Posts tagged ‘shame’

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

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March 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm 10 comments

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


"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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