Posts filed under ‘ethical questions in photography’

War photographer: a dangerous idolatry

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

March 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm 10 comments

Image as oppressor

What if you had never seen a picture of yourself before? What if you had only seen pictures of yourself that someone you barely knew had taken? As someone who has photographed and been photographed all her life, it is difficult to imagine. But, in that situation, what kind of power does a photograph (and therefore, a photographer) have?

Continue Reading February 11, 2010 at 4:18 am 1 comment

Incarcerated: from Guantánamo to Cape Town to San Quentin, what do we see when we look behind bars?

When we vilify people, there are negative repercussions. Making terrorists look like “terrorists” does not help us understand their motives or perspective. It does not help us find peace. It fuels war.

We are fueling our own wars, not just with money or weapons or soldiers, but with images that do not promote understanding or compassion.

A week or two ago, NPR’s On the Media did a story about a series of images that the International Committee of the Red Cross made of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay detention camp. The ICRC made pictures of the prisoners to send to their families, and allowed each prisoner to choose which particular image would be sent. Naturally, the images the prisoners collaborated in making are very different from the images we’ve seen of them in the news.

What shocked me is that the reporters (Bob Garfield of On the Media, and Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, who broke the story) seem mystified at the power these images have. How can reporters be so unaware of how images work?

And I also wonder, in terms of mapping tangible social change made by images, would Guantánamo be closed now if more people had seen images like these? Is it open specifically because we haven’t seen these images before?

Images can have a hugely negative, divisive impact. They are powerful. And understanding that power, and controlling it, is extremely important. Photographs can create positive social change, but they can also create extremely negative actions, perceptions and social structures. Think of the most famous propaganda film of World War II, Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will.

Photographs can not represent “the truth” because both photographs, and the truth, are moving targets, built from human perception that is diverse and ever changing. Photographs change depending on the equipment you use, the context in which they are shown, the way they are made, the way they are printed, the mood of the person who sees them. They are unfixed. So why do we cling to the idea that they are either “true” or “untrue,” journalism or art, real or fake, posed or unposed?

Prison photographs are a great way to explore this issue, because they force us to confront some of our most basic assumptions about other people.

Take the artist Mikhael Subotzky. He grew up in Cape Town, and has made astonishingly beautiful and provocative images of prisons, prisoners and ex-prisoners in South Africa. The people he photographs are both assailants and victims. They have murdered, pillaged and raped, but they have also been subjugated, humiliated, discriminated against, overlooked, and physically harmed by individuals, institutions and social systems.

Human conflict, whether it’s one nation against another or one man against another, is complex. And Subotzky’s images acknowledge and explore that complexity. They embrace it.

Because Subotzky’s images ackowledge the complexity of these prisoners’ lives, he does not vilify them. He gives them dignity. He asks provocative questions about human society, rather than pointing a finger at an individual.

It is no different to look at the prisoners of Guantanamo and see fathers, brothers, friends and lovers in them. No person is simply a villain. As much as we love that idea.

Human beings like simplicity. We want to understand ourselves and our surroundings. We want control. All of our biggest and best fantasies are simplistic—good vs. evil. Think of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and now Avatar. (I hate Avatar.) All those villains are Pure Evil. Easy to hate. And they never have families.

But the “villains” in South Africa’s prisons, and in Subotzky’s photographs, do have families. They do have relationships. They are part of communities. And their lives are complicated and real. When we look through his eyes, we don’t see villains at all. We see incarcerated men.

Similarly, Peter Merts does a wonderful job of documenting prisoners in a prison-based arts program at San Quentin State Prison in California. His images do not have the sweeping intensity of Subotzky’s, but his aim is different to begin with. Rather than documenting the way a society treats its prisoners, Merts is documenting the way a small nonprofit program functions. His scope is modest, but he also treats his subjects with dignity and tenderness.

His approach also sounds very similar to Subotzky’s. I had the pleasure of meeting him last week at the PhotoPhilanthropy Activist Awards celebration, and the way he described going to visit the Prison Arts Project sounded very much like the long term nature of Subotzky’s projects.

