by Jason Koxvold, from LIKE, by Ryan Debolski
In the spring of 2015 I travelled to Kuwait to make the beginnings of a project about our forever war in the Middle East. As our Dutch plane touched down in Saudi Arabia and a small army of workers came through the cabin to prepare it for the next leg of the flight, a large Texan oilman to my right guffawed, loudly telling anyone who was paying attention that these workers were migrants from Bangladesh, their passports confiscated upon arrival in the Kingdom. I had heard of similar conditions in the UAE, where a few years earlier I had met and photographed a man from Afghanistan called Dawoud while he was travelling by bicycle from a worksite to his home.
Migrants such as these are the men who build the contemporary Middle East, a place of brutal inequality papered over with a veneer of progressivism. Abu Dhabi’s Louvre, Doha’s 2022 World Cup Stadium, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa — at the time of this writing, the tallest building in the world, although soon to be usurped by another project by the same developer, Emaar’s Mohammed Alabbar — all of these symbols of superluxury, designed to be shared in selfies, to drive desire and tourism and dollars, were built on the backs of men like Dawoud, who had himself fled from our invasion of Afghanistan to try and make a better life for his family.
At the same time that I was working in Kuwait, Ryan Debolski was living in Oman, having been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to research abroad for an academic year. While he had initially intended to focus his efforts on making landscape photography, he quickly found his eye drawn more to the groups of men who would congregate on the beach, the only space where they could find respite from the oppressive heat and punitive working conditions. So the work evolved to contain not only landscapes representing eerily beautiful spaces sometimes redolent of the American West, sometimes containing the set pieces of global capital like oil tankers and resorts under development; but also portraits of migrant workers whom he had befriended. In this regard, his subjects become building blocks, set together with sculptural representations of construction stock and industrial machinery: all of it raw material for capitalism’s primary accumulation.
Beaches have long offered a classed form of escape for those who are denied the opportunity to use the kind of leisure facilities afforded to the more affluent. In this context, it is important to see their recreation set against the conditions in which these labourers otherwise exist; tightly controlled and packed cheek by jowl into the small, bunk-filled modular structures in which they sleep between their shifts, often using the same beds as men working a different schedule. In this regard, the beach offers one of the few settings in which these men can find agency as anything other than commodity.
This view of working-class men is reminiscent of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, made over a century earlier. Debolski decouples the industry from the worker, while Seurat juxtaposed both in one canvas, his Bathers sitting in stillness as, in the background, tall chimneys pump evanescent smoke into the greying sky, as if the only movement in the scene is the relentless pace of commerce. Industry is notably absent from his later painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which focused on the bourgeoisie, and is comprised primarily of women. Women are also notably absent from Debolski’s work, as wives, girlfriends and children are left behind in their home countries — there is no place for them in this particular sphere of unrestrained exploitation. Instead, Debolski’s subjects look to each other for community, these beachside gatherings of colleagues affording them some kind of proxy for kin.
Debolski’s gaze lingers on the men, sexualising them in a way that, in visual terms at least, evokes the portraiture of Steven Meisel. The aesthetic represents a conscious decision taken collaboratively by the artist and his subjects to represent them using the language of fashion magazines from a more halcyon time; their bodies glisten in the sun, wet from the saltwater; their eyes look wistfully off-camera. Their wrestling is remarkable in its lack of selfconsciousness as their bodies press against one another: grown men playing as children, pulling each other’s ears, sitting on one another’s shoulders. Debolski’s approach subverts our expectations of this type of photography: simultaneously celebratory and cruel, granting his subjects a brief moment in the sun as he remakes their recreation as performance.
The labourers’ presence in this book is loaded with significance; they are juxtaposed with consumer detritus like soda bottles, discarded on the beach, soon to be washed away to join their billions of brethren in the Indian Ocean Gyre, one of the five major current systems that trap no-longer-needed products in an inexorable cruise. “The full rotation takes about six years, unless the debris gets stuck in the center of the patch, where it could remain indefinitely,”1 notes Laura Parker in a National Geographic article about the ‘Trash Vortex,’ the recently-discovered answer to the question that seemingly nobody had asked: where does plastic go when it has served its use? It is telling that there are no elderly migrant workers.
Clearly, Debolski’s work is not that of Lewis Hine, the iconic sociologist and photographer who risked bodily harm to photograph the use of child labour in the United States in the early twentieth century, and yet it fulfils a similar goal, albeit in a more oblique, lyrical way, a critique of the economic systems that govern our lives. A photograph of a snake escaping a soda bottle simultaneously references the mythology of Pandora’s Box and the Garden of Eden; impossible to reverse, the sharp-fanged campaign promise of prosperity for all saps dignity from everything it touches. This phenomenon is not unique to migrant workers in Oman, nor to children assembling iPhones in Shenzhen, or agricultural day labourers in the United States; it is a global phenomenon, a race to the bottom, a competition to see who can impose, and who can endure the most callous conditions.
