Mapplethorpe’s most prescient move may have been his dedication to staged studio work. That practice is now prevalent among younger photographers, but when he was coming up, street photography ruled in artistic circles. John Szarkowski, the influential photography director at the Museum of Modern Art, did much to enforce that bias. He considered Garry Winogrand, whose compressed, off-kilter pictures found poetry in chaos, to be “the central photographer of his generation.” As Mapplethorpe noted, his own pictures were “the opposite of Garry Winogrand’s.”
In 2003, Mr. Szarkowski told me that Mapplethorpe “was a pretty good commercial photographer who photographed things people weren’t accustomed to seeing in mixed company.”
“It’s not photographically interesting,” he added.
In 2006, activists formed a poetry committee to mitigate the sensory deprivation that the prison inflicted on the people held there. They exchanged letters and poems with the inmates. Two years later, the committee transformed into Tamms Year Ten, a coalition that protested the conditions at the prison, with the goal of seeing it shuttered. The group also asked inmates to fill out a form describing a picture that they would like to receive. A volunteer would then create it.
Laurie Jo Reynolds, the organizer of Tamms Year Ten, recently described to me, over the phone, the work that was done to fulfill Sterling’s request: “We got a caravan of sixteen family members. I got an a-cappella singer, one of our volunteers, to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ And then we had to work it out with the proprietor of Bald Knob Cross that we would have dinner there, because it was dark by the time it was over.” In the wide-shot photo, the cross looms against a colorless sky as a crowd of people, dressed in white and black, huddles nearby, heads lowered. To Sterling, the image was an amulet, a prayer frozen in time. One year after Sterling received it, he was granted parole.
The technology hardware industry has long operated by amassing armies of outsourced factory workers, who make the world’s smartphones and laptops under stressful working conditions, with sometimes fatal consequences. The software industry also increasingly leans on cheap and expendable labor, the unseen human toil that helps ensure that artificial intelligence voice assistants respond accurately, that self-driving systems can spot pedestrians and other objects, and that violent sex acts don’t appear in social media feeds.
The vulnerability of content moderators is most acute in the Philippines, one of the biggest and fastest-growing hubs of such work and an outgrowth of the country’s decades-old call center industry. Unlike moderators in other major hubs, such as those in India or the United States, who mostly screen content that is shared by people in those countries, workers in offices around Manila evaluate images, videos and posts from all over the world. The work places enormous burdens on them to understand foreign cultures and to moderate content in up to 10 languages that they don’t speak, while making several hundred decisions a day about what can remain online.