The BBC News In Pictures blog today ran an online gallery of photographs from Turkana in Kenya, by award-winning photographer Alejandro Chaskielberg, apparently comssioned by Oxfam. The BBC ran them under the headline In Pictures: Combating drought in the Horn of Africa. I’ve added a question mark to this in the title of this blog post very deliberately – because I want to ask whether Combating drought in the Horn of Africa is really what these pictures show us.
One of the interesting things about these images is that they were all shot at night. Chaskielberg’s technique of working at night, using long exposures, moonlight and artificial lighting to illuminate his subjects, won him the Sony World Photography award last year, for a series of images of islanders in the Parana river delta in Argentina. For that reason alone they fall into my interesting occasional blog topic about photography being about things we can’t see. Another point of interest is that a colleague of mine also visited Turkana recently, with Oxfam and produced a very different report in almost exactly the same place, about exactly the same issues. You can see it here.
But one of the other most interesting things about Chaskielberg’s images is that they were commissioned by Oxfam. I think that this represents something of a departure for an NGO like Oxfam, as a means of communicating photographically about emergency response work – perhaps a welcome one, but perhaps not. Let me explain.
We’ve come to expect ‘photojournalistic’ images from NGOs, to tell us a ‘truth’ about what we’re witnessing – even if we know that that ‘truth’ often has an ulterior motive (whether it’s to prompt us to act, to donate, to support or to share). Images produced for or by NGOs are rarely put into the public sphere purely to inform us objectively.
Chaskielberg’s images take us into somewhat different territory. Part art, part photojournalism, part intervention, partly choreographed, they run the risk of becoming the story themselves, of obscuring the story that Oxfam presumably wants to us to hear and agree with (about the fantastic work that they’re doing in Turkana to alleviate the impact of the current drought and mitigate the risks of future ones).
Perhaps there’s something in the treatment that jars a little – the captions tell a slightly different story to the pictures, referring to (but not providing a link to) an (admittedly) related Oxfam/Save the Children story about how the crisis in the Horn of Africa might have been avoidable had the world reacted sooner. Some of the images aren’t captioned with any contextual information about the subjects either, although they all feature either individuals, families or groups. There’s also something coldly ‘anthropological’ about the images which I find slightly unsettling.
The BBC’s picture editor, Phil Coomes, tackles some of these questions in his blogged interview with Chaskielberg, to which Chaskielberg’s response is:
“I would like to break with the idea that a beautiful picture of a hurtful situation detracts from its message or documentary value.
“All realities have light and shade and nothing determines that photographing in a tough way would offer a clearer message; it is just a decision of the artist who is trying to communicate an idea.
“Famine in East Africa is a painful reality of a preventable catastrophe, but even in this situation people love, desire and dream of a better future.
“I find myself as a classic photographer using film cameras interested in photographic techniques and portraiture. My intention is to highlight a hopeful vision of the present, showing people’s strength and to inspire the viewer that a change is possible.”
Coomes comes down on the photographer’s side, but I’m not so sure. There’s no doubt they are stunning images, photographs that show us a very different view of a challenging story and a challenging situation. And Oxfam are to be congratulated for trying to use creative photography to help them tell a story. But do these images really tell us about how Oxfam is combating drought in the Horn of Africa? Or do they just intrude on people’s privacy and suffering for the sake of a clever photographic technique and some good PR coverage? I’m playing devil’s advocate here a little of course; I don’t know the answers, and I’m not criticising Chaskielberg, Oxfam, or Phil. I’m just not sure this is way to tell these kinds of stories In Pictures.
You can see more of Chaskielberg’s images, read interview and even watch a behind the scenes film on the BBC In Pictures blog. I’m interested to hear what others think?