Problems and possibilities: Considering photography’s limitations

I was reading the New York Times recently and encountered an article, with photos, that really struck a chord with me. The article was interesting but the photos were unexceptional. It took me a while to figure out why I was so moved, but once I did, it also lead me to think about the power and the limitations of still photographs. I am not sure that still photography (or today’s multi-media) can ever fully get past those limitations. But the more I understand the question, the better equipped I will be to at least try to address it.

The article was titled “Letting Women Reach Women in Afghan War.” It talks about how the American military is using new strategies in “cultural awareness.” In a forward-thinking experiment, they are deploying highly trained “female engagement teams” that will accompany men patrolling in rural Afghanistan. The women in these teams hope to win over the women who are culturally off limits to outside men, especially foreign male soldiers.

To quote form the article:

…officers say that you cannot gain the trust of the Afghan population if you only talk to half of it…..
….. A team is to arrive in a village, get permission from the male elder to speak with the women, settle into a compound, hand out school supplies and medicine, drink tea, make conversation and, ideally, get information about the village, local grievances and the Taliban….
…. once inside an Afghan compound, and with Marine guards posted outside, they have been instructed, assuming they feel safe, to remove their rifles and take off their intimidating “battle rattle” of helmets and body armor.
…. also been told to be sensitive to local custom and to wear head scarves under their helmets or, if that is too hot and unwieldy, to keep the scarves around their necks and use them to cover their heads once their helmets are off inside.

Read the full article at:

Then I noted the article was by Elisabeth Bumiller. She wrote one of the most important books that I read when I was starting my project on globalization in South Asia. It is titled: May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India. The subtitle is what is key. Not only did Bumiller help me better understand the lives and experiences of women in India, but, she did that by taking me into places I could never go as a man.

Despite all my time in India (and my access to people and the culture via my Indian wife) there still are many places I just cannot go and situations I just cannot access. My gender, which sometimes is a limitation, often helps me, in India and in the third world, especially among men. Similarly, being an obviously foreign in India usually helps me as well, because foreigners, especially those of European descent are given an extra wide berth.

I was then thinking about the female Marines in Afghanistan gaining access to the real decision-makers in that country. That led me to think of the many women I met and photographed in India. Finally, I zeroed in on two of the most compelling situations I ever photographed in India, both of which focused on women. One explored the darker side of life and the other focused on the better side of humanity. One succeeded photographically and one did not. Any guesses which made the best picture?

In 2001, I spent a day on the burn ward of a hospital in Bangalore, India, photographing burn victims. The vast majority of patients there were young women. So many young women were there that I went out of my way to verify what I had previously read, by taking with a couple doctors. They both told me the same thing, that the young women were likely victims of what are called dowry burnings or bride burnings. According to Wikipedia:

Bride-burning is a form of domestic violence practiced in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and other countries located on or around the Indian subcontinent. A category of dowry death, bride-burning occurs when a young woman is murdered by her husband or his family for her family’s refusal to pay additional dowry. The wife is typically doused with kerosene, gasoline, or other flammable liquid, and set alight, leading to death by fire.

Read more at:

Making that photograph was particularly difficult for me and yet doing so was important. With the expansion of globalization in South Asia, the demand for dowries and the size of the dowries being demanded have both increased. The photograph of the victim of a dowry burning was the worst example of the negative impact of globalization that I saw while working on the project. That image, exploring the darker side of life, is last one on the page at:
By comparison, the image that I made at about the same time, which focused on the better side of humanity, is not even on my site. The situation I was photographing was very compelling. The importance of the issue was equally obvious to me. Yet, I did not make a particularly powerful photograph that day, especially compared to the photograph of the dowry-burning victim.
The issue I was photographing was Mid-day Meal programs. According to Wikipedia:

The Mid-day Meal Program is the popular name for school meal program in India. It involves provision of lunch free of cost to school-children on all working days. The key objectives of the program are: protecting children from classroom hunger, increasing school enrolment and attendance, improved socialization among children belonging to all castes, addressing malnutrition, and social empowerment through provision of employment to women. The success of this scheme is illustrated by the tremendous increase in the school participation and completion rates in the state where it originated.

Read more at:

To see what I tried to do (but did not particularly succeed at) look at the large image at That image and the first of the smaller images are from that day’s photographing.

The really compelling part of mid-day meals is how these simple meals can essentially save young girls in India. In poor families in India, if only one child is to be sent to school, boys are given preference. If, on the other hand, the school feeds all children who attend, suddenly parents have a new and highly effective incentive to send all their children, including the girls, to school. These programs are the first steps in a long slow process of empowering women across India.

One, purely personal, reason I found the mid-day meals program so compelling was that I kept thinking of my own daughter who was about the same age. Frankly, it horrified me that her gender could be the thing that determined whether she was fed or schooled.

I suspect that my own emotional approach to the image actually interfered with my ability to make a compelling photograph of an important social program. I also think that photographing a positive experience (or idea) is usually much harder than photographing a negative one. Women on burn wards (horrific as their situations are) make more compelling images than school-girls who are slowly building a future that otherwise might have been denied them.

At the end of this exercise in looking back at my images and my process, I realized that, like most photographers, I find the images of negative topics compelling, but we need to be discussing things that can be done to improve things as much or more than just pointing out what is wrong. This issue is a long-time dilemma for photographers in general and photojournalists in particular. I certainly have encountered it before and expect to encounter it again. I am hoping that multi-media, with audio/narration will enable me to tell stories that are more nuanced. Whether I can actually do that (or if anyone will publish/see those finished pieces) is a question that only will be answered in the future.

The recent photographs of the female Marines going into the villages of Afghanistan in their new roles were not all that compelling, but they are important ones. They tell a story of possibilities not just pointing out problems. They also explore an important historical question. If history is any indicator, the Americans, like the Russians and the British before them, have an uphill fight in Afghanistan. Superior weaponry did not work for those nations that fought in Afghanistan. Maybe, just, maybe, women as community net-workers can bring the kind of success to the American military effort that has eluded others. Again, only time will tell.

One response to “Problems and possibilities: Considering photography’s limitations”

  1. I think our task as photographers in these situations (of limited access, for instance) is to find that ‘key’ image that tells the story.

    I just had a very personally rewarding but not necessarily photographically abundant trip to India myself. I was working with a (female) physician who is concerned with the needs of prostituted women and their children. We were in some really tough places where (on a survey trip making first contact) I could not just bring out my camera. Some places I could not go because I was a man.

    I knew this going in otherwise I probably would have been very perturbed and impatient; but I realise, especially in a highly relational culture such as India, it’s imperative to make the first contacts and then build up trust. That may mean multiple trips into the same place, but will be more productive in the end (and I won’t feel like I’m just blazing in taking advantage of folk who are already abused in so many ways).

    Another thing I think we must ask is ‘what is truly compelling’; we can quickly fall into stereotypical shots of ‘children with flies in their eyes’ when covering the situation of destitute people in third world countries. I think we sometimes need to step back and ask ourselves what image will tell the story of this person with the most dignity. Your note about ‘nuance’ resonates with me; I’m also hoping that the new tools we have available for multi-media storytelling will allow us to bring out more of the heart of an issue that might once have been lost in only a small selection of published images and captions.

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