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Violence, Agency, Photojournalism and Activism - Away She Goes

TW/CN: This post contains several famous graphic images.

As someone who works in multiple media to mobilize people around causes, I’ve had a lot to think about this year. The entire Black Lives Matter movement has been a case study in average people mobilizing the masses in order to force traditional media coverage, as well as how to use a loosely-tied grassroots network to subvert and exploit media coverage in service to a cause. Most recently, though, the photo of two dead toddlers whose bodies washed up on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey, has got the wheels turning.

As a photographer, one of the questions I often grapple with is those situations where I find myself wondering, do I take the picture? Of course, the photographer in me answers: take the picture, you can always decide what to do about it later. But the advocate in me wonders about the harm that can be done just in the act of photographing. There’s also the idea that once an image exists, it could be seen by someone else like an editor who would take the decision about what to do with it out of my hands.

Images like the ones of the boy on the beach in Bodrum always seem to simultaneously be completely necessary and yet eat away at the photographers who take them. In this case, Nilufer Demir, the photographer who took the image said, “I wished there was no problem in their country, that they hadn’t left it and hadn’t tried to leave Turkey and that I hadn’t taken this photograph. But as I found them dead, all I could do was take these pictures to be their voice.” A couple of famous examples come from the Apartheid-era Bang-Bang Club. Greg Marinovich’s image of Lindsaye Tshabalala’s brutal death was taken and printed because it was newsworthy and victims of violence deserve to be seen, heard, and accounted for. Tshabalala, a Zulu, was suspected of spying for Inkatha. However, the image took on a life of its own, one contrary to the photographer’s intentions. The police wanted the other images to identify the killers, something they hadn’t asked for with a previous murder. The difference? These perpetrators were not allies of the South African government at the time. Catching killers is a worthy goal, but not if it is applied strategically for political gain.

greg marinovich lindsaye tshabalalaImage by Greg Marinovich.

There is, of course, the classic example of Kevin Carter’s image of a child outside a refugee camp in Sudan, emaciated and still as a vulture looked on. While the image won the Pulitzer and rallied the masses around the ISSUE, the image came with a price. The public demanded to know what had become of the child, and what the photographer had done to help, answers that changed often. Kevin Carter had pre-existing issues with mental health, drugs, and alcohol, but many see that image and the frenzy that surrounded it as the immediate catalyst for his death by suicide.

With some images, there are calls not to consume them, like videos of ISIL’s violence, Daniel Pearl’s beheading, or the recent accidentally-televised deaths of the reporters in Virginia. I agree with those calls for respect, but others have wondered, where is that respect of victims of police brutality? I think most news outlets are handling these recent images of dead refugee children well, blurring them or linking to them so the audience has to opt-in, with a warning of the disturbing nature of what they’re about to see. But where is that courtesy for black victims of violent crime? How do we decide whose images are worthy of respect and whose get played on a loop on the nightly news?

Kevin Carter vulture stalking a childImage by Kevin Carter.

On the other hand, many see looking at the images of these dead children, and others, as a necessary duty. The idea is that we are standing idly by, and have been for quite some time, so we should have to reconcile the outcome of that indecision with our horror at seeing it firsthand. I remember feeling similar about the famous images of Emmett Till when they were shown to us in high school, and casting some aspersions on those who opted not to look. I have more respect for self-care now, so I don’t take such a harsh position anymore, but I do think there’s something wrong with being able to insulate ourselves from the reality of the world we live in and choose not to improve, and in some cases, actively benefit from in its current violent, unjust state.

As far as I can tell, it makes sense to show or look at these images when the general public (read: mainstream white, Western audience of certain means) wouldn’t believe the truth without the documentation, and when the general public wouldn’t pay attention to the issue without it. For mainstream America, the photos of the boys on the beach fit that description to a T. Similarly, this summer has seen one video after another of police brutality. It’s enough to make a white person like me think there’s been an uptick in the violence. While there has been an increase, there’s also been an uptick in videos of police brutality, an uptick in people who have had enough and refuse to be silenced, and an uptick in people organizing en masse to force white people like me, and our media, to pay attention.

Mamie Till-Mobley Chicago Sun-Times via APThis is not the famous photo, but it is also a great one. In the interest of making this post less draining, I think it will do just fine. Image from the Chicago Su-Times via AP. 

There’s also another criterion to consider: agency and consent. Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, not only allowed the photos to be taken, she insisted on an open casket and fought hard for it. She was trying to make peace with having her little boy taken from her and forcing America to observe its sins was part of that process. And it worked. Similarly, Abdullah Kurdi, the father of the boy whose body washed up on the beach, wants the world to see the image, in hopes that it will save other children from a similar fate.

