I wrote this paper for my Pen and the Sword honors civilizations class at BYU. We had the opportunity to write about anything we wanted to talk about from the semester. We had spent class one day talking about visual representation of war, and it got me really thinking about some of the lessons I learned about photography while on my field study in Ghana in the summer of 2011. These lessons I explored through Myra, my photographer avatar, or the way I chose to mediate my experience on that given day. I just thought including this paper here would be a nice conclusion on some of the thoughts I have about photographic representation and the ethical dilemma I ran into.
“Take” A Picture:
How Photography can be a Vehicle for Peace
On March 29, 1993 Kevin Carter’s infamous photograph, an emaciated child being stalked by a vulture (Appendix 1), showed up in the New York Times to document the civil war going on in Sudan (Lorchspecial A3).The response from the readers was overwhelming.People from all over the world called in wondering who the starving child was, what happened to her, and why the photographer did not help her. A few months later, just after winning the prestigious Puzzler Prize for the image, Carter committed suicide at the age of 33, unable to live with the things that he had seen and photographed in his troubled world (Macleod).
There are many benefits associated with photography that other mediums do not offer so readily. However, if we look at Carter’s story, the ethics of photographic representation are seriously called into question. On one side of the issue, we have the irate callers who blamed Carter for not saving the girl and for so heartlessly abandoning her, but on the other side we have the overwhelming response in general to an article that might not have been given a second glance had there been no photograph of the crisis in Sudan. This story is a useful example of the current tension that seems so representative of the field of photography, and it is a conflict I have certainly experienced personally as a professional photographer. Despite these concerns, I argue that photography can be an extremely viable medium to bring about peace, but only if certain limitations are acknowledged and fundamental rules observed. First, a photograph must be recognized within its limitations and problems as a medium, and second, we need to understand what the process is to improve the authenticity of a photograph and ethically represent the subjects. Last, I will address my personal experience as a photographer dealing with these tensions. By coming to terms with these three points, we can better understand how and why photography can be used to bring peace and raise awareness. In order to acknowledge that photography can bring about peace, we must first recognize some of the problems that are inherent within photography in order to place this medium within its proper scope. Three main concerns to acknowledge are the distance a camera creates with the photographer and subject, the question of authentic representation, and the motivations behind taking the photograph.
One major predicament to consider that could potentially discredit photography as a vehicle for peace if not properly understood is that a camera serves are a barrier between the photographer and the subject. Generally, you cannot photograph and be actively involved with the subject at the same time. You sacrifice experience for the sake of representing it. If we refer back to Carter’s story, this was one of the main reasons why he received such a negative response from the viewers of his photograph. Carter clearly had some pent up guilt to wrestle with about his infamous photograph, but that was just the pinnacle of a lifelong career photographing terrible situations. Why then, so many asked, did he not put down the camera and save the girl if he was so determined to bring about peace and awareness of human suffering? He scared off the vulture, but that was not enough. In fact, he waited several seconds hoping that the vulture would spread its wings as a nice pose for the picture. It was unsettling and revolting to many of the people who saw that picture that anyone could be so heartless.Many also accused Carter of doing it solely for professional benefit for his portfolio (Macleod). This was the problem that most of the public found with him, and it is a problem that all of us have to come to terms with. Is it better to take the picture to carry it off and share it with the world, or is it more realistic and beneficial to do your part and help where you can instead of hiding behind the lens? The tension there was certainly something that Carter felt, and it was one of the main components that lead to his eventual suicide. If there is anything to learn from his story, it is that there is something to be said about distancing yourself from the situation with a camera. You are automatically removing yourself from the situation by placing a camera between you and the subject.
