Posts filed under ‘Uncategorized’

Crisis photography: the conversation

Last week I wrote about war photography, and cited an interesting essay written by Hans Durrer called Photographic Collaboration, published in the journal Soundscapes. With his permission, I am reposting a large portion of his essay here. He writes:

“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.

“A good illustration of this is One Step Beyond, the multimedia project about landmines and their victims by the German photographer Lukas Einsele. Because Einsele makes his pictures with a large-format camera, staging is unavoidable because, as he wrote to me in an e-mail: ‘The camera is visible, the photo — its exposition — lasts such a long time that a certain acquiescence has to exist between photographer and subject. Sure, there are exceptions, but actually I’m looking for these common productions by which the subjects become co-authors of an image-reality.’

“When looking at works of photography, viewers often don’t know whether such types of collaboration as those mentioned above have taken place. Sometimes viewers learn about it, more often they don’t. Photographs invite us to ask questions: What do my eyes show me? How did the photo come to be? What doesn’t it show? And so on.

“Walker Evans, while working for the Resettlement Administration in the 1930s, took photos of sharecroppers in Alabama. He portrayed them in their daily lives, at times with worn-out clothes, dirty feet, uncombed hair and unshaven faces, because he wanted to document the circumstances they were living in. That, however, seems not have been to their liking, for there exists one photo — one that Evans did not use in his publications — that shows the family clean and combed and in their Sunday best. One can safely assume that it was taken at the request of the family.

“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.”

This statement, among others, has provoked meaningful responses and arguments on a number of platforms, including this blog. Photographic Collaboration was reposted on the photography forum ZoneZero, where it spurred a lengthy debate between ZoneZero’s Pedro Meyer and Mr. Durrer.

On his own blog, Across Cultures, Mr. Durrer made a similar point to my own last week, that the viewer feels shame looking at certain pictures. In a discussion of Susan Meiselas’ book Nicaragua, published in 1981, he writes, A very famous photograph shows a young woman running on a road with a near-naked little boy hanging from one arm and a bag slung over her shoulder. The caption explains: Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí, Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.
“Years later, in a documentary about her work in Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas comments: ‘That photograph is taken by at least five different photographers, at different points during her journey. She is literally vultured by us. No one is thinking to help her, including myself.’

The war photographer and the ones who simply look at these pictures share the same dilemma: both know that these photos should not exist and both are glad that they do.”

I’d love to hear your reactions to these ideas.

I’m also looking for more conversations like this. I know there’s a lot of great posting happening on Lightstalkers, as journalists talk to each other about these issues. Where else? Please send me recommendations of what to read, or post links in the comments on this blog.

March 13, 2010 at 4:37 am Leave a comment

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

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

PhotoPhilanthropy founder Nancy Farese has been in Haiti this week, documenting the work of NGO’s providing social services and disaster relief. Her first bulletin described the spontaneous settlements all around the capital. Here, Liz Hale describes their visit to King’s Hospital, with photos by Liz Hale and Nancy Farese.

Malaria patient at King's Hospital, Nancy Farese

We traveled on a very rough and rocky dirt road, passing Villambetta Camp which we had photographed with the IRC, and continued just further to their referral hospital. We arrived at Kings Hospital unannounced, with only our IRC friend as a reference, and asked for “Dr. Junie” (Junaie F. Hyacinthe, MD—she is also a pastor).

King's Hospital in Villambetta District, Haiti. Founder, Dr Junaio Hyacinthe visits with a patient and his brother. Nancy Farese

She emerged after fixing a few outdoor cement sinks and greeted us with her warm and open demeanor. She dropped everything to sit and tell us the story of King’s Hospital, Kings Clinic, King’s School and King’s Orphanage—all of which she founded in the last five years. This lady is remarkable; she is an intelligent and charismatic leader, with an avid determination to improve the quality of healthcare for her community.

Liz Hale

Her initial funding came in 2005 from the US, prompted by an American friend who encouraged her to come to the States and pitch the story of her experience running an ObGyn clinic in Port-au-Prince. Her dream was to build a hospital. While she found the idea of strangers giving her funds very strange, she decided to try.

This boy had just had hernia sugery, and shared the room with a 70 yera old man who was recovering fromt he same surgery. Nancy Farese

She arrived in Illinois on a Thursday, and left the following Monday with pledges of $110,000. Since then, her American friend has organized many fundraisers to continue support for Dr. Junie’s efforts. There is something very authentic about Dr. Junie and I am certain that people she meets want to help her—I immediately believe in her, just as they do.

