Exploring our responsibility to the people we photograph (part four)

Patient readers of this blog will know this is the fourth (and last) entry in a series exploring the question, what is the photographer’s responsibility to the people they photograph? I have been muddling through these four essays because it is not an easy question to answer. Similarly, there is no magic bullet or one size fits all solution. The one thing I can say with complete certainty is that anyone who claims to have such a simple, crystal clear answer is oversimplifying, has never worked in the real world, is delusional or all of the above.

One sweeping answer some folks offer is never to take pictures of people without their permission. Nice idea, but not terribly realistic, especially for photographers who work on assignment for publications. Knowing that they will face that dilemma may scare a few photographers out of even attempting to do assignment work for publications, (which is a good thing!) Also, there are plenty of important events/issues/topics that call out for photographing, even if that goes against the subject’s wishes. My photographing of various news events early in my career sometimes went against the wishes of the people being photographed. No question. But those same people had, by accident or intention, ended up at the center of a news event.

If one applies the so-called golden rule here, then I would say something like, “No, I might not want to be photographed as the victim of some kind of horrible tragedy. But if I was that unlucky, I would both expect it to happen and begrudgingly accept the reality.” At least that is what I hope I would think…..

One strategy is collaborating with the victims of tragedy rather than confronting them. It is certainly a good idea whenever possible. One example of photographing a difficult subject successfully is seen in the work of Jonathan Torgovnik, who photographed some of the estimated 20,000 children born of rapes that occurred during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. To quote from Torgovnik’s web-site, http://www.torgovnik.com/projects/intended-consequences :

“Fifteen years later, the mothers of these children still face enormous challenges not least of which is the stigma of bearing and raising a child fathered by a Hutu militiaman. Photographer Jonathan Torgovnik has made repeated visits to Rwanda to document the stories of these women. The portraits and testimonies featured in the project “Intended Consequences” offer intensely personal and honest accounts of these survivors’ experiences of the genocide, as well as their conflicted feelings about raising a child who is a palpable reminder of horrors endured.

Another sweeping simple rule would be to pay people in order to photograph them. Journalistic tradition and ethics prohibit such behavior, for what I think are pretty good reasons. Professional journalists may work on behalf of the much-maligned “mainstream media,” but they also have either been trained (or have practical experience in the field) which will guide them. They usually can tell the story that needs to be told without paying their subjects, which inevitably changes that subject’s behavior. That changed behavior impacts the situations that ALL photographers end up photographing, so paying subjects, in cases of journalism or not, is not a viable, one size fits all option.

The one thing I will do in lieu of paying subjects is give them photos of themselves. I do this either using a PoGo Instant printer that makes prints on the spot. (I have blogged and podcasted on that already.) Or if I do not have the PoGo with me, I will get a business card from a neighborhood gathering spot such as a corner market, then I will mail prints to the shop keepers to disseminate those prints.

I am similarly opposed to so-called “citizen-journalists.” I used to be against them for economic reasons, almost irrationally fearing they might take work away from me. Now, I worry less about that than the fact that what they lack (and in comparison I have) are the accumulated experiences to guide them to do the right thing in complex ethical situations. One example is when those who are not journalistic professionals come down on the side of paying subjects (and thus altering the reality of a news event.)

Yes, I am no closer to a sweeping pronouncement answering the question, what is the photographer’s responsibility to the people they photograph? One reason this has become an ever more complex question, in my mind, is that when it comes to responsibility, many publications have abdicated their responsibility to their readers. Journalistic publications should be like leaders, occasionally telling people what they need to know rather than always pandering to what the audience thinks they want.

In publication photography, the outlet has such responsibility to its audience. I know I sound like the cranky old man but I see increasing number of examples of publications abandoning that responsibility. The most recent and egregious example was last Sunday’s (May 30th) New York Times Magazine. The cover article was on M.I.A., a Sri Lankan musician/rapper whose work aspires to mix art and politics. It is clear that the musician succeeds at stirring controversy and creating a dramatic persona. The link between her lyrics and the political realities she uses to create those same lyrics (Sri Lankan civil strife) is debatable. Too much time was spent in the article fawning over the subject’s clothes and looks. Not enough time was spent on the issues raised when art and politics intersect. Had the piece been the three page article it deserved, I would have read it and moved on, but it took up ten pages and was followed by 8 pages of vacuous images of the singer.

