Exposing truth or exploiting the powerless: what are the ethical issues around representation in photography?
This was one of the thought-provoking and wide-ranging questions put to an ‘open table’ debate that I chaired as part of the PhotoVoice Photographic Images Changing Society Festival in London yesterday.
I wasn’t quite sure how to tackle this question in the 45 minutes allowed, but as luck would have it, the photojournalist Jenny Matthews, the former Sky digital news editor Neal Mann (@fieldproducer) and the executive director of UNICEF, Tony Lake, all unwittingly came to my rescue just in time.
Jenny was presenting another session at the festival, on visual literacy and reading photographs. She’d come armed with dozens of double page spreads from the Guardian’s Eyewitness series, and was kind enough to lend me the one pictured above – showing a series of photographs by another photojournalist, Robin Hammond, depicting Mogadishu in Somalia, at the height of last year’s food crisis in the Horn of Africa.
You can see Hammond’s pictures much better on the Guardian’s website, although it’s their particular presentation in the paper that I found interesting. Hammond’s decision to shoot in black and white is reminiscent of photojournalism from an earlier era, and strikes of an aesthetic decision, which some have argued has no place in the documenting of famine. I think it’s also quite unusual for the Guardian to run a black & white Eyewitness spread like this, so it stood as a perfect conversation starter.
Tony Lake’s contribution came in the form of an interview with him that was published in the Financial Times Magazine yesterday, in which he spoke about how UNICEF is no longer using images of dead or dying children in its campaigns:
“It’s exploitative. Even children one day old have the same right to privacy that we would want if we were dying”, he says in the interview by the FT’s Simon Kuper, going on to argue that showing exploitative pictures doesn’t work. “Yes, there’s a shock value to showing a child who’s about to die. God knows I’ve seen them on my travels, and I’m always shocked.” [But eventually] “the shocking image no longer shocks. If you, over a generation and more, keep showing these images, then many simply say, ‘Well it’s happening again, I’ve been sending all this money and yet they still seem to be dying.'”
Meanwhile I’d also been following Neal Mann’s reporting using social and multimedia tools only from Burkina Faso this week, on a trip to the region with the NGO Save the Children, in what both he and Save have described as an experiment to try and raise awareness of what they’ve both termed a #hiddencrisis.
Neal has been posting photos, 360 degree panoramas and audio clips to his facebook account and twitter, in as near to real time as possible over the course of a week, reporting what he’s seen and heard. They’ve also collaborated with the news-content gathering website Storyful, who’ve been working to collate the output and present it on a GoogleMap. This project has also sparked some interesting debate on the format and benefits/limitations of the media.
Of course, there are many more levels to the question of ethics/truth/exploitation than just those relating to depicting people in dire need of food and water. But it felt as though the types of imagery we tend to see at times of human disaster is at the heart of the question, so I decided to use these three examples to help frame the debate. It seemed that they collectively illustrated the question posed almost perfectly: where are the ethical lines in the shifting sands of reporting and representing those whose stories we might not otherwise see or hear?
What follows is my attempt to summarise the discussion that took place. I’ve decided to present this as a series of ‘quotes’, as I didn’t record the conversation – I was just trying to scribble down a sense of what people were saying. So the quotes are not direct or attributed, they may be paraphrased in places – but I hope they reflect an honest recollection of the conversation. If you were there and want me to correct, add or retract anything, just let me know!
It quickly became apparent that there were a range of voices and experience present around the table. It was an oddly liberating feeling to stand in front of a relatively small group of strangers and try to get them talking to each other about something at once both complex and simple. Luckily, two of the people there owned up to working for Oxfam and Christian Aid respectively, and I’m hugely grateful to them for their insightful input and comments.
To start things off, I related the three examples above, then asked the group to suggest some headings that question prompted to them:
Dignity, consent, justification, responsibility, understanding, compassion fatigue, shock value and awareness raising were all words or phrases that came back quickly.
“Is the reporting/treatment justifiable. Do the people being interviewed/depicted understand the process?”
“There’s a responsibility on NGOs to explain, both the people they’re depicting, and to their audiences/supporters”
“It’s difficult sometimes to be sure that people who may have low levels of literacy or little contact with the outside world, to be sure that they understand the scale on which their images might be used”
“impossible to control distribution/context/use of images when sharing them digitally on the internet”
“People being photographed don’t necessarily have an informed relationship with photography or the internet/the media”
“It’s important to see the needs and the effects – where does my money go. Donors want to see whether their help has made any difference”
“People generally want us to help tell their stories, because they need help. People often tell us even more about themselves than we want to know or want to share. We have to think carefully about how/how much of that information to use. Is it relevant to the story?”
“I always ask people if they would mind if their neighbour knows their situation/story/status? If they’re happy for the people around them to know, they’re often happy for others to know as well”
“There needs to be respectful two-way conversation.”
“There are double standards here. We wouldn’t/don’t depict people in our own country in this way, but we’re happy to take a photo of a naked child in Africa and publish it without even asking the permission of the parents”
“It depresses me and makes me angry to see famine depicted in this way [referring to the Guardian spread]. It takes us straight back to 1984. I thought we’d moved on from showing pictures like these.”
“Does compassion fatigue still exist? No, there’s a direct relationship between the types of images we use in our campaigns and the amount of money people donate. If we use traumatic images, there’s a spike in the donations.”
“We’re always thinking and trying different ways to try and tell these complex, difficult stories, for example working with celebrity/fashion photographers”
“Do the same rules apply in the UK, e.g. depicting social deprivation on a British council estate?”
“As a photographer, you need to be sure what your stance is. What message do you want to communicate, what story are you trying to tell. If you don’t know then you shouldn’t be there”
“As a photographer you need to be questioning your own motives all of the time. The worst thing would to be not questioning yourself at all”
“A good photo-essay would always show both sides of the story.”
“Captions are crucial. Photographs can be read in so many different ways, the words you write with them are so important”
“For me, this debate exposes the limitations of photography. We need to hear the voices of the people depicted. Perhaps multimedia can provide an answer to the question. I think it provides a bigger space to explore the contexts and give a voice to people in a way that still photographs can’t”
This last point came almost right at the end of the 45-minute discussion. I don’t know the guy who raised it, but I thought it was the perfect point at which to round things up, as I agree that multimedia presentations do offer photography and photographers a much greater space to explore complex stories and represent people in a much more rounded way. But it also seemed like the start of another discussion!
Many thanks to all who took part, and to PhotoVoice for organising. I hope it was useful – it certainly was to me.