Liz Hale

The hospital was just shy of completion when the earthquake struck. She opened her half-finished wards to help survivors, and hasn’t slowed down since. She operates as a full-fledged—albeit rudimentary—facility, with a functioning operating room and many patients.

Liz Hale

It is sparse and simple, but clean and staffed. Medical supplies have been donated from the US which has allowed the hospital to continue to see patients. The number of operations they perform has sky-rocketed.

March 5, 2010 at 7:23 am Leave a comment

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

Devouring the propaganda: plunging into the White House flickr feed

I feel an immediate personal connection and engagement with the images when I look at the White House flickr feed by photographer Pete Souza. And I don’t think it’s because of my politics.

The Whitehouse flickr feed is a new way of opening up images to the public, and making them less didactic. In a way, you get to be the editor. This is a new kind of experience. They’ve still been edited, but we get to see them out of the context of a magazine or newspaper. The context is simply the captions and the other images (and what we know about what’s going on, or what went on).

Every time I tap into the White House’s media machine, I am stunned by how imaginative they are. Not only do they use new technology effectively and creatively, they use it beautifully. The graphic design on their sites is, of course, gorgeous.

And the images they use are too. They are well lit, well managed, well color-balanced, and continue to surprise me with their nuance and humor. And they are also quiet. On the whole, they are not grandiose. They are not what I expect to see.

In these pictures, Obama strikes me as more dignified precisely because he seems more approachable. The fact that he is unafraid to let us see him being himself, feeling a wide array of emotions—from consternation to mischief to love—makes me respect him more. While some might argue that dignity is looking noble, strong, and emotionless, I feel, more and more, that dignity comes in part from looking human; appearing to be full of emotions, not void of them. His team knows this, and uses it. How is it that the Obama White House has rediscovered something so basic about pictures and people, that much of mainstream journalism seems to have forgotten?

Let me take a step back. Sure, some pictures are interesting purely because of the aura of presidential grace around them. If it were just my father in law running with the dog, I’d find this photo sweet, but less thrilling. It would be a snapshot (albeit a very well composed one, with some really beautiful light). This is a picture that has it’s power because it depicts the President of the United States.

But a lot of these images are interesting in and of themselves, no matter who is in them, because they are more open ended. They don’t tell me how to feel. They’re chronicling the life in the white house and the office of the President—their agenda is approachability and transparency. That is an agenda, and it serves a political purpose, but it also leads to more interesting pictures than other agendas. This style of picture-making plays in the space between the snapshot, the documentary image, the propagandist image, and a work of art.

That open-endedness also allows for a kind of composite portrait, like Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, composed of many images; or Emmet Gowin’s lifelong portrait of Edith Gowin. This work, and the way it’s all jumbled together on flickr, references those artists for me.

When you have an agenda of one specific emotion—like pity, or sadness, or horror, or awe, or nostalgia—the pictures you make tend to be more closed. You’re not asking someone what they feel when presented with an image, you’re telling them what to feel. Granted, sometimes that may be appropriate for a certain project or picture. But in terms of standard journalistic practice, I think it’s out of sync with the ideal of informing people about an issue so that they can make up their own mind.

It seems to me that in journalistic photography in recent decades, there has been a simultaneous clinging to the idea of an “unmanipulated” picture as “fact,” and a movement toward encouraging sensationalist, dogmatic images in the name of social advocacy. To me, both these things are outrageously false. But more and more, that is the kind of photojournalism I see in the mainstream. These two from MSNBC don’t give me much room to feel or think.

In other cases, you see simplistic (boring?) images used in order to create a pithy interchange between the headline and the shot. What you gain in cleverness apparently outweighs what you’ve lost in thoughtfulness. Like with this shot tonight on CNN.com:

I find it interesting that right now, some of the least dogmatic photographs I’m seeing come from one of the most political institutions in the world—the White House.

(Yes, I believe that is President Obama peering over in hopes that David Axelrod will cave into his desires and eat a piece of cake…instead of an apple.)

Nice work, Pete Souza! Keep up that Flickr feed. The state of the union might be so-so, but the state of the White House Flickr feed? Fantastic.

