Posts filed under ‘Social Change 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

The key? Intimacy.

Kathleen Hennessy is the Director of Photography at the San Francisco Chronicle and has just joined PhotoPhilanthropy as the Activist Award Director for 2010.

I asked her everything that came rushing into my head. What is your editing process like? And how do you think photography creates social change? And what advice do you have for people submitting photo essays to PhotoPhilanthropy?

Here’s what she said:

Some of the essays I looked at from last year’s submissions were not as strong as they could be because they don’t really have a focus. What I’m seeing is that people are photographing things that are happening around them, but I don’t know what the story is. I don’t know what they’re trying to say.

If you were going to document a pediatric surgical team, for example, it would be really great to have some theme that you follow—maybe a doctor, or a patient—so that you connect with somebody.

I think it’s really important to establish that connection with another individual. Because if you don’t, if the viewer doesn’t get to connect with any person in a deeper way, then everybody becomes sort of anonymous. And that’s a problem. I think you get a much more emotional reaction when you really feel like you got to know someone and their story. And then that one story illustrates the larger organization and the larger issue.

When I was working with Deanne Fitzmaurice on the Pulitzer prize winning story, she got very close to the subject.

It was as story about an Iraqi boy named Saleh, who picked up a bomb he thought was ball. It exploded, killing his brother and severely injuring him. He was eventually brought to Oakland, California for treatment. She worked on that story for about a year and got close to the family. It was impossible not to.

And even though she didn’t want to, she had to show the moments where he was acting up or getting frustrated because that was the whole story. She had to stay somewhat detached. Because the goal of photojournalism is to have the credibility that you are telling the truth.

An artist, on the other hand, is seeking their own truth, in my opinion.

So when you are doing this kind of collaborative work with an organization, you really have to believe in what that organization is doing. If you go in there and you think, “Wow, what are they doing?” then maybe you shouldn’t do it.

It’s also important to really do your homework. You should talk to people who run the organization, who are in the field, and ask them what they see every day. And sometimes you have to be a filter, because they may tell you what they think is a great story, and it may not be. For example, it may not be visual. It has to be a visual story. And it has to prompt an emotional reaction that connects the viewer to the subject

The best thing to do is observe. Spend some time before you ever pick up the camera, observing what they do. You need to think about what it is that attracted you to the story. What is the story that you want to tell?

And take notes. I always say to photographers—who are not necessarily writers—take notes. Jot down words that represent what you are feeling, and then think about how to capture that feeling.

You asked about creating social change as an editor. Well, we were having a staff meeting, and talking about ideas. I wanted to do some stories related to the economy, because that is one of the big issues of the year.

So Brant Ward, one of our staff photographers at the Chronicle, said, “I really want to do something in Chinatown. It’s very difficult to get access to stories there, and there is a lot going on.”

He’s been at the Chronicle for 25 years. He found his own contact and she connected him with the Mo family, who live in a one room flat.  The room has no private bathroom or kitchen so they share with the other families living in the building, which is called an SRO: single room occupancy.

He worked through a community activist who spoke the language and was trusted by the community. I think that’s a very important connection, so that when you are introduced to the community, you are also trusted.

The father, Zhihua, a carpenter and plumber, was out of work. The mom, Lifen, was making minimum wage handing out restaurant coupons to tourists. The grandfather, who lived a block away in another SRO, had a nurse taking care of him but when Zhihua lost his job they could no longer afford the nurse and Zhihua starting taken care of his dad daily.

The grandfather couldn’t walk, and his son told Brant, “When I take him to the doctor, I have to put him on my back and carry him up two flights of stairs.” And so Brant knew that was the picture he needed to get. And so he kept waiting and waiting for that day to come, and it finally did.

When the story was published, it was on the front page with two inside pages full of photographs. There was a real out-pouring of support. Brant received many emails from people who wanted to help, both monetarily and with job offers. Zihua is now working again.

So you hope that you have an impact, and it can be something small like one person getting a job. Or it could be a larger impact, like with Deanne’s story. After her story was published, Saleh’s family received thousands and thousands of dollars in donations and his mother and sisters were granted asylum in the U.S.

And that’s the beauty of documentary photography: hopefully your goal is to have some sort of impact.