But what does this mean for members of the group whose images of injustice are being splashed across our screens? Who do not have the option of the not clicking through because no one thought to do so for pictures of their kind of people? For the folks who don’t get to put it out of their head, because it is their everyday life? Is their only option to accept that they must subject themselves to being nightly news fodder in hopes of someday being treated like human beings with human rights? This feels like one more burden, one more indignity being heaped onto the backs of the most vulnerable, the most burdened among us.

So knowing that media will only be responsible with the images of certain kinds of people, and that the image may very well serve as a wake-up call for the masses but is also very likely to exhaust those it’s meant to help, I’m back to the questions: do you take the picture or not?

In my photojournalism class last fall, our professor told us to consider a few things when photographing a sensitive situation. First: is it newsworthy?

The little boy, the Sudanese child with the vulture, the first-ever image of necklacing, all of these are newsworthy. But there are so many more photographers out there, and now more than ever, it’s common to have little training, myself included. I think of my students at Cristobal Colon cemetery in Havana, a place where you’re encouraged to take photos. But it’s still a functioning cemetery, and as we were grouping up to leave I saw a funeral procession. My students were spread out along the long road, too far away for me to threaten them discretely. I went stock still and steeled myself for what was to come. Luckily, no one took a picture. There is nothing newsworthy about the funeral of an average Habanero, but seeing a dozen dSLRs going to town on either side of a funeral procession for your loved one could have a profound negative effect.

Things get murkier when you move outside the world of photojournalism. That procession wasn’t newsworthy, but my students weren’t there to be journalists (although some were and are.) My students were working with documentary photography, and it’s easy to see how images of a funeral procession could complete a photo essay on death and mourning in Cuba. In this case, the more average the person the better. In this instance, though, I would hope a good documentarian, even a beginner, would have had a conversation with someone representing the family and the church first, before shooting. Unfortunately, the compassion afforded a middle-class family is not generally afforded to the world’s homeless. It’s incredibly common for new photographers to take photos of people who they suspect are homeless, almost always without permission or any sort of conversation before or after for context or research. In my mind, the like of contextualizing information or any interaction takes this out of the realm of true documentary photography, and into self-aggrandizing voyeurism.

Once again, it brings us to the question of who is worthy of our respect? People of a certain race, people of a certain class.

As an activist and digital marketer, I often find myself hunting for the thing that will make us all care. As far as I can tell, photo and video are better, due to our misguided belief that they are objective. It helps if the images are of people we perceive as innocent, which digs into all our stereotypes, prejudices, and societal baggage. If we don’t afford black girls and boys the innocence that we readily see in the faces of white children, then their deaths aren’t as transgressive and heartbreaking to a white public. It’s not surprising that a white Christian arrested for planning a terrorist attack on Muslims made few headlines.

Did they consent? Certainly no one consented to the photo of the boy on the beach. The children couldn’t give meaningful consent, their mother was dead, their father unknown when the pictures were taken. Does it matter? Doesn’t that father and the rest of his family deserve not to have the death of a loved on confirmed via newspaper, via 5 o’clock news? It reminds me of the widow who realized she was watching her husband die on a medical reality television show. His face was blurred and details were left out (something not afforded to the toddlers in Turkey, or their loved ones), but there was enough information that the man’s widow recognized him. Shouldn’t a person be able to sit down and watch television at night without being surprised by images of their dead family member?

Migrant crisis Laszlo Balogh ReutersImage by Laszlo Balogh / Reuters.

One of the pictures on an Atlantic story showed a few migrants in a train station in Budapest. The woman is rather clearly putting her hand in front of her face, in the universal gesture of, “Don’t take my picture!” Now perhaps she wasn’t doing that, but for some reason the photographer chose to use an image that caught some other gesture in the split-second of time when it looks like she doesn’t want to be photographed. Strange decision, but it’s a possibility. In many countries, someone in a public place like a train station is not entitled to the privacy she seems to seek. Does that mean it’s totally cool for the photographer to press on anyway, and an editor at the Atlantic to use it anyway? Would anyone have said no to using the photo if the mother and child hadn’t been disenfranchised?

There’s also the question of meaningful consent. One of my photography teachers works for the Globe, and whenever she asks permission and for biographical details, she identifies her employer. Pretty much anyone in the area, and the country will know what that means. The picture could be on the front page and across Boston.com, or it could be a couple inches buried in a deep section. But what about folks with a language barrier, coming from a completely different country? What if you’re speaking to someone with no or limited access to the internet, or someone who is illiterate? What meaningful consent can they give regarding a media conglomerate’s ability to use their image?

