Does photojournalism undermine human rights?

Next week duckrabbit will be on a panel at Amnesty International debating:

Alive or dead? The evolution of photography in the digital age.

Photojournalism has been on its knees for some time, with newspapers and magazines no longer willing or able to fund international stories that require high expenses.

This is a bad and painful thing for photojournalists who have had their livelihoods kicked out from beneath them. I never met a photojournalist who didn’t genuinely want to make the world a better place, so in theory their marginalization should also be a bad thing for good democracy and governance, which is dependent on a free press holding those in power to account.

I have another theory.

The photojournalism of the developing world that gets published, alongside the text it’s published with, often only helps to further reinforce a narrow view of the world in which people with money live glamorous lives and everyone else is deep up to their necks in poverty and suffering. It certainly had that effect on me because when I moved from the UK to live in Ethiopia I kept wondering where Africa had gone? It was there of course, just not how I had been led to believe it existed.

Journalists in developing countries are often very poorly paid. Many of them have second jobs. Photojournalists especially struggle because of the cost of equipment. Up until recently many NGO’s and the western media have ignored local photographers, spending a lot of money on sending their own photographers to shoot stories. The end result is that many local photojournalists just can’t make enough to survive and either hang up their camera or try to make a living in another field of photography (like fashion). That’s disastrous for democracy because it means there is no local talent turning the lens on corruption and human rights abuses.

I once wrote to the photo editor of a very large international NGO that I greatly admire. I wanted to know why they never used local photographers in Africa and I got the rather disappointing reply that it was because:

1. They didn’t know any

2. That local photographers might not be able to deliver exactly what the NGO wants

Of course they won’t be able to deliver if they never get any commissions, which means they don’t have any money, which means they are never able to develop their talents. Its a vicious circle.

That said though there are plenty of talented photographers in Africa and yes not all of them are white ex-pats.

So if less international photographers are getting flown around the world to document misery in often a very two dimensional manner maybe more local photographers will get commissions and be able to sustain a living in the profession.

Things are starting to shift. I recently met Jessica Crombie, the photo Editor at Water Aid and was massively impressed with her commitment to developing local talent to photograph Water Aid’s projects. Recently she commissioned the Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif to widely praised effect.

Picture 2

Of course the truth is there is a need for a balance. Local photographers can benefit greatly from meeting and working with international photographers; they’re all part of the same family. Another day I’ll set out a new model that I believe NGOs could implement which would improve the standard of the photography that documents the developing world, as well as benefiting local photographers. And that has to be a good thing for democracy and governance.

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Bruno De Cock, MSF’s photo editor has raised an important and very valid point:

‘I think the situation in Asia is different than in Africa. Sadly enough African photographers seem to have a lot more trouble getting access to usefool tools like the internet and a website, which makes it harder to find local talent.
I recently checked the list of photographers participating in the African Photography Festival in Mali and was kinda dissapointed to find that most selected photographers are no longer living in their country of origin.’

duckrabbit agrees.  The internet plays a big part.  But I also think that had NGO’s developed better relationships with local photographers we’d see more of them appearing at festivals.  It is a vicious circle.  If people aren’t allowed on the bus, how can they travel, let alone sit at the back?

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White.We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (7 Comments)

  1. Bruno says:

    Though I agree with the thought behind this article, I think the situation in Asia is different than in Africa. Sadly enough African photographers seem to have a lot more trouble getting access to usefool tools like the internet and a website, which makes it harder to find local talent.
    I recently checked the list of photographers participating in the African Photography Festival in Mali and was kinda dissapointed to find that most selected photographers are no longer living in their country of origin.

  2. Jena Olson says:

    Another issue to consider in hiring only international photojournalists–all the biases and stereotypes and assumptions outsiders hold about a country and a people get wrapped into the photos and then retold to other outsiders, reinforcing biases and stereotypes and assumptions. My consciousness was recently raised by watching this talk by Chimamanda Adichie, definitely check it out:

  3. African photographer says:

    I am the good photographer I am thanks to my interaction with great international photographers that were kind enough to share their knowledge. I am currently along with other photographers in my country under the mentorship of one great photographer who will not stop until African photographers earn their place in the world.