In addition to the problem of distance, another serious problem that we need to understand when it comes to taking a photograph with peace in mind is question of authentic representation. Although pictures are worth “a thousand words,” it does not necessarily mean that those are the right words. Representation is especially tricky with photography because most people assume that because there is something real that it is somehow more factual than a painting or some other type of artistic medium. However, there is certainly a creative process that goes on when taking a photograph that too few are aware of. With every photograph the photographer must pick an angle, a shutter speed, and an aperture. It is shot completely from his or her perspective, and there are several different ways that the photographer can manipulate the aperture and shutter speed in order to make a statement. They have the power to include and exclude, crop and focus, and whenever this process goes on, there is something that is always going to be left out—a certain piece that is not being represented. When we look at an image, we never know what is outside the frame that has been left unsaid. All we have is one tiny snapshot, taken of a moment of usually well under one second, and yet it is still considered incredibly authentic.
Something else to keep in mind when it comes to peace photography, especially with the digital age, is that photo manipulation has never been easier or more realistic looking. While it is still looked down upon in main stream photojournalism, it is still something to be mindful of. A classic example of this problem was in 2006 when Adnan Hajj, a Beirut-based freelance photographer photographing the ongoing fighting in Leanon, was fired for manipulating at least two photographs for the press. The most famous example was his photograph depicting the aftermath of an Israeli air strike of suburbia Beirut, but he used Photoshop to make the smoke clouds darker (Appendix B). He used this to make the photograph more dramatic, and in the end he lost his job for his actions(“Altered Images Prompt Photographer’s Firing”).This incident cannot help but make us wonder how often this actually occurs in the news and photojournalism. It is something to keep in mind whenever we are evaluating a photograph in terms of promoting peace.
If we are to take peace photography seriously, there are several more concerns about representation that we have to acknowledge. Another intriguing point is brought up by Diana Eck her book Darsan, which looks specifically at the role of the image and photographic interpretation in India, a society very much concerned with artistic representation. She says that “it has sometimes been claimed that the photograph is a kind of universal language,” but that this is not accurate, because even if a photograph is worth a thousand words, we still “need to know which thousand words.” She goes on to say that “every photograph and film raises the question of point-of-view and perspective—both that of the maker and that of the viewer.” Not only does it do that, but it also “raises the question of meaning” and of “obstruction.” (Eck 16). Essentially what she argues is that there is something very dangerous about assuming that a photograph is completely truthful, and that something is always lost when it is removed from its proper context.
Eck, however, is not the first one to have thought of the problems of representation when it comes to photography. Another important voice associated with this topic is Walter Benjamin. In his collection of essays, entitled Illuminations, he questioned the viability of photography as a medium at all. He argues that photography is the quintessential postmodern medium because each photograph has no relation to an original. They are all copies, immediately translated light fragments as soon as the shutter snaps. He suggests that by having a medium that was made solely for the purpose of being mass reproduced that we might be losing on something that the other traditional mediums possessed—namely authenticity. He says that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” and that the translation has no regard or relation to the original (Benjamin 220). In terms of photographic representation bringing about peace, this concept of authenticity must be properly understood in order to make educated decisions about what the photograph is really communicating.
Now some of these problems could seem a little too theoretical, but there are also some practical examples and concrete points that William Allard, a famous National Geographic photographer, says about his photography as a vehicle for bringing about peace and cultural awareness. He encourages all people who view his image galleries to think about the word “take” in “taking a picture” (“William Albert Allard”).In many ways it is very fitting because he says that is what we do when we take pictures. We take, maybe even steal, these images and carry them off to do what we will with them.If we are thinking about photography as a vehicle for peace, this is something we definitely must keep in mind if we are to be doing more than just furthering professional careers. Any time it is possible to give back to the people, we should.Ideally the photograph can do it for itself. In Allard’s case, he took a photograph of a young Ecuadorian boy just after half his family’s sheep, their sole source of income, were hit by a passing car (Appendix C). The look on the boys face really touched people to the point that many people donated the money to replace those sheep and more. However, if we are not giving back or generating awareness with photographs, it is a difficult question that we have to ask ourselves. Is this really promoting peace, or is it just for personal gain or strictly documentation purposes?
