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Homo Sacer

In legal terms, ‘homo sacer’ defines a person who can be murdered without repercussions. In a more broad sense, it could just simply mean a person who is expunged from society, a person without rights or value.

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Jack Dracula – by Diane Arbus

When I think of the homo sacer, or the outsider, in terms of photography, my mind is instantly drawn to Diane Arbus. She frequently photographed people who were on the ‘fringe of society’. These are people who would have been snubbed by the ‘regular’ people. She photographed those with disabilities, or eccentricities like heavily tattooed people.

These subjects might not fit the meaning of homo sacer since they do have a place in society, but this was a time of heavy prejudice where they may not have been given their fair place. Even now, our world can still sometimes struggle with acceptance of those we deem different to us.

Often, people would walk by these ‘outcasts’ and barely even notice they exist. But not Diane Arbus. She saw them, and saw them as clearly (or more so) than anything else. I believe this is because she, herself, felt like an outcast. She was born to Jewish parents, immigrants from Soviet Russia and living in New York City. Her family was a wealthy one, and so during the 1930’s she didn’t feel the effects of the great depression like most children her age would have. She was mostly raised by maids and governesses. I think all of this would have made her feel out of place and helped her empathise with others in similar situations.

Because of this, her work comes across as authentic and not exploitative. Her subjects are willingly photographed and I think by photographing people on the edges of society, it gives them a platform and with it, a place in the world.