    It is true though that if a fellow local photographer or I were to walk into an international NGO’s office asking for work against an international photographer, even with a very impressive portfolio, guess who gets the job… you are right. I am fortunate not to be dependable on my photography, I’d be a pauper if that were the case. It’s not the international photographer’s fault, you can’t blame them, they like everyone else are looking to make a living and won’t complain if at the moment they get to keep the whole pie… the NGO on the other hand, facilitate this. Their excuse, he/she has experience. Well a photographer may have experience with his tool of trade – the camera – but in storytelling, to be fair one must understand the issue like the back of their hand… that is the local photographer, this photographer has the experience in the issue and will most probably present it in balance way. The local photographer was there when the issue started…is there as it goes on…will be there to follow up the aftermath. He/she doesn’t have to go back home after five weeks because of the budget. But most important, he/she sees him/herself in the subjects shoes… thus treats the subject differently, with more respect… this could be them in a flash of a second.

    When two opposing parties are in conflict… there may be bloodshed… but in the midst of it, there may be two people from the same opposing parties getting married. Sometimes the issue is not always black and white, there’re grey areas and they too matter even if they represent the minority opinion. That is what the local photographer brings to the table most of the time. That just like any other community, we are diverse, have different opinions and it isn’t always hopeless. That people in a slum have many problems but they chat with their neighbors and yes laugh. I challenge you to go online and compare the images projecting Africans as suffering to those projecting them as happy… by international photographers… the suffering tips the scale.

    Yes the images of conflict and suffering bring to attention issues that need addressing and may get worse if ignored…it is unfair to project us as the miserable, hopeless people because guess what… we are happy most of the time… even in the midst of the chaos that surround us… and the world needs to know that side too.

  4. marco says:

    Ok, that is a valid point for NGO work definitely.

    But I have a story that shows why sometimes its easier for a “foreign” photojournalist to work especially in Africa. During a recent short lived conflict in a african city I took in the end a look at some of the photographs that came out of it. In my oppinion the pictures of the ex-pats were better thant he ones of the local journalists. So I wondered why is that.
    After talking to some of my collegues of the local and the international press, I found another point: way of approach. While many local journalists were connected to the malice in their own city and worried about friends and relatives their belongings etc, the international photographers went out with the “nothing left to loose” attitude.
    I thinkg its important to have a closer connection to your subjects when you do in depth photography but especially it helps lets say in conflicts if you stay detached to a certain point. Its a certain peace of mind that makes working much easier than sitting there and having 1000 things on my personal side going through my mind.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Thanks for that. A very good point. The difference in quality might also have to do with opportunity and training. II mean think about the photos that came out of 9/11. ‘Local’ photographers, weren’t worse than any other photographers who might have been knocking around New York at the time.

      I think the word ‘objective’ is perhaps more helpful than ‘detached’, which suggests a kind of coldness. I know many journalists, including myself, who never feel deatched when covering a story but try to remain as objective as possible. Still its difficult because we never have all the facts.

      Marco … perhaps you’ like to write something and share some of your photos? THANK YOU once again.

  5. Rob Godden says:

    Supporting local professional photographers in economically developing countries has many advantages; in regards to the development of documentary photography in those countries (and the impact this has on local media), environmentally (so as not to require an outsider to jet in), prompt response to breaking crisis situations (due to proximity), and generally broadening the pool of talent that NGOs can call on. I fully support the basic argument that where possible a local photographer should be used. When I say ‘where possible’ I mean NGOs should make an effort to develop contacts and help nurture talent, not just rely on existing contacts. However, I do not totally buy into the argument that ‘local’ photographers produce better work because they are ‘closer’ to the issue or in some way understand it better. Or for that matter that outsiders come with a load of biases, talk about generalising! How can anyone have such a complete understanding of every part and social strata of their country? In fact, in many ways they can be almost as distant as a foreigner jetting in. This is because they are often middle class male urbanites with Western style university educations – OK that is a generalisation, but not far off the mark (one reason Drik ran its ‘Out of Focus’ project to get working class kids into photography). This is not a criticism, but an observation that they no more know what it is like to live on the street in Kolkata than a guy from Detroit. They should have the advantage of local language and cultural understanding, which should allow them to scope a situation and understand it quickly. This deeper reading has many advantages but whether this makes you more sympathetic, ethical or get better work I have my doubts (or less biased!). I support the use of local photographers because it makes sense on the business side of things and helps develop and maintain talent. They can spend more time in the country and so their work should be more in depth. I will play devil’s advocate though and say that I am not totally convinced that they produce better sets of photos purely by being ‘local’. I think what is missing from this is the role of the editor, as many photographers don’t get the luxury of picking which of their photos get published and text that accompanies it. I have argued on my blog that photogs need to be involved in the use of images by NGOs at an early stage of the development of a project so that their visual insight is tapped. I also think that NGOs not only need to invest in new talent in developing countries but also not deliver to their audiences ‘knowns’ but to treat them with intelligence and shown them some ‘unknowns’ – and to do this may take some education and some more long term and in depth visual products. But which NGO is going to invest in that?

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