War photographer: a dangerous idolatry

March 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm 10 comments

James Nachtwey, Afghanistan

Recently, I’ve been thinking about war photography, and the moral arguments that commonly support it. I’ve been seeing people use those arguments to advocate for certain practices in photography in general, and I think there are problems with that.

To me, war-phototography is not the same as non-violent-photography.

James Nachtwey, Bosnia

For example, in the movie War Photographer, by Christian Frei, photojournalist James Nachtwey describes his process like this: “In a war, the normal codes of civilized behavior are suspended. It would be unthinkable in so called normal life, to go into someone’s home, where the family is grieving over the death of a loved one, and spend long moments photographing them. It simply wouldn’t be done.

“Those pictures could not have been made unless I was accepted by the people I’m photographing. It’s simply impossible to photograph moments such as those without the complicity of the people I’m photographing; without the fact that they welcomed me, that they accepted me, that they wanted me to be there.”

James Nachtwey, Bosnia

The film shows Nachtwey building relationships, asking questions, and getting to know communities in a conscientious way, even as it also shows him taking pictures in the midst of explosions. But the film emphasizes the picture-taking, not the communication, which I think sends a false message.

I can see how, in a violent situation, neither the photographer nor the subject might be concerned with asking permission or communicating verbally. I can see how permission could be implicit. But I also know that it is easier not to ask permission. It is easier not to communicate. And it’s very easy to misunderstand.

So I’m wary of implicit permission, especially when it’s applied to non-violent situations. I often hear photographers say they are “giving a voice to the voiceless” or “bearing witness.” And when that is the aim, I think that some level of collaboration between photographer and subject—some kind of overt permission—is necessary for the image to have a positive impact.

In a fantastic essay for the online journal Soundscapes, Hans Durrer confronts this issue, saying, “In times when (some) photographers hold celebrity status, it is useful to be reminded that a good photograph does not solely depend on the photographer’s ability to choose the right subject, location and light, but also on the chemistry and the collaboration, between photographer and subject…Despite my deep sympathy for socially inclined photographers, when the people portrayed feel ashamed of their portraits, there clearly is something wrong with this kind of photography.”

That is just an electric statement: When the people portrayed feel ashamed of their portraits, there is something wrong with that kind of photography.

This doesn’t only happen in journalism. It also happens in collaborations between photographers and nonprofit organizations. I spoke to Benjamin Chesterton the other day, who runs the multimedia production company duckrabbit and the blog A Developing Story and he said, “It’s amazing to me that these NGOs’ awareness campaigns will say they’re giving a voice to the voiceless, but you never hear a single actual voice from the community that’s being represented.” This is happening right now with UNICEF’s new Put It Right campaign. Photo/audio slideshows that duckrabbit produces use voices in an incredibly powerful way, as in this one made for MSF (Doctors Without Borders).

Artist Fazal Sheikh photographs war and the issues that surround it, and is a photographer who takes permission seriously, and emphasizes it. Rather than seeing permission as a burden, Sheikh actually builds better projects and makes better pictures by asking permission. Which is intuitive, but not if you’ve just been watching War Photographer.

Fazal Sheikh, "Abduhl Rahman" from The Victor Weeps

In his introduction to the book A Camel for the Son, about Somali refugees living in Kenya, Sheikh writes, “I arrived at the camp at Liboi in February 1992 on a UNHCR flight from Nairobi along with news journalists, most of whom were staying for one or two days. The war was fresh and the competition for pictures and stories was fierce.

“I decided to stay on longer and asked one of the Somali leaders whether he would allow me to work in the camp. Some weeks earlier, on the Sudanese border, I had asked an elder the same question. ‘Why are you asking me?’ was his reply. ‘I am only a refugee.’ But his tone made it clear what a violation it was for the refugees to have strangers moving through their communities without their consent.”

Fazal Sheikh, "Alima Yusuf Abdi and her son Hassan" from A Camel for the Son

This is someone I can look up to. This is someone who has created a process that lines up with his stated goals. He also makes incredibly beautiful images, whose beauty has a lot to do with the energy, self-assertion, and self-possession that people display in front of his lens.

Fazal Sheikh, "Alima Hassan Abdullai and her brother Mahmoud" from A Camel for the Son

Seeing the strength, the individuality, and the self conscious composure of his subjects, I feel devastated and enraptured; humbled and uplifted. I feel sad. I feel educated. I feel inspired. And I feel proud to be the audience at the end of a photographic process I believe in. By making pictures that his subjects are not ashamed of, he allows me, as the audience, to shed my shame as well.

