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uni'wissen 02-2015_ENG

For Lemke, the either-or pattern is too simplistic. She has developed a multi-level concept of in- equality that combines approaches from literary and cultural studies, sociology, political science and economics, media culture studies, and the relatively new field of precarization research. “If you want to understand poverty, you always have to include categories like age, gender, race, and region.” Icons of Misery The researcher wanted to know how precarious living conditions are portrayed in the present: Do the images evoke old clichés of romanticized beggars? Why do some of the portraits move us, and why do others leave us cold? She sees an outstanding example in Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother” – for Lemke “an icon of misery”: reproduced millions of times, printed in every high school history book, a symbol of the despair in the years of the Great Depression. The black-and-white photograph shows a woman with two small children, their faces buried in their mother’s shoulders. The woman’s skin is weather- beaten, her brow lined with deep wrinkles. Her eyes betray fear. A piece of tarp in the back- ground reveals that the family is homeless. And yet there is something else there as well: “The woman is desperate as well as strong and tough. The position of her arm shows that she can work. Her eyes are turned forward and signalize optimism.” Such images and texts, which aroused tension in people because they sensed a dual message in them, gave rise to the “precarious look,” says the researcher – precarious in the sense of the Latin word “precarius,” meaning uncertain, unstable, or pleading. “The picture demands our sympathy, as every documentary image tries to do, but it does this in a risky and refined way.” This possibility to enter into a dialogue with a work of art captures the extended attention of the viewer or reader, explains Lemke, whereas images that only evoke clichés are forgotten again immediately: “When we see a starving child in Africa begging with an outstretched hand, we recognize in an instant that this is poverty, that it’s horrible, and then we look away again.” If the viewer does not know what she has before her eyes or if a reader is unable to assign a text to a particular category right away, on the other hand, their attention span will be increased. “That is the privilege of art: it allows us to explore areas that we would otherwise find unpleasant. In this way, it can make a connection that is not possible or wanted in the social world.” Lemke sees Dorothea Lange’s work as a forerunner of a new depiction of poverty. Contemporary artists like the Canadian Jeff Wall or the American photo- grapher Tom Stone play even more strongly with the “precarious look”: When one views Stone’s stylish black-and-white portraits, it’s not always clear whether one is looking at a resigned home- less person or a smug hipster with a hat and designer stubble. The ruins of the American dream: Camp Hope, one of more than 100 tent cities in the USA, takes in people who have lost their homes, for example due to the last financial crisis. Photo: Sieglinde Lemke 10 uni wissen 02 2015 10 uni wissen 022015