Storytelling across divides: perils and necessity

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Migrant_Mother.jpgThe Code of Conduct of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies decrees, in its tenth and final point, that, "In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects.

The principle distills general anxiety about interactions between powerful storytellers and powerless subjects.  Such anxiety is neither new nor unjustified.  In an article in The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Raban describes the Farm Security Administration's (FSA) photographic propaganda work as follows:

the owner of the camera was rich beyond the dreams of the people in the viewfinder, whose images were used by the government both to justify its Keynesian economic policy and to raise private funds for the relief of dispossessed flood victims, sharecroppers, and migrant farm workers.
Obviously, storytellers engaging in such interactions should act with a consciousness of the risks and an acceptance of responsibility for the outcome.  Nonetheless, despite the risks, such interactions are not merely worth undertaking, but critical.

Without such interactions, of course, fund-raising for relief efforts is much harder.  But that explanation does not make such interactions critical.  Rather, such interactions are critical because engagement with the world, and everything in it, is a moral responsibility.  Yet a paradox exists: engagement with any "other" or "unknown" is difficult to achieve without doing more harm than good. 

If war and enslavement is on the negative end of the spectrum of engagements with "others," and colonialism is somewhat more towards the center of the spectrum but still on the negative side of the balance, then photographing the dispossessed for humanitarian purposes (or engaging in any type of storytelling about disadvantaged peoples) must be on the positive end (although, again, not without its risks).  Indeed, undertaking the empathetic leap to tell the story of an "other" (in whatever medium) is possibly our safest and most promising tool for engagement. 

Sunita.jpg Full disclosure:  I take photos for humanitarian purposes (examples right and below).  I have found the experience uniformly rewarding.  Usually I am able to ask permission before I take photos, and where possible I know the subject's name and rudiments of his or her life.  Very often, the subjects request that I take the photo, either verbally or by appearing before the camera and posing.

Although I cannot speak for the subjects of my photos, what feedback I have received has been positive.  In my experience taking such pictures, I have typically been photographing individuals who have either never been photographed before, or who have been photographed only rarely.  Some have indicated to me that being photographed gives them a sense of importance as well as excitement to join that part of humanity that has appeared in photographs.  Many smile or laugh upon seeing their photos.  I have felt the satisfaction of having made a contribution to my subjects' enjoyment of their lives. 

Maharashtra_boys.jpgIn the case of photos I have taken, the subjects have only rarely seen the end products in which their pictures appear (brochures, online stories, etc.).  In the instances in which they have seen themselves in fund raising and knowledge awareness materials, they have been pleased.

That said, I have never taken a photograph that has been worth any amount of money or garnered any fame.  Such events tend to change the calculus.  Florence Thompson, depicted in Dorothea Lange's photograph "Migrant Mother" (first photograph above), ultimately objected to circulation of the photograph for reasons that appear to have to do with the class disparity between herself and Lange (although Lange didn't own the copyright to the photo and made no money off its reprints).

Kevin_Carter_photo_vulture_and_starving_child.jpg And although the female subject of Kevin Carter's photograph of a starving Sudanese child and a hovering vulture (right) never complained, Carter was harshly condemned for snapping pictures instead of helping the little girl more directly.  After winning the Pulitzer in 1994 for the photograph, Carter committed suicide.

But iconic imagery is a bad baseline for the vast majority of interactions involving powerful storytellers and powerless subjects.  When images become iconic, they represent concepts greater than either the subject or the photographer, and control of the image transitions from model and photographer to the public. 

Although the fallout of that shift in power may usually be worse for the less empowered subject (e.g., Florence Thompson) than for the more empowered photographer (e.g., Dorothea Lange), the fundamental problem is not that the photographer somehow exploited the subject at the time of the photograph, but that exposure (through fame or otherwise) is terrible to bear.  Few have the capacity for it: Florence Thompson didn't; but neither did Kevin Carter.

Blaming the photographer for this outcome is neither productive nor fair.  A photographer (or any storyteller) has a very limited tool at his or her disposal.  A means of telling a story may be our safest and most promising means of engagement, but it does not include protection from the aftermath of that story's circulation, nor does it include a guarantee of reward should the story prove profitable. 

Even a storyteller's responsibility for the outcome of the interaction with the "other" cannot extend beyond circumstances in the storyteller's personal control.  When an image becomes iconic, the photographer has lost whatever control he or she had over the image's use and message and cannot be accountable for the actions of unrelated third parties or the public at large.   

We can condemn the storyteller for not doing enough (e.g., snapping pictures instead of feeding the child).  But ultimately such criticisms are hypocritical.  The storyteller, after all, was (among other tasks) fulfilling a moral obligation to engage the world, while most often the critic was doing substantially less.  

Moreover, the storyteller's engagement produced a lasting contribution to our collective imagination and awareness.  We are richer for the storyteller's efforts. 

Rather than criticizing the storyteller, then, perhaps efforts should be directed to compensating (or feeding) the subject of the story.  Or critics should get off their asses and try engaging the world themselves.

(Dorothea Lange's photo "Migrant Mother" from Wikimedia Commons; Kevin Carter's photo of a collapsed Sudanese girl and a waiting vulture from the Pulitzer Prize website)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on March 14, 2010 4:40 AM.

"Pole pole": the Tao of Mount Kilimanjaro was the previous entry in this blog.

Way too modern is the next entry in this blog.

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