Fazal Sheikh, "Hadija and her father Badel Addan Gadel" from A Camel for the Son

Entry filed under: artists to look at, ethical questions in photography, Social Change Photography, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

PhotoPhilanthropy in the Field: notes from King’s Hospital, Haiti Crisis photography: the conversation

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. duckrabbit  |  March 9, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Eliza, a great an thoughtful post as ever, which makes me think about and question my actions and motivations. No bad thing that.

    Thank you.

  • 2. duckrabbit  |  March 9, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    I should have also said thank you for showing the work of Fazal Sheikh … very, very powerful

  • 3. Simon Sticker  |  March 9, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Thank you for this really thoughtful article. I think it is so important to approach people we photograph at eye level and come away from this way of showing them as victims without a voice. And this has so much to do with the way we communicate with them, ask for permission, build relations with them. And most of the time that gave me so much more insight and so many people i worked with and photographed inspired me so much that i could feel nothing as deep respect for them. But this needs time, needs stepping out of this mindset of not being part of it, i guess. Fazal Sheikh’s photographs show that so powerful. And i really hope that we will now see a time coming where powerful work like this is combined with the voices of the people. Multimedia is giving us so much the chance to step back a bit, where the people photographed are the most important part, their faces, their voices, their view on it, and not the ‘hero’ warphotographer, what sometimes feels a bit as if some photographers forget about this.

  • 4. jamesdphotography  |  March 9, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    A fantastic article, well constructed. Very interesting to see Fazal Sheikh’s approach to consent in his photography, and your final sentence lends a very stong point to yout argument.

  • […] Hand Durrer quote taken from the always thought provoking Photophilanthropy blog. […]

  • 6. Bryan  |  March 10, 2010 at 1:06 am

    Great post, and you make some very interesting statements. I like what you say about giving people a voice, this is very important to myself and many photographers. I would have to argue though, that James Nachtwey and some other war photographers that I have spoken with are also trying their best to give their subjects a voice. Even though they are photographing events surrounding a war and not war itself, they are portraying the victims and the results of war.

    I don’t think they are trying to become celebrities. Instead they are trying to show the world how horrible war can be. The documentary about James Nachtwey did not have the intention of making him a celebrity, but instead wanted to highlight his work – and in turn the causes he is trying to bring attention to.

    “When the people portrayed feel ashamed of their portraits, there is something wrong with that kind of photography.” I have to strongly disagree with this statement. It does not represent what journalism is about. Journalism is about showing people what is happening. If the person in the photo does not like what is happening, it is not the photographer’s fault for showing the rest of us what is happening in the world. Some Nazi soldiers felt ashamed of their actions after the Holocaust. What would have happened had we not documented it?

    Thank you for making us think, Eliza. Great post!

    • 7. photophilanthropy  |  March 10, 2010 at 10:13 am


      Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

      I actually like a lot of Nachtwey’s work, and he certainly makes me think. Some of his images are deeply stirring and beautiful. I think war photography is important, and he does it well. I don’t really have a problem with him, or his process (from the little I know of it).

      The questions I’m hoping to raise center around photographers who are not working in war situations but who use some of the same justifications for decisions they make that Nachtwey uses. I know I’ve told myself sometimes that it’s okay not to ask permission…but later on, thinking more about it, I feel that that wasn’t okay. That’s more what I’m getting at.

      Also, I realize that journalism that is trying to expose issues will offend or disgruntle some subjects. I agree with you that that is important in many situations. I am advocating for asking permission when the photographer is trying to “create social change” by tackling complex issues like poverty, a natural disaster, or a humanitarian crisis. It’s those situations where I think that the interaction that the photographer has with the people he or she is photographing is just as important as the image they make, and the way it’s distributed to an audience. If you say you’re giving voice to the voiceless, but don’t really treat your subjects as fundamentally equal to you, then I think there’s a problem.

      But you raise really great points…I often feel conflicted about a lot of these things.

      Thanks again!

  • […] Recently, I’ve been thinking about war photography, and the moral arguments that commonly support it. I’ve been seeing people use those arguments to advocate for certain practices in photography in general, and I think there are problems with that. […]

  • […] War photographer: a dangerous idolatry; An excellent criticism of how conflict photography is often incompletely potrayed.

  • 10. jagerbb  |  March 10, 2010 at 4:55 am

    Nice article and outlook on this type photography. I believe each photographer has his/her approach and each situation is different. I agree with duckrabbit on questioning actions and motivations…it’s not a bad thing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

"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

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 86 other followers


Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.


March 2010

%d bloggers like this: