Can We Make It Better?

Hatty Nestor, Ethical Portraits: In Search of Representational Justice

Zero Books, 128pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781789040029

reviewed by Brett Walsh

In her first book, Ethical Portraits, Hatty Nestor examines artworks, activist projects and individuals subverting forensics, to find a morally acceptable way of representing people in the US prison system, exposing how they are dehumanised by their exclusion from representation and self-expression. She pays careful attention to the mediums of portraiture because she is acutely aware that each attempt at representation is intimately linked to a real feeling person, who deserves respect.

While rooted in the visual arts and the techniques of image making, the book’s implications are bigger, stretching into general ethics; compassion owed to every other person as the fabric of society, and into representation more broadly; how we are all at risk of being dehumanised by ‘top down’ conglomerate systems which propagate racial, gendered and economic prejudices. Prisoners and artists are at the heart of this search, but its findings are by no means restricted to them.

Anyone making representations or concerned with the politics of their own image finds in this book stimulating questions about technical choices; the emancipatory neutrality of a background, how framing a picture can mutilate a subject, how melancholy manifests in landscape or escapism in colour, how the time spent looking might disfigure, how these choices or pressures, far from inconsequential decorations, actually give a subject more or less freedom to be and to see themselves being, how they have real psychological consequences for real people, especially but not only those hidden away in correctional facilities. It also works outwards, heightening readers’ awareness of surroundings, how they nourish or curtail self-expression, how environments, be they ethical or physical, structure our sense of self and have the potential to generate our emotions.

While reading Ethical Portraits a phrase kept returning from Deleuze’s Cours Vincennes lecture on ‘Spinoza’s Concept of Affect’. There, Deleuze says: ‘joy makes one intelligent’ whereas ‘sadness makes no one intelligent’ it makes them ‘wretched’. These aphoristic phrases have clout, but they came back to me because of their sentiment: they recall the practical power of thought – the emotional stakes of thinking – and show that thought and feeling are part of the same endeavour which can be used in tandem to seek fulfilment and equality. This book is guided by an ethical intuition which makes itself known in specific circumstances, the actual processes and practices of representation; portraiture, courtroom sketches, forensic reconstructions, the mug-shot, e-fits and surveillance, asking whether each is emancipatory or oppressive. We should not make too much of that opposition as the book shows ways of representing can be freeing in one sense but restrictive in another; a nuanced, thorny field where the effect of self-expression or portraiture is never foreclosed. Throughout there is an impetus to seek the best, most humane, representations for those who are in most need. Ethical Portraits is intelligent in Deleuze’s sense, it is joyful. But that’s not to say it’s saccharine or naïve, it’s filled with quotations and statistics that bring into sharp relief the emotional costs in this intentionally disguised arena, where multinational conglomerates profiteer through dehumanising regimes and extend corrupted legal precedents into the present. It’s joyful because it seeks to leverage ethical questioning and cultural research to change the system. It is criticism in service of activism. It does, as Deleuze might say, affect the reader with joy because it increases our power to act. Rather than wallowing in an intractable problem it asks: who is doing something about this, what are they doing, how does that help, can we make it better?

This book is ethical but not moralistic. It doesn’t deal in lofty proclamations but instead asks how actions decrease or increase agency, what type of freedom a representation makes possible. In a way it deals in strategy, though that’s to diminish the empathy and embodiment which veins its writing, and guides its interviews and encounters with portraits. It’s concerned with how the visual arts can redress the failings of welfare systems and social inequality. It isn’t really a manifesto, though it does harness something of a manifesto’s passion. A call to arms without the riotous excess, a wakeup call perhaps, or as the introduction says an exercise in ‘consciousness raising’. Impassioned and direct, there are moments where field-notes are provided raw and others where the ethical privation Nestor is faced with irrupt into the prose with ‘nauseating force’. It does inform and uncover but information is passed without posturing. The writer is a conduit, a relay of the activism that’s already challenging a woeful status quo, forging an entrance into an overlooked terrain. What we are told is what we need to make an ethical judgement, and where this is uncertain, the author is open. She allows the reader agency to establish their own views, inviting more action, more refinement of the ethics, which is acknowledged as a communal practice and one that’s far from obvious or complete.

Some way into reading I had the idea that certain authors place themselves at the centre of their world, omnipotently overlooking everything like the warden in the panopticon’s tower, whereas Nestor invites the reader with her as she searches the halls, attuned to the environment and receptive to the scene. Tellingly, ethical considerations are applied to her own representations too. She rightly acknowledges the danger of well-meaning writers who end up ‘romanticising the criminal’ — propagating damaging stereotypes or exploiting their subjects for personal gain. As with the artworks, ethical issues are pragmatically viewed: the book doesn’t include interviews with prisoners, instead focusing on those who work on their behalf.

The book makes clear arguments but is also deliberate in the attitudes it chooses not to engage with, attuned to the dangers of giving voice to callous points of view through objections or lending traction to ideas through controversy. There is no sustained argument with the premise of prisons, for example, or the mad logic that has brought mass incarceration to such gigantic proportions in the US. I can imagine some more cynical (or vengeful) readers asking of the book: the whole point of prisons is to remove the freedoms of the guilty, so why should I care about how prisoners represent themselves? But this view isn’t given exposure; instead we begin from the position that criminality is a by-product of conditioning and circumstance, rather than some essentialist or genetic predetermination. Nestor disentangles the crime and the person and insists on the universality of human rights, even in the shadow of the carceral apparatus ranged at manufacturing and perpetuating guilt, often through representations or their prohibition. In this way the book merges art theory and social care, diagnosing the social malady and making space for the administering of a cure.

Ethical Portraits starts and ends with the case of Chelsea Manning, the American activist imprisoned for whistleblowing, who exemplifies like almost no other individual the violent psychological trauma that can be inflicted when representations are denied, politicised or indeed weaponised against their subject. Her story, extreme in its coverage and the stark ethical abuses of Trans rights that it entailed, is a relative success in the search for representational justice. It demonstrates what can be achieved when the wider community, through activism and art, forge an ethical portrait of an oppressed individual. It seems to share the intuition that has bolstered Nestor’s research, an awareness that thinking, feeling and resulting action should not be insular or a source of inertia, that it should have a point and do something in the world. That it should, if possible, do something good.

Brett Walsh is an artist and writer living in London. He is contributing editor to Ossian magazine and currently coordinates the cultural events programme at the British Library.