And that is a component of social change photography that I think many people underestimate. It takes time, and the relationships you build while working with people are as important as the images you make. I read a simply stunning piece by Charles Schultz for Vewd magazine, and he expressed this idea so well. Talking about Subotzky, he wrote:

There is no way of getting around skin colors in a society where segregation remains a predominant aspect of everything from city planning to daily social interaction. In such a racially charged, environment I would think it takes a tremendous amount of courage and compassion for an affluent white male to step outside of his social strata and willfully engage and make genuine connections with imprisoned black men. And to do so over and over again displays a level of commitment and integrity that underlies all great social change.

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.

The fact that Schultz recognizes that, and articulates it so well, lifts me up. That process of integrating image-making with relationships, with community building, with breaking down the barriers we have built between ourselves as people—that process feels so right to me. And I think that we need to be looking at “our enemies,” whomever they may be, in a way that maintains their humanity.

February 5, 2010 at 1:33 am 6 comments

Josh Schachter, Tucson’s superhero of community-based art

“To me, great images that are going to create change have a sense of emotion and question our most basic assumptions about the world.”

This is Josh Schachter talking; a community-based artist living in Tucson, Arizona.

Community-based photography, which gained international attention thanks to Zana Briski and the 2004 Academy-Award-winning documentary film Born into Brothels, is when artists lead a community through a process of making and exhibiting art.

“When I was doing my graduate work in Forestry and Environmental Management, I wasn’t that focused on photography,” says Schachter. “And I guess as I started doing urban forestry in New Haven, I realized I didn’t really know what was going on in my own city…

“And so I started really wanting to find out how community members perceived their own community and their own environment, vs. how I would tell the story of their neighborhoods and their communities if I was hired as a documentary photographer.”

So four years ago Schachter began to build the Finding Voice Project, which merges a photography curriculum with a more traditional after-school ESL program for refugee and immigrant teenagers.

Instead of advocating for his students by documenting them directly, Schacter teaches his students how to advocate for themselves, first by creating a story and then by distributing that story to the relevant audiences.

“Great images, that aren’t effectively distributed, don’t create a lot of social change,” he says.

But there are some meaty ethical conundrums inherent in this kind of work. One is how to achieve the appropriate balance between your voice as the artist, and the voices of the community you’re working with. “My own aesthetic preferences do come through in their work. Whether I want them to or not,” says Schachter of his students. “So I think it really has to be seen as a collaboration.”

Another issue is the sustainability of each project. Are the skills you are teaching relevant to that community? Will the opportunities you create in a place continue after you leave? “Another big challenge is thinking about how to match the technology with the community’s needs and capacity. So I also often question whether digital photography is the right tool, in a community with no power?!”

Josh laughs as he says that, because it seems so obviously silly. But of course, workshops in rural areas—off the grid—use digital media all the time, and the reasons for it are complex. Sometimes there are generators. Used digital cameras are cheap, abundant, and what donors and workshop facilitators are familiar with. And it’s not that it’s wrong to use them…it’s just that it isn’t automatically right.

“Sometimes people say that most of photography is just being there,” says Schachter. “And I think if you’ve lived you’re whole life in a place, you know where to be. And I think that in itself influences the nature of the images that the communities produce.”

All of the previous images have been made by Josh’s students. Below is one of his own.

And a quick shout out: Andy Levin of 100Eyes is leading a community based workshop in Haiti and needs cameras. It was scheduled prior to the earthquake, and they are proceeding as planned. If you have any cameras you could donate, please email him: levin.pix AT gmail.com

January 21, 2010 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

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

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.

January 14, 2010 at 5:03 am 7 comments

Avatar: a picture of the noble (sparkly) savage

Last night I went to see Avatar. The Imax screen at the Melbourne Museum is 7 stories tall, 32 meters wide, and featured a prim voice asking us to move to the middle to fill every available seat.

And no wonder. At yesterday’s count from boxofficemojo.com, Avatar had $1,063,151,759 in box office sales. As you’ve no doubt heard, it’s broken the $1 billion mark faster than any other film. Michael Carmichael of the Huffington Post called it “political dynamite” and “powerful art.” Clearly, James Cameron knows his audience.

And doesn’t.

I feel pretty weird about watching a movie that so blatantly returns to an unambiguous portrayal of a perfect, “untouched” indigenous society, dramatically saved from ruin by an outsider (who is, as usual, a white boy). My friend Thom Loubet said it well: “I mean, I feel like a cranky old man complaining about this, because it really is a fun movie, but in 2010, do we still need the perfectly innocent/noble/pure (clueless) native in our fictional narratives?! Give me ‘Smoke Signals’ any day.”

