February 22, 2015

Award Season and Western Cultural Exports

With Hollywood’s big Academy Awards extravaganza generating so much media razzle dazzle this weekend, public attention was primed to reflect on the mega-success of exporting American blockbuster culture around the world. Jonny Simon and Adam Howard over at MSNBC said that watching movies “really is a universal experience” and that the Oscars ceremony is “a galvanizing global event.” To illustrate the point, an accompanying slideshow of sixteen photographs depicts a number of different international audiences, each one captivated in its own way by the cinematic sensation.

Of course MSNBC’s multicultural photo edit works as a direct response to complaints about the film industry’s lack of diversity when it comes to handing out awards.

So if the 2015 Oscars expose a diversity problem with western cultural exporting, then the selection by Pictures of the Year International leading the post doubles down on the indictment. Picked for an Award of Excellence in this year’s Portrait category, the photograph shows two “young natives” being married, against their will, according to the ritual conventions of Christian tradition. From the caption we learn that Christian missionaries, so gratified for saving natives from themselves, have wrought this sad ceremony by way of yet another cultural export with a diversity problem.

Hang all the banners and tinsel you want, but now its been pointed out, it’s all the white that doesn’t feel right.

And so it goes when it comes to recirculating photographs on a global media stage: a sure way to read an image out of context is to imagine there is no point of cultural contact between here and there. But global interconnection means being joined together, for richer or poorer, in good times and in bad. In this way the POYI award-winning photograph adds a wrinkle into the Hollywood narrative, showing how western cultural exports, in spite of their capacity to galvanize, are typically wedded to an underlying sense of global mission.

— Philip Perdue

(photo 1: Giada Connestari/Freelance. caption: “An Indigenous Christian Marriage” The Missionaries banned shamanism and imposed Christian rituals. “In the past we worshipped Satan – now we pray to God,” says the pastor who officiated the marriage of these young natives. But Rosaldo and Elisa, 22 and 20 years old, appear serious, uncomfortable, and sad throughout their feast, an imposed ceremony that doesn’t fit their customs. photo 2: Meyer/Tendance Floue. caption: Children watch movies at a traveling digital cinema in Saga Fondo, Niger in 2003. photo 3: Jonny Birch/Rex Features. caption: Acting genius … Eddie Redmayne. Sunday 22 February 2015.)

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Philip Perdue
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