January 28, 2010 at 8:18 am 1 comment

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

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

An interview with Ian MacLellan, winner of the PhotoPhilanthropy Student Activist Award

Ian MacLellan is a 19-year-old sophomore at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. He’s studying biology and geology. With a strong interest in international development, those subjects translate into water systems and strategies for public health.

“I had worked for nonprofits locally in my town and in Massachusetts, and I love to travel,” says MacLellan. “I found this group called International Bridges to Justice through Idealist.org. They had hosted a competition for justice makers and needed journalists to go out and document the projects they were funding.”

“IBJ was really, really supportive in linking journalists with appropriate projects,” says MacLellan. In fact, Jeff Kennel’s photo essay on PhotoPhilanthropy came about through a connection made by IBJ as well.

Jeff Kennel

MacLellan was also impressed by the way that IBJ clearly laid out their goals, in contract form, and delineated who would have what rights to the photographs, who had liability, and other basic parameters for the partnership.

When he arrived in Kisumu, MacLellan’s began thinking about how to tell a compelling story about this nonprofit. It’s hard to do. “Most of the work of any nonprofit is office work,” says MacLellan, “So you have to come up with your own creative projects to help tell the story.” That takes a while to figure out. But in some ways, it’s time well spent.

“It’s really great to not take pictures a lot of the time. You need time to learn, to find out people’s stories. Because the stories are what tell something about the nonprofit. They tell the spirit, the value, the meaning behind everything—in my opinion.

“I think semi-positive stories can be a great vehicle for social change, like the story of the newspaper—the Kakuma News Reflector. I think that it’s important to show something unique and not just show suffering. I don’t think people pay attention to stuff like that anymore. I think 30 years ago they might have, but not now.

“I’m not against the James Nachtwey’s and Zoriah’s of the world—don’t worry! They show both sides.

James Nachtwey

“I think a lot of people starting out think the James Nachtwey style is THE only way to tell stories. But I think after they get exposed to more work, they sort of see the other side of storytelling and image making.”

And what’s next, for Mr. MacLellan? He’s continuing to apply for grants—the next project he’s proposed is about energy issues in Scotland. And he’s participating in a group at Tufts called Exposure where “we try to have mature conversations about the state of journalism.”

“For students,” he says, “It’d be great if there were more small grants for domestic work. More small grants could be a great tool to promote journalism because newspapers can’t pay for those [small-scale, local] stories anymore. So that’s a void the nonprofits could fill.”

December 30, 2009 at 2:08 am 2 comments

Loving pictures, loving people

Portraits are limited. They can mischaracterize someone as easily as they can accurately represent a person. And who decides what’s accurate? The subject? The photographer? Or someone else entirely?

How often has someone taken a snapshot of you that didn’t look like you at all? Or that didn’t look the way you want to look?

So why do we make pictures of each other? If you know that a portrait can never say everything that you want or need to say about a person, why make one?

I ask myself this question a lot.

My answer has to do with loving pictures. Loving them for what they can do, and not feeling frustrated with them because of what they cannot do.

Pictures, like this one by Massimo Dall’Argine on behalf of Amicus, inspire the imagination. They help me think about other people. They help me feel commonality, connection and love for others and for the world. They help me feel all sorts of things. Just like a movie, or a book, or an amusement park…I go to pictures to feel more.

This picture is by Ian MacLellan for Christian Legal Education Aid and Resarch. When I look at it, I feel as though I’m meeting this man. I feel as though I am working with him or he is working for my school or my community. I feel interested, and curious about who he is, and, personally, quite respectful.

I find that I am often moved by pictures which are not exclusively about a given challenge or tragedy, but are about the life surrounding it—the familiar, beautiful, challenging, painful life that each of us experiences.

When I look at a picture of a person who lives in a very different place from me, it is hard for me to know what that person’s experience has been. I cannot fully imagine it. And the more the picture makes me focus on that difference between me and the subject, the more I think about how much I can’t imagine.

But the more a picture focuses on what I DO have in common with the subject, the more connection I feel to them, the more I think about how much I can imagine about his or her life.

This photograph for Do One Thing by Najlah Faenny delights me. I feel like I could be friends with this girl–I’ve made faces like that. And in this example, because I don’t know where she is, I am really only looking at her face. And she doesn’t seem very different from me.

And I think social change is built on that feeling of connection. I don’t think it’s built on a feeling of distance and dissonance. When people are empowered to work together, when they have mutual respect and shared goals—that’s when institutions grow and communities get stronger.

December 23, 2009 at 4:25 am 1 comment

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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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