In that clip from Smoke Signals, the story Thomas Builds-the-Fire recounts is from Sherman Alexie’s first book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which is just an awesome book and I hope you buy one right this second and read it.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be interested in other cultures. It’s not that we shouldn’t fantasize about living in harmony with the earth (or Pandora) or building a better society. It’s just that I don’t like being told to idealize a lot of creatures that look like blue, sparkly Masai people who move through life to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes.

Because idealizing something is actually not the same as respecting it.

If I respect another culture, I acknowledge both how similar and how different I am to the people living within that other culture. I acknowledge that they have the same emotional range, mental capabilities, desires and potential for being annoying that I have. Idealizing someone sets them apart from you in a way that is false, just as dismissing someone also creates a false division.

And that’s why Sherman Alexie’s work is so fantastic. It is never false. It rings true, and you know it from the first line of the introduction to The Lone Ranger and Tonto. And if anyone is going to save the characters in Alexie’s fiction, it is not going to be some white person who has been to a fancy college, or has been a marine, or who photographs Victor’s father at a protest and wins a Pulitzer Prize.* (See excerpt in comment below)

It’s not the documentation of an issue that solves the issue, it’s the discussion that documentation creates. It’s the feeling a picture inspires; the connections and relationships it engenders; the kinds of audiences it reaches–that’s how a picture creates social change. And, as a photographer, you have some control over the kind of conversation you begin. For example, these two images by Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky raise serious cultural and environmental questions, but they start a nuanced conversation.

Richard Misrach

Edward Burtynsky

Avatar, even though it’s in gorgeous 3D, starts a one dimensional conversation. And yeah, I guess it isn’t really documentary work–those hammerhead-elephants aren’t quite that big in real life–but it does have an overt social-change message.

So anyway. It was a fun romp. But I wish it had been more thoughtful. And perhaps contained a single humorous moment. And I agree with Thom. He also said, “The art direction looks like an 11-year-old’s Trapper-Keeper–everything highlighted in purple neon.” My dad was reminded of Fern Gully.

January 6, 2010 at 7:22 am 36 comments

Looking at leprosy

How do you make images about a debilitating disease that keep the dignity, the complexity, and the feelings of the subjects intact?

How do you create images about this issue without further injuring those people who suffer from it?

In her photo essay for the Turkish Association for the Fight Against Leprosy, Delizia Flaccavento uses a direct, narrative, sometimes impersonal approach. She focuses on the symptoms and scars of leprosy.

I appreciate those photographs. They teach me something I want to know–what leprosy really looks like.

And they take two simultaneous risks: 1. that I will look away because I feel distressed. 2. that I won’t look away because I am interested—not in the people, but in the spectacle of the disease.

They also tell the story of an organization, rather than an individual.

Which, like cropping out or obscuring faces, can occasionally be a more sensitive way to represent a person.

Jan Sochor takes another approach in his photograph of a patient with leprosy in Haiti. He makes this person’s infected feet seem abstract and strange. They are barely recognizable.

This picture dissociates me from the personality connected to those feet. Similar to some of Flaccavento’s pictures, I don’t see a being here so much as I see a disease. The feet are gruesome. I feel revulsion and alarm. (Jan Sochor also has an essay about Haiti posted on PhotoPhilanthropy.org although this picture is from his blog.)

Ehrin Macksey does something very different again. His photographs of a leprosy colony in Vietnam–for Send Me/Kairos Coalition–depict the lives of the people in the village more than they depict the disease itself. In his images, the dock where a woman cleans her vegetables

or the monthly rations of meat each person receives

or the prayers said in a Buddhist temple

are points of entry for a visitor to this town. In his images I am aware of many lives, all intertwined. I’m aware of time: a past and a future. There is a disease in the village, but there are also people.

In spite of the harsh light, this photograph of a man named Bop feels tender. I find my mind lingering, holding onto it for a moment.

Each of these artists tells an important story. Each is searching for a way to gingerly illustrate an issue that can be hard to look at.

December 16, 2009 at 10:39 pm 1 comment


"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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