Chinese Guard

Chinese Guard480
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2 Essays

  1. mende184 says:

    A middle aged Chinese man stands guard at the entrance of a building partially bathed in sunlight. Although it isn’t clear what kind of building he protects, the refined stone facade, the elaborate rooftop, and the freshly painted reddish-brown doors bring into relief the high socio-economic status of the building owners. The small wood stool in front of the door suggests that the guard works long shifts and alternates between standing and sitting down. The viewer probably cannot tell that he is a security guard based on his clothing. However, in addition to the photo’s title, his statue-like posture with hands held behind his back reveals attentiveness to the surroundings and a sense of confidence that things are under control.

    The security work that Rachel Tanur depicts in this photo is different from the one performed by the young man in the image I captured at the Honduran prison complex. The stark contrast between the building’s delicate front and the deteriorating appearance of the prison that the Honduran gang member protects, highlights how the labor of guarding often shields a different set of social relationships. The security work that the Chinese guard performs is perceived as legitimate and most likely targets minoritized subjects, while the young man’s security work involves protecting the prison from state repression and is often cast as illegitimate. Notwithstanding their differences, their work contributes to the creation of an increasingly walled world.

    Social thinkers who have pondered the nature of work, tell us that it is the “living form-giving fire” (Marx, 1973) that marks the “worldliness” of social life (Arendt, 1958). Work involves meaningful acts of fabrication that make social life possible. It creates a common world within which life unfolds and which lasts beyond the act of fabrication. Rachel Tanur’s images on work seem to partake in a historical photographic endeavor to create long-lasting impressions about the difficult and life-affirming character of work. Her images remind one of Sebastião Salgados’ visual archaeology of manual labor in his book “Workers” (1996). Also a tribute to the human condition, Rachel’s images unearth the toil and dignity of the weavers, peasants, artisans, cart pullers, street vendors, fishermen, upon which the world rests.

    In the photo of a Chinese guard, Rachel moves beyond the traditional imagery of manual labor and renders visible the immaterial work of private security. Hired to protect specific places, people and things, private security workers are part of a growing industry that globally outnumbers public police officers who are supposed to protect the public at large. In China, economic growth has been accompanied by a rise in income inequality and private security provision. Although the low-paid work that private guards perform does not yield a tangible product such as fish or pottery, being vigilant at all times requires intense bodily and mental investments. This work is also deeply entangled with the expansion of security barriers that carve up our world and that reflect the breakdown of community bonds generated by rising inequalities and the racialized fear of others (Abrahmsen, 2010).

    The side angle at which Rachel’s photo was taken and the guard’s gaze to his left suggests that this pose was not negotiated. Was Rachel concerned about the consequences of photographing a security guard? Did she take advantage of the fact that the security guard’s attention was directed elsewhere to take her shot? Whether the guard participated in a dialogic production of the visual imaging or not, the photo reveals physical distance between the photographer and the guard. A fearful conduct that learns to keep corporeal distance is perhaps the immaterial product of private security that Rachel’s photographic work so poignantly grasps. Yet, “images are always potentially polysemic,” (Spencer, 2011) and this is only one among other possible interpretations.

  2. Emily Toensing says:

    A man in uniform, standing in front of a structure, facing outward, observing passersby, is something society has labeled a guard. Looking closer through semiology, it can be seen that the significance lays not in the guard himself, but in what he is guarding. Guards represent the existence of important or valuable things that need to be protected. The guard’s presence in this photo creates a sense of intrigue in the viewer about what might be behind that wall. The door happens to be red, an eye-catching color, and the most colorful part of the picture, which causes it to draw attention away from the man.
    This photo is revealing of power relations in society. People who have power in society employ people with lesser power or economic status to guard their possessions. It is apparent to viewers, because of the code associated with guards, that the things inside and the people who own those things are more important than those guarding them.
    This promotes Marxist theory of two classes in competition with one another. The dominant power enforces this binary by emphasizing differences and separation symbolized by the wall in the photo. They also try to make it seem like this structure of power is normative in order to keep their place at the top. The fact that they hide their possessions behind a wall evokes a sense of mystery from the public, but it also shows how the public blindly accepts the power. They assume that because there is a wall and a guard that whatever is inside is valuable. People trust these codes and accept the constructions of society.
    As a historian, especially interested in museums, I am fascinated by systems of power, the possessions of the powerful, and how they maintain their status. Objects that find their way into museums are usually objects that have played an important role in history, which means they are probably associated with the powerful, since it is the powerful who decide how history is written. When I see a guard, I am immediately drawn to what important artifact might be inside, overlooking the importance of the guard himself and what that says about power relations.
    - Marx, Karl, 1818-1883. Das Kapital, a Critique of Political Economy. Chicago :H. Regnery, 1959. Print.