Coming back to the idea that the woman and her child were fair game for photographs, is that really fair? Does their consent by way of existing in a public place stand up to any scrutiny? As NAME said, one measure of class is one’s ability to live their life in private. Where else could this woman, or the homeless people photography students photograph, choose to go where they wouldn’t be considered quarry for photographers? Do they have legitimate options to pass their time in privacy? Like so many others, this woman was waiting in a train station in Hungary to be allowed on a train. If she leaves, she may never be allowed back in. Realistically, the only place for her to go to escape journalists would be the restroom. Is spending days in a (presumably crowded) restroom really a legitimate option?

How do you draw the line between misery, disaster or poverty porn and actually helping? I’ve been loving the book Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change, and it will surprise no one that I feel strongly pulled to that work. But what is the line between exploiting someone and advocating for them, using their image? And what are the unintended effects of the way we compose images? Shooting someone with the camera looking down from above makes the subject look vulnerable, whereas pointing the camera up at them from above can make someone look powerful. Stark imagery may raise more money or concern in the short term, but what does it imply about the people you’re trying to help? Where is their dignity in all of this? I like to think about the way I photograph strangers and compare it to how I photograph my friends and loved ones, or how I photograph powerful people. If we see impoverished people as resilient and eminently resourceful, that should be demonstrated in the photographic decisions we make. If we see survivors of sexual violence as brave and capable people, we should treat them as such in our compositions.

There is, of course, more depth to each person, and we should absolutely strive to show the depth and breadth of a person’s experience. To say, “wow, but those poor people are so happy!” is equally as wrong and one-dimensional as saying, “Their lives are completely miserable, I can’t even imagine it.” It’s fine to show either extreme, as there are happy moments and miserable ones. An individual photograph may be a truthful, fair representation of someone. But looking in the aggregate, why is it that almost everyone manages to capture the pitiable, incapable moments, and rarely the moments of strength, endurance, pride, or hard work? I wouldn’t want to fall into the myth of bootstrapping, or simply gloss over the realities, but I think there’s a way of photographing someone with respect that can lead to more multi-dimensional portrayals of folks living with stigma.

Personally, I think when we can demonstrate a message with something other than pitiable misery, we should. It’s important to show the truth of the harsh conditions we create for others, but there are many ways to show the truth while maintaining a subject’s dignity. For example, my employer has strong brand standards for our photography, which can more or less be summed up as, “no poverty porn.” We don’t work in disaster relief; we work in financial inclusion. As an organization that is more or less in the business of empowering people to take advantage of the full suite of financial services to improve their lives, it makes sense for us to use candid environmental portraits of people hard at work.

Our standards make perfect sense for my company, but there are plenty of other nonprofits in international development who rely on the distended bellies of brown children to pull on the heartstrings of donors. There’s a reason for that: it works. But it also sells a one-dimensional, homogeneous vision of the developing world. Poverty porn encourages pity and paternalism, not empathy and empowerment. So I encourage all of us, as potential donors and as media consumers, to think critically about the messages we are given, and demand more thoughtful portrayals, whether from mass media or the organizations we support.

With all of these issues, deciding whether to shoot the image comes down to a decision: which do you value, the individual, or the cause of helping them? But I want everyone to remember that there are more questions hiding behind those two options. What right do we have as photographers to make the decision between cause and individual? Do we even give the subject a say in this? Do we treat some subjects with more respect and care than others? There is a strange tension between wanting the world to know the truth in all its horror, and wanting to be respectful to those who bear the emotional brunt of what happened and what it means to turn the truth into a meme. Victims of violence deserve a voice, especially in death, but who is controlling that voice, and what responsibility do we have for the negative impact of those judgment calls?

In the instance of the boy on the beach, I do believe the photographer treated her subjects with care, and that most media outlets have as well. But so many others, from the woman in the train station to many black victims of police brutality (TW, click with care), are never afforded such consideration.

I don’t particularly have any answers to these questions, they’ve just been swirling around in my head for the past week. In the end, it’s the duty of photojournalists to take the picture, as well as their occupation. But it’s also our duty to be media literate,  demanding more of our news sources, and to become people who try to make a difference for everyone, not just the children who look like our own.

Looking to help? Here are some events and resources.

There will be a vigil tonight, 9/9/15 at Seven Hills Park (behind the Davis T Stop) in Somerville, as well as another on 9/19 in Copley Square, Boston. I’ll be there, if you don’t want to go alone. 

A great overview of what’s going on in Syria

Hosting Syrian Refugees in Boston Interest Survey

Petition to Resettle Syrian Refugees in the U.S

Charity Watch’s notes on selecting where to donate

Global Voices on Online – how you can help

Mashable – How you can help

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