“In North East Derbyshire last month, I saw up close what was left,” wrote Aditya Chakrabortty in a Larkinesque accounting of British life in the wake of the UK Labour party’s spectacular 2019 implosion: “Warehouses and care work. Bullying bosses, zero-hours contracts, poverty pay and social security top-ups. Smartphones to tell you whether you have a shift that morning, and Facebook to give you the news, or some dishonest fragment of it. Across the UK, mines were turned into museums, factories swapped for call centres, meaningful local government replaced by development quangos.”2
Meanwhile, in the United States, Amazon, the pet project of the world’s richest man — renowned for paying no corporate taxes at all3 — ran the numbers and realised that it would be cheaper to station ambulances outside their sprawling warehouses than to install air conditioning. Those who passed out from heatstroke were treated, and then punished for hours not worked: “In a lengthy and heavily reported article… a warehouse employee contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration…to report that the heat index in the warehouse had reached 102 degrees, and that 15 workers had collapsed. The employee also said workers who were sent home because of the heat received disciplinary points.”4 Amazon’s shareholders saw no problem with this, and the company’s stock continued to rise; its market capitalisation in 2011, at the time of the article’s publication, almost seems quaint at a mere $110 billion, compared to nearly $1 trillion in 2019.5
Just as Richard Avedon’s iconic project, In The American West, similarly engaged workers photographically using the language he had refined through his fashion photography, Debolski tackles the issues that Chakrabortty describes by appropriating the language of commercial imagery, and also through an archive of Whatsapp messages between himself and his subjects, giving the work a sense of immediacy that is specific to our current moment, a space in which our physical and our digital selves are closer than ever; both recorded, catalogued, tracked, and scrubbed for keywords, so that we may be retargeted by advertising more closely related to our desires, to reposition and remake us for the interests and appetites of corporate power.
His text messages with the men, reproduced adjacent to the otherwise-uncaptioned images, contain layers of context around which the work can be interpreted and organised. Their presence offers a naked view of the human condition in this age of neoliberalism, in which the desire for individualism most clearly expressed in the American Dream is represented as simply the ever-tantalising possibility of more — more money, sex, fame — forever just out of reach. From their messages, it is clear that the workers are aware of their exploitation, and entertain ideas of moving to other work sites, or other countries where their work might be better compensated. By the workers’ own accounts, and that of The Guardian, between £35 and £50 a week is a standard wage, rendering the men unable to leave even if they were otherwise inclined.6
The texts, presented like a leaked trove of data, tap into a disillusionment felt increasingly by the young, in wealthy economies and developing ones alike, wrote Ganesh Sitaraman in The New Republic. “Disappointment would be an understatement: the complete wreckage of economic, social, and political life would be more accurate. In each of these arenas, looking at the outcomes that neoliberalism delivered increasingly called into question the worldview itself.”7
The outcomes in question, lived by these men, are remarkable in their brutality, as Debolski observed. “As quickly as I met new friends, others disappeared without a trace, never to be heard from again. Workers would be deported for various reasons or shuffled around to different camps throughout the region.” Experiencing the portraits with this in mind gives us a sobering reminder that the subjects have already passed into history; they may never see this book.
The working conditions experienced by these men are, of course, not new. Our species has a long and well-documented history of using the Other for thankless work, either unpaid or poorly-compensated. The enabling factor at every significant historical step has been technology, and the ability of the ruling classes to move workers, material, or information around the world affordably. With each new phase it becomes easier to turn resources into greater profit. Fernand Braudel writes, in his history of capitalism from the 15th to the 18th century: “Cereals from the Baltic… normally came into the category of the open market: the purchasing price in Danzig regularly followed the curve of the selling price in Amsterdam. But once it had been stored in the Amsterdam warehouses, this cereal changed its nature: it was now a counter in a complicated game which only rich merchants could play. They would send it to a variety of destinations — to places where famine had sent the price up out of all proportion to the original purchasing price; or to places where it could be exchanged for a certain desired commodity.”8
In his essay Desert Blooms, Zahid R. Chaudhary expands this approach of commodity manipulation to include the worker, aptly describing the condition of the workers in Oman: “From a capitalist perspective, resources and productive forces are critical because they can be abstracted into value… Among the many results of primitive accumulation is the transformation of producers into wage laborers, or… into wage laborers as well as stateless people living in contained spaces—people made stateless then penalized for being so.”9
Staring at the sun
In his efforts to describe these ideas, Debolski does not confine himself to one particular visual language, freely combining monochrome and colour images. His colour images have a certain density, as if both dusty and humid; the colours, slightly desaturated, relay a sense of tiredness despite the men’s momentary escape from the gravitational pull of their living conditions. Within the monochrome world, he appears to operate in two tonal ranges: one defined more by the absence of light, where long shadows from the harsh geography plunge valleys into darkness, as if on some foreign moon; the other simultaneously bright, yet dull: burnt by the sun, leached of its vitality.
