectifying the Abject,] DeGenevieve shows us that deconstructing the discourses of domination from within does not involve a new form of control. Her project functions most of all to dispel our social fears; in abandoning the mythologies of domination, we need not shrink back from engagement—we can overcome the constraints of received interpretations of race, class, and gender roles without naively pretending they are no longer socially and culturally operative. DeGenevieve's play with political INcorrectness is lucid, reflexive, and pioneering, breaking into the social terrain that she invites us to explore.”

Objectifying the Abject: Exploitation, Political (In)Correctness and Ethical Dilemmas was commissioned as one of the projects in the 2006 At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago series.