Duckrabbit’s recent post was timely, as I was thinking through the following ‘stuff’ and wondering whether it was worth the time to articulate it. And thanks to duck and Joel I will. This subject is central also to this post by Jenny Pollard which duckrabbit has just linked to, and it’s really important so by linking to it here it saves my long post from losing it further down the page. Please read Jenny’s post then read my words here. I apologise that this is a rather long post (again).
I enjoy the stories of people’s lives, and my varied work career (with several different jobs overlapping with my thirty-five years of professional photography) has offered some interesting insights into areas of other folk’s lives that many people are perhaps denied. Areas where perceptions of a ‘reality’ vary, and the trajectories of differing experiences and aspirations intersect, and sometimes collide.
I think when you are a photographer no matter what else you might do, you are always an observer.
I worked in Social Work with a lovely gentleman, Sandy, for over a decade. I use the word ‘gentleman’ deliberately – Sandy was polite, gracious, curious and possessed of a great sense of humour, and was a remarkably gentle man. His ‘story’ is interesting. He’d been ‘discovered’ living in a remote rural cottage with his very elderly and infirm mother in the big snows that hit Scotland in the 1960’s when a RAF rescue helicopter airlifted them to safety. Apparently overlooked by the authorities and judged to have a ‘mental handicap’ he was put into long-term institutional care and stayed there for over 25 years. Released into the community under Community Care legislation, he came into the Centre I worked in, and my colleagues and I commenced the long careful process of introducing Sandy to the delights of life in the real world.
Sandy embraced this. We got him to try skiing which he wasn’t too keen on, a range of crafts activities which he was very fond of, but his great love was open canoeing, something he’d never ever before experienced and which he came to love. It was a tense relationship though, his love of canoes tempered by an overwhelming fear of drowning, but he partly overcame this fear with some hilarious practice sessions in our local pool as the virtues of buoyancy aids became apparent to him. He loved to camp too, but never ever trusted camp stoves though, after a ‘training session’ we’d arranged where despite being told the risks of doing so, he mistakenly poured meths spirit from a 1 litre alloy fuel bottle onto a lit trangia stove. There followed the loud and unmistakable baritone ‘CRUMP’ of a mortar being fired, as the meths bottle ignited in his hand and roared off in a long smoking flaming arc, landing over 50 feet away! Thankfully it missed all of the various onlookers, but left Sandy ashen faced and terrified, and it would be fair to say imbued with a far greater respect for meths stoves than he’d had previously! We had lots of laughs with him for years afterwards over this incident.
Having his own home, and making his own way in the community with support when required, Sandy was a well known face around the town, and he was a regular church attender. One day a couple of TV production folks turned up at our Centre to speak to me. The producer and director of a popular religious programme which visits a town, features the local church and the community that supports it, and broadcast this as a 30 minute feel-good Sunday evening show.
My exchange with them went something like this:
Tv man 1 – hello we’re doing a show on the local community and ******** Church. We’ve heard that Sandy attends this church and we’d like to feature him in the programme. Me – that excellent. How do you intend to portray Sandy? Tv man 1 – well we’ll say Mr * is a man with a mental handicap and a learning difficulty attending a day centre and then we can explore the things he does in the community, it’ll be very good for him. Me – I see. Can you explain to me why you think that this will be good for him? Tv man – well it’s a good thing to show the community the different people that live there. Me – I’m afraid I’m not comfortable with you labeling Sandy as a man with mental handicap and learning difficulties. We’ve spent over ten years carefully introducing Sandy to the community on the basis of all the positive things Sandy is capable of, and I fear that the stigma attached to ‘mental handicap’ will jeopardize that, and could affect Sandy’s current ease of movement in this community which we and particularly he, have worked hard to achieve. Tv man 2 – no you don’t understand, it’s important that people know these things. It helps them understand you see. Me – yes I agree, but people who have taken the time to get to know Sandy may already know his history, but there are many other people he interacts with on a daily basis who have no idea about his past, he’s just a man they accept and act normally towards, and that’s really important for Sandy. Tv man 2 – no, no we need to say he has a learning difficulty, but that he has been accepted by the community despite that. Me – so you think that by pointing out he’s ‘different’ from everyone else that will somehow help him become accepted? By all means feature Sandy, but please do so without saying he has a ‘problem’. Tv man 1 (getting exasperated, now starting to patronise me, and speaking in a condescending tone) – you don’t understand, it’s important that people know these things, that there are those amongst us who have problems they can overcome with help from the community. It’s also about ethics and I suppose also honesty, as broadcasters we need to be truthful and accurate, and be honest with people. Me – ah ethics! I see. Can I ask something – it’s the ***** Church you’re featuring, and the Reverend ******** who’ll be the main character, is that right? Tv man 2 – yes that’s correct, why? Me – well if you intend introducing Sandy as ‘a man with a mental handicap’ I hope you’ll be introducing the minster as “the Reverend ********, alcoholic and occasional wife beater.” It’s well-known locally that he has a wee bit of a drink problem and occasionally smacks his wife. Tv man 1 and 2 – What! Thats absurd! Thats….thats….(then silence). Me – well you know, ethics, journalistic integrity, and what was it you said “we need to show that different people live in the community, some have problems they have to overcome, and can do so with help from the community”? What could be better than the community reaching out to their minister and helping him to overcome his demons. What a lovely thing for a parish to do don’t you think. I’m sure no-one will think ill of him, and it may actually provide some spiritual sustenance to him.
Cue red faces, and stony silence. To cut the longer story short, they were distinctly unhappy, made their feelings towards me and my suggestion quite clear and departed in a state of ill-disguised indignation. We heard no more from them about their broadcast.
And Sandy continued to enjoy the experience of community living until his untimely death a decade later. By which time he’d canoed down several rivers, made it across numerous big scary peaty-black highland lochs, and camped in more than a few midge-infested woodlands, and shopped for himself, by himself, in the supermarket, all with a broad smile on his face and with no further exploding stove fiascoes. And I’m happy to report he never once needed his buoyancy aid.
And it was very moving that at the end of his life the church was filled for his funeral, with a broad range of people whose lives he had touched, many who knew his history and a great many more who did not. Come to bid farewell, not to a man with learning difficulties or a mental handicap for whom they felt sorry, but to a man who had become their friend.
As photographers we point our cameras at people all the time. We record people who have a story that they might wish to tell, and occasionally need to tell, a story that defines them in some way, the events of a life lived. But sometimes they have a story that only defines a small part of their lives, one that is now simply a fragment of their history. Their new story, still being written, is what matters and should be respected.
I think we owe it to people to be careful in our portrayal of them and not exploit only a part of their (hi)story that suits our needs. Its the things that are important to our subjects that should define them, not the things that are important to we camera-toting observers. And sometimes these things are all about aspiration and where a life might go to, and the fact is we can help or hinder that process by what we portray as ‘the truth’ about that individual.
Sometimes the view from in front of the lens is much much clearer than the view from behind. Take the time to find out, fellow photographers. And then respect what you find. Your work will be all the better for it. And so will you.
Just something to think about.