As such, Debolski’s landscapes offer up the sensation of scorched earth; no matter how opulent the final result, the inanimate subjects of his photography feels meaningless, like a quantity of bricks arranged for no purpose, for the benefit of someone else. This alchemy, in which the poor are enlisted to build the temples of the rich, turning sand into gold, is one of the cornerstones of the system we inhabit. “Under capitalism, property is the most enchanted thing there is. In this light developers of property — real estate developers — are conjurers, makers of meaning; they are neoliberal capitalism’s shamans, priests, rabbis, imams,” wrote the architectural historian Reinhold Martin; this new religion is a system that must be defended at all costs.10
Therefore it should not surprise us that when the men who control Saudi Arabia reached out to Donald Trump, the real estate developer and reality TV star from Queens, for military assistance to secure their interests, he responded by setting a price: a billion dollars, in his own words, which they gladly paid, for the deployment of several hundred US troops, who never could have imagined when they swore an oath to defend their country that they would end up working as mercenaries for someone else’s profit. Not to ‘defend our freedoms,’ as we are too-often told by news outlets on both the left and right, but to defend the assets of a country in which freedom is scarcely considered. When everything is for sale, even the torture and dismemberment of a United States citizen proved insufficient to stir a US President to action. “We’re going to protect Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Look, Saudi Arabia is buying $400 billion worth of things [from] us. That’s a very good thing.”11
A good thing, perhaps, for the investors who own shares in Lockheed and Raytheon12, whose products the Gulf States buy with seemingly unquenchable thirst. A good thing for those who were born into unimaginable wealth. But in neither the United States or Oman has the trickle-down theory of economics worked; instead, the working classes pay proportionally more tax than our modern-day oligarchs, redistributing wealth upwards. This stark contrast, so evident in Debolski’s work, is seemingly invisible to much of the world — even as we are enslaved by these conditions, we are seduced and distracted by the shimmer of social media and reality television, or cheaply-made, disposable products bought on credit at usurious rates.
The title of the work, LIKE, is simple to the point of opacity. Jonathan Franzen wrote in 2011 that we are experiencing “the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb ‘to like’ from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice.”13 But I would argue that today, the like has become a noun: a thing, albeit a digital one. The like is noncommittal, disposable; it supplants meaningful dialogue with the semblance of emotion. Of course, it is hardly surprising that likes can also be bought and sold, fodder for influencers who desire the appearance of greater traction in the world of social media; and eventually converted back into real products and services, bartered for cappuccinos, concert tickets, and hotel rooms. All of this labour would be accounted for in server farms positioned in close proximity to power plants, so that the vast energy resources required by this new economy could be accessed in the least inefficient way.
How should we make sense of this moment, in which everything is commodity, to be traded almost entirely without regulation on the free market? It is hard to escape the sense that the singularity might be upon us; that our universe moves too quickly now for humans to comprehend without digital assistance; that software is at the helm now, applications battling for an edge to ‘optimise profitability in a dynamic marketplace,’ as some imaginary, perhaps algorithmic press release might read.
This book, too, is a product to be bought and sold, and perhaps eventually to end up in a landfill, or recycled into some other form. We choose to manufacture our books in places where workers are not exploited, and we try to make books that represent the human condition in ways that are long-lasting and historically relevant — but the market conditions that encourage publishers to make books in the places where costs are lowest are a slippery slope, and to pretend that our company is not exploitative would be a fallacy. And so each of us grapples with our role in this world, recalibrating with each new interaction how much, and from whom, we are willing to take, and how much we are willing to give.
It is the end of Debolski’s project, and the time has come to return to the United States. The final exchange of text messages portrays a wistful departure: one man leaving, returning to a world of relative abundance and power; the other, left behind in a perpetual liminal state, trapped in a system he cannot escape, providing for his family thousands of miles away. The Coca-Cola bottle, branded “My BFF,” remains on the sand, not quite empty, yet.