…said the elderly lady, her reply to my request that I might take a picture of her hanging out her laundry in a spectacular North Sutherland location.
“Aye certainly you can take a photo, wait and I’ll just get out of the way!”
She joined me on the road, smiling. “The number of times this washing line has been photographed, so many times, appearing on newspapers, in magazines all over the world, and it’s usually my old knickers I’ve hung out on the day they take the pictures!”
I smiled “No underwear problems today then, just sheets and pillowcases. But you’ll need to make sure you make a good job of cleaning those knickers though, just in case eh!”
She burst into fits of laughter “Och away ye go with ye, ALL my washing is immaculate, especially my knickers!”
I had to agree “Yes I can see that, and you have such a responsibility, you’d not want to spoil such a fine view with some saggy old drawers!”
She laughed and laughed and laughed.
Small highland moments. Just the best.
Drug addicts. Bronx. Vulnerability. Exploitation. Power. Journalism.
The Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) is running a show. Here’s the message they sent to documentary photographer Chris Arnade explaining his inclusion:
Apologies for the late email, we are putting together a show on short notice and just finalizing the lineup.
On Saturday we will open up our Altered Images exhibition, which examines posed, faked or manipulated documentary photography. A number of people had suggested we include your work of substance abusers and sex workers. We have reviewed your work. You qualify on a number of levels and will be included.
You admit to paying your subjects, which violates one of the most closely held tenets of documentary photography. Paying to photograph any person, particularly one dependent upon drugs, and even driving them to buy drugs, as you say you have done, is a clear breach of ethics and standards.
I see that you say claim, in interviews, an exemption from journalistic and documentary standards by saying you are not a journalist. Yet you publish your photos in the Guardian, one of the world’s most prestigious media outlets. Ethical guidelines apply.
A key guideline of the National Press Photographers Assn reads: “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects.”
Your photos of sex workers, some addicted to drugs, some with mental health issues and/or severely emotionally abused, exposing their breasts or bent naked over a bed, are a breach of this standard. The fact that you also publish these photos on Flickr, to be gawked at by thousands, raises further ethical issues too numerous to address here.
Briefly, people who are paid by you, under the influence of drugs or mentally impaired (and in many cases have little understanding of The Guardian or Flickr), clearly do not have the ability to give informed consent to their photos being used as you have done.
We will include a caption under your photo outlining these ethical breaches. If you so choose, you can send us up to two paragraphs in response and we will give it equal weight next to our caption.
I’m ccing our lawyer, Don Dunn, in case you have any legal issues you choose to raise.
Arnade responds here, and his response is worth reading to gain some sense of the issues under discussion.
This is the type of image that the BDC apparently object to:
Only thing is this image is not by Chris Arnade, but by Magnum’s Bruce Gilden. He has many images of a similar ‘intimate’ nature.
Remember that phrase in the BDC’s letter to Arnade about “vulnerable subjects” ? No? Here, read it again:
A key guideline of the National Press Photographers Assn reads: “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects.”
Ok, “respect and dignity.”
But Gilden’s work is not included in the Bronx Documentary Center’s line up. Presumably because he doesn’t (apparently) confess to occasionally paying his subjects.
However, do they give informed consent? I have no idea.
How about images used without consent due to mental incapacity? BDC are concerned about those too: (quote)
“…some with mental health issues and/or severely emotionally abused…”
Here you go: from Robin Hammond’s series ‘Condemned’
Do you think the (un-named) mentally ill (or mentally handicapped) ‘patient’ pictured here gave informed consent? I doubt it. Does that matter? For some people, yes. For others, probably not. The BDC for reasons known only to themselves have not included Hammond’s work either, in their catch-all “vulnerable subjects”.
And here’s Arnade’s work. Used with the subject’s consent, and the story behind it here.
Do I like Arnade’s work, or Gilden’s or Hammond’s for that matter?
I recognize the photographer’s skill as image makers. But more than that I recognize something they all share in common, an interest in, and respect for the human condition in all its forms and a willingness to engage with it. Theirs is not surreptitious ‘stolen’ work, but direct and engaged, and as a result there’s a lot of it that makes me very very uncomfortable. Which is as it should be.
But more than that, in all of their work I see a connection with the people they photograph, you cant be this close to people without them responding to your presence, and for the most part I see some acknowledgment from their subjects of the photographer’s proximity, and in many instances an active engagement with the photographic process.
These photographer’s willingness to wrestle with portraying the difficult issues of drug addiction, mental illness, or mental handicap and their subsequent use of the work is contentious, and open discussion about this is healthy and important.
Sadly however the Bronx Documentary Center, for whatever reasons, and despite their morally superior tone towards Arnade, are not interested in engaging with the ethical conundrum such work presents. Gilden and Hammond could both be included in their ‘Altered Images’ show, but it seems its only Arnade, and unless I’m mistaken its because he openly admits he offers money and personal support to his subjects.
So its the money the BDC objects to. Giving it to subjects is wrong.
