John Edwin Mason on ‘Coke and Controversy’

The following is John Edwin Mason’s response to the post ‘Controversy: Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’

I’m generally sympathetic to Brent Staple’s critique of “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue” (now, as I was in 1994). He’s right to insist that the book can’t be properly evaluated without situating it within a society and culture that has been shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by racist ideologies and practices. It does seem to me, however, that the general thrust of his argument misses the most essential point.

Yes, it’s a problem that the faces in the book are overwhelmingly black and brown, although the cocaine problem — contra Richard’s self-defense — wasn’t confined to African-American and Latino communities. Drug use by whites may have been hidden — harder to see and to photograph because of the defenses that social class and racial privilege can erect — but it was a major element in the crisis of the mid-90s. Richards (and the writer Edward Barnes, with whom he worked) certainly should have foregrounded this fact. Not to do so was to reinforce ever-prevalent racist stereotypes about who uses illegal drugs and who doesn’t.


Staples alludes to, but does not develop, a much more important critique when he says that “Photographs can shock and dismay, but are useless to explain such complicated matters as economic decline [which underpinned the demand for drugs].” This is the heart of the matter.

Photographs, as every theorist and most photographers will tell you, are very good at showing us how things look, but very bad at explaining why they look that way. Documentary work, however, must be as much about the “why” as the “how.” Pretty pictures, scorching pictures, gut-wrenching pictures aren’t enough. Context and analysis are just as important. And this is where Richards fails utterly. Or, perhaps, “fails” is the wrong word. He doesn’t even try.

I’m tempted to say that it was rashly irresponsible for Richards to have published the book without attempting to explain the crisis he captured in his images. This was not, after all, an exercise in fine art photography. It’s documentary, and its purpose is to help us to understand the world in which we live.


Instead, I fear, many readers came (and come) away knowing less about the drug crisis, rather than more. In the absence of analysis and explanation from Richards, many people would have fallen back on ideas already circulating in the culture. A great many — not all — of those notions would have been deeply racist.

It’s not so much that Richards’ images are decontextualized, it’s that their context would too often have been America’s reflexively racist culture, rather than its history and political-economy. As a result, the photos reinforce, rather than undermine, stereotypes of black and Latino depravity and criminality.

– John Edwin Mason

3 replies on “John Edwin Mason on ‘Coke and Controversy’”

I think that many (incl a younger and more naive version of myself at the time) errantly thought the very power of these pictures could somehow shine a light and force people to finally acknowledge and confront a problem that maybe wasn’t exactly in their backyard (but affected them anyway), and that that knowledge would in turn mobilize people of good will into action- action that would modify legislation, create programs… and ultimately save lives that had already been written off. Perhaps Mr. Richards even hoped as much himself- I don’t know.

Of course, CT/CB, powerful as it was and still is, failed miserably at enacting any such sweeping action, and perhaps that’s a very unfair responsibility to hang on it, or any photo essay- deeply flawed as it was (which was clear to many at the time- if not me). It probably marked the end of the grand scale shock ’em into action type documentaries- it did shock, it even created incredibly enduring and even frighteningly “beautiful” images, but it failed as a call to arms, revealed only partial truths, and perhaps unwittingly helped spread even greater fallacies.

“…the very power of these pictures…”

You’re right to emphasize this, Stan. Richards is a hero among photographers for excellent reasons — few people on earth can create the sort of images that he’s been producing over a long career, including, of course, “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue.”

You’re probably right that his intentions were honorable — that he believed his photos would lead to change. After all, photos do sometimes contribute mightily to social change. But they don’t do so in a political vacuum.

The strongest examples of photography contributing to progressive social change all come from situations in which photography was directly or indirectly allied with political movements — the Civil Rights movement, in the United States; the anti-Vietnam-War movement, worldwide; the liberation struggle, in South Africa.

As we know, Richards’ book was released into a very different atmosphere, one in which debates were dominated by a frankly reactionary “war on drugs,” in which the poor and racial and ethnic minorities were cast as the enemy.

Richards was certainly not responsible for the political climate of the day. But he did have an obligation to think more deeply about the impact his photos might have.

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