Complex trading, based on algorithms and proprietary knowledge and communicated through a privileged visual language, underpins all aspects of our global economy informing decision making and influencing the most basic human activities from the cost of food to the energy we use. Through sophisticated, dedicated technologies, the power represented by this language is communicated at speeds beyond human capacity, creating consequences across the globe in ways both intended and unforeseen. While hypnotic and entrancing in its abstraction, form and color, the language remains indecipherable and inaccessible to the average viewer, who is nevertheless affected by its daily practice. Only a fluent few, the subjects of Hedge, lay claim to its power and meaning.
Photographed at the Manhattan headquarters of a multibillion dollar hedge fund
Photoworks, 16, Boal Iain, "Hedge", Portfolio and Cover, May 2011
By Iain A. Boal
The young hedge fund trader gazes past the camera. His right eye, bloodshot and focused on a screen we can’t see, reflects a telltale smudge of Microsoft blue, signature color of the virtual world.
To his ear is attached an ergonomic, hands-free headset offering full convergence between old school and IP telephony, and a noise-cancelling microphone. Its soft, flexible molding promises day-long comfort on the trading floor.
Our banker’s headset is connected to a multiplex audio dealer board on the desk directly in front of him. Its gun-metal, cold war aesthetic is in striking contrast with the neon of the Bloomberg electronic trading platform and the customized color-coded keyboard permitting instant display of analytics, company financials, historical market data, statistics and current news reports, all streaming in real-time.
The six-screen array suggests a rank that belies the extreme youth of our dealer, who represents, in Nina Berman’s ‘Hedge’ series, the face of modern finance. It’s a thin face, sallow and neurasthenic - a far cry from the caricature of the corpulent and complacent Wall Street banker of populist memory. No spats, no top hat, no cigar.
It is an understated photograph, when compared to Berman’s most famous image, Marine Wedding. But isn’t that precisely the point? Though war and Wall Street are deeply connected, we should not expect to see plunder and exploitation registered directly in the face of one of capital’s junior functionaries. Not so with the face of war, specifically its effects on the body of a small town soldier and on the soul of his childhood sweetheart standing by her man, wearing an unfathomable expression captured by Berman on their wedding day. All the more poignant because we know now that the marriage could not survive the terrible aftermath of war.
To be sure the bodies of young bankers and young soldiers are awash with adrenalin and testosterone, but in the case of the trader portrayed in ‘Hedge’, one might say he reflects the ciphers on the screen. He knows himself to be fungible, like money, like any commodity. (Indeed that is the very definition of a commodity.) Our dealer knows perfectly well that there are any number just like him waiting to replace him. Maybe that’s the reason he has a rear-view mirror mounted on the screen at the top left - he has to protect his back. Whatever he actually uses it to look at, it stands nicely for the hyper vigilance of the fear/greed junkies on the trading floor.
Amid the general banality of a 21st century workstation—the Starbucks coffee cup, the lunch take-out detritus, the bottle of antacid tablets—Berman has caught some fetish objects peculiar to the business at hand. First, an outsize pair of dice, sitting on top of the screen. Double four –presumably meant to bring luck. The dice are a reminder that for the individual trader, despite all the arcana of the ‘quants’—the call and put spreads, the collars, straddles and strangles, the risk reversals, the delta-hedging, the Black-Scholes equation for pricing options—it’s still a casino we’re looking at.
The other fetish object—it shows up in two of the photographs in the series—has been propped by the hedge fund trader where other workers might have placed a family photo. It is a one hundred trillion dollar banknote issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. In one sense it is obviously an ironic object, a representation of the ludicrous face of money gone wild, (though the threat of inflation always lurks within any system of currency, not just those of African kleptocrats). On the other hand, this bill is truly a ‘promise to pay’ as well as a threat. Absurd and unimaginable as these numbers may be, they are at the same time the real orders of magnitude involved in the global financial marketplace.
We get a sense of the overwhelming numbers involved by looking at the trader’s screens. Here and there the argot of the market is legible, in focus – ‘Occidental Petroleum announces first quarter 2010 results’, ‘…all values and hit <GO>’, ‘price/yield table’, ‘Reuters’, ‘graphing fundamentals’. The movement and dynamism of the financial markets pose a different problem for the photographer. Berman attempts to convey the dynamism of financial markets with blurred images that depend for legibility on the context of the series as a whole. She plays with the effects of long-exposure shots of traffic circulating at night, as a metaphor for money in motion.
Here Berman is exploring the limits of the form, and of what photography is capable in such a setting. If the precise role of hedge fund traders in the global economic crisis is to be grasped, we must use these images as the starting point, from which to travel to the offshore havens in the Caribbean, and from there to the sites of primitive accumulation and extraction, the spaces of disfigurement, on the imperial frontier. Of course, Nina Berman has already been there—in her Under Taliban series—and brought back indelible portraits. Among them, the photograph of a young woman with headdress and deep shadow falling transversely across her face. Her eye, like the young banker’s, is bloodshot. For reasons utterly different. And not unconnected.