But making money from subjects? Seems profiting as a consequence of photographing (possibly vulnerable) subjects is ok though, nobody is bothered about that, not at all:
There’s a real debate to be had around all this. BDC had a fantastic opportunity to get in about issues of representation, power, the politics of documentary photography and exploitation, but they dropped the ball. In fact maybe I’ll send them this FANTASTIC card to tell them that.
But leave it blank.
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First google image the term ‘poverty porn‘. Warning. Don’t do this if you have kids around you.
Definition Of Porn: Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.
Unless you really think people are being turned on by pictures of child poverty please do the kids in the pics a favour and leave porn out of it.
(For a proper analysis of the problems surrounding ‘poverty porn’ please read Professor David Campbell’s post here.)
I came across two thought-provoking image series one day last week. Each one was technically superb, the result of painstaking work by talented and committed photographers. Both dealt with difficult and contentious issues, of (sexual) exploitation, rural isolation and social marginalization. Both were ‘documentary’ projects, made by photojournalists. However one was ‘fact’ but presented as ‘fiction’, the other ‘fiction’ but presented as ‘fact’.
Sound a bit confusing? I’ll try to explain:
Daniella Zalcman, in Mashable, presents obviously ‘manipulated’ images of members of Canada’s indigenous populations in her project ‘Lost Generations‘. These are striking double-exposures, in muted tones, that explore the experience and consequences of forcible assimilation into Canadian culture that affected many indigenous children.
“In the 1840s, the Canadian government established the Indian Residential School system, a network of church-run boarding schools created to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into the dominant culture of Canada.
The children who attended these facilities — coming from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities — were punished for speaking their native languages or observing indigenous traditions. They were routinely physically and sexually abused, both by the teachers who ran the schools and by older students who had typically been assaulted themselves. In some extreme instances, students were subjected to medical experimentation and sterilization by teachers and school administrators.
The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. The Canadian government issued its first formal apology in 2008.”
Zalcman describes her underlying idea:
I paired individuals with sites where residential schools once stood, government documents that enforced strategic assimilation and places where First Nations peoples now struggle to persevere. Each double exposure contains an echo of trauma, which lingers even during the healing process, as languages and traditions return.
The result is a series of intriguing multi-layered images that tease and provoke the viewer.
Multiple exposure images are interesting. You may record one layer with deliberate intent and accuracy, and then a second layer, again with great precision, but the ‘third layer’ – that amalgam of both – is where the alchemy occurs, and where the power resides.
In contemplating these complex visual creations, and through their multi-layered metaphors, the viewer is forced to confront the shape-shifting reality of the subject’s lives. These are lives rooted in trauma, yet in these images those pictured confront that knowledge head-on, bound irrevocably to it by reference to place or text, but in that ‘third layer’ of ‘fiction’ living and growing beyond the narrow confines of that experience. The result is cathartic for the subject, and I personally find them to be profoundly moving, and inspiring.
“……….captures a unique view of prostitution happening in urban and rural roadside locations along Spain’s Meditarranean coast in The Waiting Game……….
………Knowing that these women would likely not want their photos taken for obvious reasons, Salvans cleverly disguised himself as a surveyor, accompanied by an assistant carrying a surveyor’s pole. He managed to get some fascinating shots, ones that present these women in a much larger context. We see quiet moments of waiting, unaware of what these women may have just experienced or of what’s to come.” (quote from article by Amanda Gorence)
Salvans’ images are quite beautiful, the Mediterranean light is allowed to dominate and the sense of heat and space is beautifully wrought. My disquiet however comes from the ‘fiction’ they present.
The question they raise for me is: are these really prostitutes?
The photographer doesn’t know for sure, he never asked them, so all he’s doing is guessing. I could produce the same images and say these women are “…ikea chair testers…” or “…women waiting for taxi to go to a party…” or “…researchers looking at Post-Industrial Society Structural Change and Service Sector Employment in Spain…“ and dare you to contradict me. The problem is that IF these women were actually doing any of the things I mentioned, to call them “prostitutes” could have consequences for them that did not exist before that label was arbitrarily applied to them.
Cameras work both ways. They reveal two sides. We have no idea who the women in front of the camera are, nor what they are doing. But we certainly know what the man was doing.
Where is the fiction? I think it is everywhere in this work. In fact its foundation is a fiction too:
…..the women ‘saw’ a man dressed up and assumed he was a surveyor, but he was actually a ‘photographer’.
…..the photographer ‘saw’ a woman dressed up and assumed she was a prostitute, but she could have been anything.
Without the voice of the subject, the only ‘truth’ this represents is the photographer’s, and his is a somewhat disingenuous voice.
The wider, and potentially troubling implication of this work, is that women anywhere, dressed similarly and in a quiet roadside location, can be legitimate subjects for speculation and assumption about their profession and social status; and there may follow undesirable consequences. That makes me distinctly uncomfortable.
