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.

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February 5, 2010 at 1:33 am 6 comments

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

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

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

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