However, despite all of the problems associated with photography and peace building, there are definitely ways to combat these problems and to improve the way we represent these particular people, places, and events. We have explored the importance of acknowledging the true nature of the photograph in order to exercise proper skepticism, but there are certainly ways to further improve the authenticity of photographic representation. One of the best ways to improve the process of photo taking is to gain sufficient rapport with the people you are working with. Stephanie Sinclair, another photographer for National Geographic, is an excellent example of this. She was assigned to photograph the FLDS community—a population that had received a lot of criticism in the press right around the time she was assigned the project. In an interview with NPR, Stephanie admitted that it took her eight months to gain access and the trust of the community before she could really capture the images that she needed. It seems like an extensive amount of time, however, once she had gained the sufficient rapport she was able to photograph certain ceremonies and events that no one, not even FLDS members, were able to photograph. She had to go through several gatekeepers to get to that point, including their prophet at the time, but you can tell what a big difference it made by just looking at her phenomenal images. The photos make it look like she was just a fly on the wall (Appendix D). This is a near impossible task for someone walking around with a clunky professional camera, but by genuinely caring about the people and getting to know them before shooting her project, she was able to get something that meant a lot more (“Picturing Polygamy in America.”).
In addition to building appropriate rapport, another way to improve the medium of photography and to enable it to be a medium to bring about awareness and peace is to try to be as authentic as possible when representing whatever it is you are photographing. Like Eck and Benjamin’s commentaries we looked at earlier, there are a lot of problems that we need to be mindful of when it comes to representation—problems that we must keep in mind so that we exercise proper skepticism. However, there are definitely ways that we can ensure that a photograph is more authentic. A lot of this is found in the post-camera stage, such as the digital darkroom we all know as Photoshop. Many news agencies and magazines only use raw footage and film because there is something to be said about an image straight out of the camera. While it is impossible, as Benjamin said, to have that truly authentic photograph, there are certain ways to ensure that we are being as ethical about that representation as we can. One of the best ways to ensure that this is the case is to do minimal retouching.
Another way to improve peace photography is to get the appropriate permissions. This is easier said than done, especially when photographing busy streets and large crowds. However, verbal consent is very important to get whenever possible. In recent times, there is more of a push towards getting written consent, particularly within ethics review boards, such as the IRB, to ensure that the human subject’s rights are protected and that they are ethically represented. Without this written consent, there are all kinds of legal ramifications if the photograph becomes an object for career advancement or monetary gain. There is a lot of discussion about this particular point right now, and it will be interesting to see how these changes will impact future photojournalism.
Appropriately wielding the medium of photography to bring about peace has been something very heavy on my mind, particularly because of the personal experiences I have had as a professional photographer.In the summer of 2010 I went to Ghana, Africa for four months in search of my own National Geographic picture. Looking back, I was very naïve about what I was doing. I slung my professional Nikon D700over my neck, packed a couple of Ziploc’s for a water resistant case, assumed that Ghana would pose before my lens, and never doubted that I would come back with thousands of stellar images for my portfolio. This illusion did not hold up long. I ran into all kinds of obstacles trying to capture that image I thought I had set out for.
What I found when I got there was surprising. I felt awkward and imposing. I could not speak the language, and I did not feel right about “taking” images as William Allard suggested. One day when I was photographing some local children a woman approached me and asked me why I was photographing the children. I told her in my broken Twi, the local language, that I thought they were adorable and that I wanted to share that with others. She was not convinced. I found out later that she went to one of my fellow field study students and told her that I was taking pictures so that I could go home and show my friends and family so that we could all laugh at the pathetic lives of Africans. This story broke my heart and shattered my enthusiasm for taking pictures. It really got me thinking about the difficult questions I had not asked myself before. Why was I taking pictures? What was I going to do with them? How was I going to give back? What were my images saying?