Simply presenting the work as a thematic series and leaving the ‘assumptions’ about the subject’s presence and profession to the viewer would have been far more appropriate. In doing so it would more accurately reflect the reality of the situation, ‘turning the tables’ in a sense, raising questions about the viewer’s experience and knowledge, and allowing THEIR interpretation to create the ‘reality’ that these images may represent. And that ‘reality’ may only be a ‘fiction’ in their mind. Without the labels already guessed at and applied by the author, the women can be whatever the viewer wants them to be.
And it’s worth remembering that when not in these locations, and defined simply by geography, these women are I would ‘guess’, something else: friend, mother, daughter, sister, lover, cook, driver, cleaner, lawyer, physicist.
Labeling them, as the photographer has done, has I feel reduced the impact of this work. Labeling anyone, in the absence of their own voice and description of self, can be potentially damaging.
Daniella Zalcman hits the ethical nail bang on the head when she says:
But one of the many problems with images depicting drug use, alcoholism and poverty is that they can do more to shame and stigmatize the subjects than shed light on the sources of their suffering. In an attempt to overcome that challenge, I created multiple-exposure portraits to look at the causes, rather than the effects.
These are two powerful and visually impressive bodies of work, but the way in which each ‘story’ is presented in a ‘journalistic’ sense is profoundly different.
Curiously given the rules* of, for example, the World Press Photo competition, Zalcman’s images would I presume be ineligible for entry due to their ‘manipulation’, but Salvans images would be perfectly acceptable. Given that the WPP aims to promote and celebrate “visual storytelling” maybe I’m not the only one who finds this rather surprising?
For 60 years already, World Press Photo has encouraged the highest standards in photojournalism. The resulting archive is not only a record of more than half a century of human history, but a showcase of successive styles in visual storytelling.
(quote from the WPP website)
Which begs the question: what is more ‘honest’ – to manipulate your images to present a visual fiction but one that is constructed from layers rooted firmly in ‘fact’, or leave your images untouched but manipulate the mind of your viewers and their consideration of the subject, by means of captions woven from assumption?
‘The camera never lies’, so the old saying goes, and I guess it’s true, we are more likely to be ‘misled’ by the hands that hold it.
* See here, WPP Competition 2014, Rule 15: “The content of the image must not be altered….” and Rule 16: “Only single-frame images will be accepted.”
Scotland’s been in the news a fair bit prior to, during and subsequent to the recent General Election. For many people Scotland conjures up images of mountains, rain, and more rain. I read a comment made by one ‘southern’ voter, obviously terrified of any Frankensteinian conjoining of SNP and Labour, who remarked that “the SNP should stay in Scotland and sort out their own wet and miserable country”. And they’re right. We get a lot of rain. My home town of Fort William is one of the wettest places in the UK, and gets on average 2000mm per annum and some spots to the north-west of the town can see at least 4500mm in an average year.
That’s wet. Very very very wet.
And miserable? Oh yes, misery too, lots and lots of misery. A great deal of misery in fact.
One year I recall it started raining at the end of July and there wasn’t a single period of 24 hours that it didn’t rain for 104 days. I was able to tell when the summer ended and winter began though, because the rain got a lot colder. You learn these tricks whilst still a small child, going to primary school in shorts, welly-boots and duffle coat. These ‘climate-control’ garments kept some of the worst of the weather from soaking you, but created a red ring around the wearer’s thigh from the dripping wet lower edge of the duffle coat, and lower down at shin height, a matching red ring created by the chafing from the top edge of the welly boot. In really bad weather, endless days of wet, these rings became scar-tissue, flaky and scabby.
So yes, rain, lots of it, and seasonally varying from warm, to cold. After that it gets into sleet, hail and snow. All of which are, in varying degrees, miserable. And cold. Painful even, especially with the hail. Hail is my favourite. It’s like being sandblasted, but with cold, hard sand. It can hurt your eyeballs. That’s if you actually open your eyes, which many people try to avoid at all costs, which has its downsides of course. But I like hail because it bounces off. Rain doesn’t do that. Little tricks you learn when small, that stand you in good stead later in life.
So I thought I’d try to show you just how awful it can be in Scotland when it’s wet. And cold. And sleety. And miserable. To get the full effect of these images you might want to pour cold water into your underpants and leave the window open whilst you peruse them, so you really feel the wind-chill. (Just make sure an adult is present though).
So here we go: a selection of gloomy, claggy, misty and utterly miserably murky weather. Or as we say up here with great fondness, ‘dreich’ (definition)
I hope this gives you a sense of the utter misery we must endure. And I suppose you’ll have to ask yourself “who the hell would want to live in this desperate place?”.
So there you go, a glimpse of the utter hellishness that is the Scottish Highlands in the rain. Gloomy, wet, horrible murky and pretty hard to cope with. I know I know, I can hear your thoughts….“who the hell would want to live in a place like that?”.
Well someone’s got to. So spare a thought for us as you bask in all that sunshine, think of these endless grey skies and all the cascading rain that pours forth from them, that we must endure. And the cold. And of course, the misery.