Photographer as white messiah: looking back at a picture I wish I hadn’t taken

January 14, 2010 at 5:03 am 7 comments

Last week, I wrote about Avatar and its representation of an indigenous society. In response, a friend forwarded me this Op-Ed by David Brooks, where he takes my criticisms quite a few steps further.

The White Messiah fable, says Brooks, is offensive because, “It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

“It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.”

I love this. He says it so clearly. And that clarity is helpful, because in practice this is a complex issue that can be difficult to understand and to spot. As a photographer who is interested in social change, I have been a “benevolent imperialist.” And that’s not what I want to be. I worry about seeing myself as an agent of positive social change when I am actually exacerbating a social divide.

And here’s why. It’s very easy to come from relative affluence (which you do, in this world, if you own a camera) and try to work for the betterment of others as an outsider, and end up further marginalizing or denigrating the very people you seek to assist.

For example, I worked for the International Rescue Committee in Tanzania in 2005, and part of my job was to document the work they were doing in the refugee camps along the border with Burundi. In that area, malnutrition can sometimes be an issue.

Juan Arredondo on behalf of the International Rescue Committee

I was making pictures in the hospitals, which the IRC ran, and I met a woman seeking treatment for her malnourished child. I asked the woman if I could photograph her.

She was extremely embarrassed. It took her a few moments to muster the courage to say anything. She said I could photograph the child, but not her face. She covered herself with a scarf. A hospital worker turned to me and said, “She is ashamed because her child is malnourished.”

When I think about that incident, I feel gross. Of course she was embarrassed! I would be embarrassed! Is there any mother who wouldn’t be? Can you imagine how awful she felt? Why was I so thickheaded? How did I think she would feel? Did I think she didn’t have feelings? Did I think she would feel differently than I would in the same situation?

I humiliated a woman. I basically coerced her into being photographed because I represented an agency that was giving her assistance. And I made what was already a very painful, stressful situation for her significantly worse.

It is I who am now ashamed when I talk about this.

And I wonder, how can I do better next time? How can I see these moments coming more effectively? What are the attitudes I need to change? What are the approaches I can take that will allow me to be more respectful and considerate of others?

Inherent within this discussion is the question of whether it is possible to make great art about a community as an outsider to that community. In her comment on last week’s post, reader Sittingpugs said, “Smoke Signals is indeed an amazing film not only because of its quality acting, directing, and writing, but also because the ethnic minority experience is told from within (not to say that an ethnic “majority” artist couldn’t create an equally authentic story or that every piece of ethnic cinema features Truths).”

I’ve had writing teachers that said, “Write only what you know!” and others that said, “Write what you don’t know!”

I think great art surprises us—it can come from anywhere, and be about anything. So I don’t think you have to be from a community to chronicle it with beauty and subtlety. But, it’s also very easy to become a hapless messiah, a benevolent imperialist, or simply someone who is not actually helping anyone. Especially with photography, there are issues of exploitation, power dynamics, and simply knowing where to be that make working with a community difficult to negotiate for an outsider. It’s still worth doing, but it’s also worth thinking and talking about.

Juan Arredondo on behalf of the IRC

And these photographs, by Juan Arredondo on behalf of the IRC in Colombia, are really nice. As always, you can click on the images to see his full photo essay, or click here.

Entry filed under: ethical questions in photography. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

Avatar: a picture of the noble (sparkly) savage Josh Schachter, Tucson’s superhero of community-based art

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cara  |  January 14, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Great post, Eliza. I have difficulty articulating my thoughts on this issue – and you do it gracefully. Don’t waste too much mental energy on regretting your request to photograph that woman in the hospital – other than to learn what you don’t want to do again. I like what you’re doing here, taking a cringe-worthy moment, examining it, learning and moving on doing better. I’ll try to do the same with all of my moments. 😉

  • 2. catherine  |  January 15, 2010 at 4:09 am

    I like your post, Eliza…I experienced something similar when I was working in Juarez with Las Otras Hermanas, and the more and more I came to realize the kind of power we wielded in the community we were trying to empower (especially how thoughtlessly and paternalistically we wielded it) the less comfortable I became doing that work at all.

  • 3. Ryan  |  January 17, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Here’s a really interesting story about some photographs uncovered by the Miami Herald featuring some of the Guantanamo detainees:

    As the story points out, this way of representing them brings up some pretty mixed emotions, because of our associations with the people there, and because they are so different from the images we are used to seeing coming out of that place.

    It’s also interesting to think about the role of the photographer, and the role of the men themselves. These images were apparently a collaborative effort between detainees and the Red Cross, done with the explicit purpose of sending photos to their families. I don’t think any other context would have gotten images like this.

  • 4. Idealize This! | Photo Relief « Femmalia  |  January 27, 2010 at 1:24 am

    […] I was pleased to see documentary photographer Eliza Gregory’s thoughtful piece on the ethics of photographing the less fortunate, written for PhotoPhilanthropy’s blog. […]

  • 5. photophilanthropy  |  January 27, 2010 at 4:13 am

    Really beautiful, thoughtful piece by Catherine Traywick, continuing the conversation–I HIGHLY recommend it!

  • […] an except from one of the most thoughtful blog posts I’ve read in a long time, written by Eliza Gregory It’s very easy to come from relative affluence (which you do, in this world, if you own a camera) […]

  • 7. Detour  |  February 4, 2010 at 5:24 am

    […] experience as a photographer and self-critiques the ethics of her work in a piece titled, “Photographer as White Messiah: looking back at a picture I wish I hadn’t taken.” It’s her take of an Op-Ed piece by David […]


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"In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level." --Charles Schultz on Mikhael Subotzky

PhotoPhilanthropy’s blog is written by Eliza Gregory

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January 2010

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