That article (and especially the photographic portfolio) ate up space that could have been used to tell important journalistic stories, such as the one that followed the article on the Sri Lankan rapper. That piece explored how, since 9/11, the U.S. military has awarded remarkably few Medals of Honor. The article considers the young men and woman who are dying for their country, sometimes extraordinarily heroically. Yet the military leadership won’t recognize that heroism at anywhere near the rate it previously has, with medals for valor.

Life and death mixed with heroism confronting bureaucracy. Now that’s a story, but it only merits 4 pages in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. A pop music star merits 18 pages by comparison. Maybe the Times Magazine is struggling to find a new audience. All good and well, but they better make sure they hold onto their existing audience first and not drive us away with such an imbalanced (and even insulting) issue as they published May 30th.

There are examples of important photographers who have actually taken the idea of their responsibility to their subjects (and to the stories they are trying to tell) so seriously that they have stepped back from working with publications. Most of these are photographers you have never heard of, only because leaving behind the world of publication photography is the quickest path to obscurity for an editorial photographer.

The most famous example of this is that of the war photographers Susan Meiselas and Harry Mattison. They created, published and later exhibited photos of atrocities in El Salvador and events in Nicaragua. Some of those images have been intentionally misused by publications in politically motivated articles distorting the meaning of what was shown, reframing who was responsible for which horrific acts and altering what the events collectively meant.

Meiselas has largely left the world of publication photography because of this. The work that she has done since focuses on Kurdistan where she pulled together photos from private collectors, family collections, and archives. According to the site: http://www.akakurdistan.com/kurds/exhibit/

“Juxtaposing these images with text from diaries, newspaper stories, memoirs, and telegrams, Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History let history speak for itself through the words of freedom fighters and farmers, missionaries and spies, diplomats and princes. In bringing together these dispersed pieces, Susan Meiselas gave form to a collective memory, while showing how history itself is created from differing perspectives.”

The finished Kurdistan work, which was largely within Meiselas’s control, unlike her earlier conventional publication work, “…reveals the story of the Kurdish people and their struggle for independence and survival over the past century.”

So how do I deal with the question, what is the photographer’s responsibility to the people they photograph? I start by reminding myself that, yes, most photographers I know would love to work with unlimited time and money. Similarly, it would be great if some kind of international recognition/ protection existed to make working as journalists easier. But the reality is that the best photographers are usually not the ones with he biggest budgets, but rather the ones with the most creative abilities to solve problems. Building another agency with another bureaucracy (ie: the United Nations) will get probably me no closer to where I want to be as a photographer. What will help me is to:

• Start with an idea offered by Jason Nicholas, which turns the copyright logo protecting photographers “all rights reserved,” on its head. He suggested making it a sign of respect for my subjects by saying, “all rights respected,” where all the rights of the photographed, the photographer, and viewer were respected in a given image.

• Think about the proposed Hippocratic oath for photographers proposed by Jason Nicholas that would start with the idea of “First do no harm.” I also keep in mind the idea behind the golden rule of …”doing to others as you would like to have done to yourself.”

• Draw on my experiences (and the experiences of others that I know or the experiences of others that I have read about) in order to create strategy that will respect the individuals photographed as well as the truth of the situation I am exploring, while being true to myself.

• Develop a clear and rational perspective on the final outlet(s) for the work. The more input I have on the final dissemination, the more I trust that the final product will do the important things I need it to do; respect the individuals photographed as well as the truth of the situation I am exploring. The less trust I have in the final publication, the more careful I try to be about what work I give them. I always take all the photographs I can in a given situation. I edit carefully in terms of what I do or do not offer less reliable end-users. That control is an important component in terms of being true to myself.

All in all, if you want an easy answer, buy a lottery ticket. If you want a complex dilemma, try figuring out what is the photographer’s responsibility to the people they photograph? Patient readers are a little closer to answering the big question, having read four blog entries. These entries and the experiences of others should help equip them better for future situations. Especially as compared to other photographer who have not prepared themselves. That alone should make the effort worthwhile AND make you a better photographer.

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