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When American University grad student Peter Morris arranged through a friend for a two-week exhibition of his photographs at the Organization of American States’ (OAS) staff association gallery, he didn’t expect to provoke an international incident. But when Brazilian OAS staffers complained to their mission’s ambassador about the photos, which depict residents of Rio de Janeiro’s shantytowns, it looked as if there might be a showdown. Skillful intervention by OAS Staff Association President Susan Benson averted disaster: She negotiated a compromise whereby Morris’ photos would come down after one week rather than two.
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Several days after the incident, Morris says he’s no longer angry, although he was “pretty disgusted last week at the opening.” He admits that he hadn’t invited the OAS Brazilian mission to the opening; earlier in the summer, they had declined his request that they sponsor his work because it had been previously presented elsewhere (at Harvard University and Hartford, Conn.’s Trinity College). Since they had refused to present his show, he says, he figured that they wouldn’t be interested in attending his opening. For this breach—severe, apparently, in diplomatic circles—he is unapologetic.
“I just sort of forgot about them,” he says. “I don’t know anything about protocol.”
Protocol seems to have been the problem for the OAS staffers who complained that Morris, 27 and a gringo, was presenting images with an interpretative narrative commentary that produced an unfavorable impression of their society. Morris says they complained that his photographs showed “only prostitutes, garbage, and people drinking.”
A master’s degree student in international development, Morris argues that such complaints are not appropriate. “In spite of the fact that the OAS has in its declaration of objectives that it works for social and economic justice, they [the Brazilians] are saying, “We don’t want to talk about the poor in our country and we don’t want anyone to know about them either. We want to give our glitzy First World side to the OAS and the Americans.’ ”
At the OAS, Benson sees it as an issue of comfort. The gallery, which is not open to the public, is a “staff space,” she explains. “Some people are used to rough working conditions, and others are uncomfortable in low-income settings.”
She didn’t find the work offensive but notes that showing vanguard art is not the mission of the staff association, an employee advocacy group. “We don’t show controversial art,” she says. “We have enough fights without fights over art.”