Brant told the story of Chinatown through one family. Which gets back to what I was saying in the beginning. You’re more connected through one family than if it was a series of pictures of multiple families who lived in single rooms. I feel more connected to that issue because I know what this one family’s life is like.

If you stay with one story, if you stay with one focus, there’s more intimacy there. And to me that is the key to a successful story or a successful photo essay, intimacy.

And a lot of times you may see a collection of photographs, and they may be beautiful, but I’m left wondering what are they trying to say. Other than, here’s a nonprofit, or here’s a lot of suffering people.

I loved Dmitry Markov‘s story, which won the amateur award, because it was so focused. One group of kids, one place—I really got a sense of what their lives were like. Beautiful intimacy with the shaving of the head, wonderful use of light. I felt a sense of connection with the community there because I could see how the boys reacted to each other. I thought that was really successful.

March 3, 2010 at 5:30 am Leave a comment

Radical bland: unfolding the New Topographics

My first encounter with the New Topographics did not go well. I was 20, and in college, and stumbled into the Robert Adams show at the Yale University Museum of Art in 2002 when I was there to attend a lecture.

Robert Adams, Pike's Peak Park, Colorado Springs, 1970

I wandered up and down the walls of what seemed like endless, terrifyingly boring black and white images of ugly houses, cul-de-sacs, clear-cutting, and mines. I could not figure out what these pictures were really about, or why anyone would want to look at them. When I looked at them, I just felt depressed.

Robert Adams, untitled, Denver, 1970-74

Ah HA, I now want to say. Hey, Eliza, that WAS the point! That’s what makes them so interesting and disarming and beautiful. We are building a boring world for ourselves. Which, when you realize it, is searingly painful to witness and be a part of. Eliza, Eliza, wake up!

Robert Adams

But Eliza, junior-in-college, is utterly impervious to my shouts. It was not until a few years later, when I found myself in Arizona, a whole new part of the American West than I had previously experienced, that I began to really feel what those pictures are talking about.

It helped that I met and studied with Bill Jenkins, the curator responsible for the New Topographics exhibition in 1975, and Mark Klett, one of the foremost landscape photographers working in the U.S. Their personal experiences and their view of life in the Sonoran Desert, fast disappearing beneath box stores and condo complexes, reshaped my connection to landscape photography, particularly photographs of the western U.S.

Robert Adams

And now, when I think about the New Topographics, I think about that group of artists as some of the most serious, purposeful social change photographers that I know about.

One of the things that interests me about them is that they use images in a different way than I might have expected. They use images to create social change by helping their viewers understand what society is, in the first place. They aren’t showing just what’s wrong with it, or what it would look like if things were better—they are showing me what my own culture is. They are telling me stories about myself.

I love that! To me, that is so often what makes a great work of art—the ability of the artist to articulate how I feel, or how life feels, in a way that I’ve never been able to.

And social change is such an ambiguous phrase, and such a nuanced and many-layered process—what a great idea it is to start change by understanding where you are (in space, in time, in community-building) in the first place.

A new show reproducing the original selection of artists, with a few additions, opens this week at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, with an artist’s talk at the opening reception, given by Bill Jenkins, Joe Deal and Frank Gohlke. There is also a catalogue available, which I just bought. Details below, taken from the CCP website.

Longmont, Colorado, about 1982

New Topographics, February 19 – May 16, 2010
The exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape, held in 1975 at George Eastman House, signaled the emergence of a new approach to landscape photography. A new version of this seminal exhibition re-examines more than 100 works from the 1975 show, as well as some 30 prints and books by other relevant artists to provide additional historical and contemporary context. This reconsideration demonstrates both the historical significance of these pictures and their continued relevance today.

Opening Reception and Artists’ Talk, Friday, February 19, Reception at 5 p.m., Discussion at 6 p.m.
Join Bill Jenkins, the curator of the original 1975 presentation of New Topographics and exhibiting artists Joe Deal and Frank Gohlke as they discuss the origins and impact of that seminal project. Moderated by Britt Salvesen, Department Head and Curator of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography, and the Department Head and Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

February 19, 2010 at 11:29 am Leave a comment

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


"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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