Weeks after this event, I got reluctantly got my camera out again. I went to a neighboring village, Sophia Line, to accompany a friend for a few interviews. I was stunned by what I saw there. I was already living in a rural village with, obviously, limited resources such as electricity and running water, but Sophia Line was something else altogether. I think I felt something very similar to how Kevin Carter might have felt taking that picture of the little girl and the vulture. I saw things that will haunt me for the rest of my life—images that will never leave my dreams. The villagers were just there. Standing there, sick and emaciated from having no medical facility, inadequate food supplies, and no safe water. First they asked for monetary help—money, which as a student I did not have, and could not give anyways because it was against my program rules. But then they asked me something else that surprised me. I was asked to take pictures—to use the camera that I hauled across several continents in the worst of circumstances to “show America what life is like in Sophia Line”so that they might be reminded of their suffering and, “with God’s grace, help.”
I took more pictures that day than I had taken my entire summer in Ghana. Some of these pictures turned out great, maybe even hit close to the National Geographic image I was originally hunting, but still I am apprehensive about them. While most remain unedited and untouched on my computer, a select few have been sent off to various photography contests and magazines, some of which I have been recognized for (Appendix E). Yet there is still a knot in my stomach. I think of the people in Sophia Line and I start asking the difficult questions. I am still asking why I took the photographs, what I am saying with them, and what I am doing with them, but now I am confronted with a bigger question; is my photography helping to promote peace by raising awareness, or would I, like Carter, be criticized for doing this to advance my career? In the long run, is my work making the difference I want it to make?
In conclusion, photography is a unique medium that has great potential to bring about peace in a unique way that other mediums cannot. There is a certain immediacy about it that transcends cultures, language barriers, and conflict to remind us that we are all human in the end. As visually oriented beings, there is untold power in the visual rhetoric of an emotionally charged image. However, with this great potential comes a serious responsibility to understand the true nature of this medium. In order to really understand peace photography, we must first acknowledge that there are many problems associated with the medium, but also that there are certain ways that we must strive to combat those limitations to the best of our abilities. Through my eye opening experience in Ghana, I have since thought a substantial amount about these very issues we have examined. This summer I am going to try another photography project in Dharamsala, India, but this time I plan to incorporate some of the lessons that I have learned from this research and through my last field work experience. I think that Kevin Carter was really onto something. Though he is bound to be criticized for his work, in the end it turns out his worst critic was himself. If he was still alive, I would love to sit down and have a conversation about some of the problems he encountered and why it was that he could not live with his work. Though the problems are limitless, there are also many ways to improve peace photography to make a powerful medium for good. I am hopeful that this next time around I will be able to take what I have learned and hopefully find a picture that can help me make the difference I want to make in the world.
“Altered Images Prompt Photographer’s Firing.” msnbc.msn.com. Associated Press, 8 Jul. 2006 Web. 28 Mar. 2011.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1968. Print.
Eck, Diana L. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Print.
Lorchspecial, Donatella. “Sudan is Described as Trying to Placate the West.” New York Times 26 Mar. 1993: A3. Print.
Macleod, Scott. “The Life and Death of Kevin Carter.” Time Inc. Time Mag., 12 Sep. 1994. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.
“Picturing Polygamy in America.”npr.org. NPR, 17 Feb. 2010 Web. 15 Mar. 2011.
“William Albert Allard.” nationalgeographic.com. National Geographic, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2011.
Appendix A: Photograph by Kevin Carter of vulture and child
Appendix B: Photograph by Adnan Hajj, Photoshopped difference between original and printed image of the aftermath of bombing in Leanon
Appendix C: Photograph by William Allard of boy who lost his sheep
Appendix D: Photograph by Stephanie Sinclair of FLDS community
Appendix E: “Girl With a Belly,” My photograph of a girl from Sophia Line that won an honorable mention in the Kennedy Center Photo Contest