Privileged POV: Closing the Disparity Between the Photographer and the Documented

Although the digital revolution has made it more accessible, photography has always been and still is a relatively expensive medium of art. Pencil and paper for drawing is easily available; cameras, on the other hand, for many are not. Fortunately, my first camera (a 1970s Minolta SLR) was given to me by my boarding school houseparent.

The inequality between the photographer and those being photographed is a subject that has plagued my conscience ever since I took my first trip to Panama after learning to shoot 35mm film. I was bored with the bucolic setting of my upstate New York boarding school and looked forward to capturing the flavor of Panama and its people on film.

Growing up, I’d visited family in Panama yearly — but the moment I arrived as a photographer, I didn’t feel like I had the right to document their lives. There was definitely something alluring about shooting the native Kuna and San Blas Indians or the abject conditions of Panamanian city living. Yet I felt like a fascinated American snapping away, only to later relish in the attention of showing off photos from my exotic trip in class, as the other girls displayed theirs from vacations in Europe.

Years later, a photography professor asked our class if, as war photographers, we were faced with the choice of either capturing a potential “winning shot” of someone in peril or helping that person — which one would it be? The question was meant to gauge how much we truly wanted to be photographers. In a split-second decision like that, my natural instinct would be to drop my camera and help … but that’s just me.

Transient Observers, Permanent Reality

Using the camera as a tool to record and investigate, photographers have always had a fascination with the “other.” It started with capturing ethnographic data for anthropological studies and has continued throughout photography history. Several prestigious publications and institutions have been built on this practice.

Still today, whether for business or pleasure, privileged photographers go into poor and underdeveloped countries foreign to them to shoot the disadvantaged. Those on assignment often have to find a guide to translate and navigate the area for them. Do these photographers ask their subjects to sign model releases? Or do they find it unnecessary since it’s less likely their subjects would ever see these photos published, much less sue?

My point is: what is the level of respect afforded to a subject less fortunate than you when engaging them to be photographed? What is fair to them when you’re hoping to gain fame or even fortune from documenting their misery? It’s easy to be the photographer when you can be a transient observer of their permanent reality.

“The Places We Live” — Who’s “We”?

This month’s photojournalism issue of Photo District News features Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen’s traveling exhibition titled “The Places We Live.” He visited the most densely populated cities around the world to document the small places in which people live — conditions unimaginable to many of us. Described as a “tall European guy” incapable of blending in with the locals of the shantytowns he visits, Bendiksen relies on “someone who lives there, who knows the people, who can translate.”

The article also notes that Bendiksen “struggled to avoid photographic clichés associated with photographing the poor.” Yet who is the “we” he refers to in the title? I object to the idea that the “we” would include Bendiksen and doubt he lives in a shantytown or makeshift home of cardboard held together by stickers. Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted and the title is speaking on behalf of his subjects.

I realize that work by photographers like Bendiksen exposes injustices to the world. I’ve even read stories of photographers who sacrificed their own comfort to spend years living among their subjects. Yet if the camera is always in the hands of the privileged, how often are we getting a “homogeneous” or even disconnected point of view if they don’t truly know their subjects?

Turning the Camera on Themselves

In podcast #55 of The Candid Frame, host Ibarionex R. Perello asks fellow photographer and educator Marco Antonio Torres to comment on “the disparity between the people who are creating the image and those who are being documented.” Torres states that “having more diverse photographers gives you a different perspective” and that “society can benefit if we diversify the photographer.”

Given that there are no darkrooms in the ghetto, Torres hopes that the evolution of digital photography will allow kids in underprivileged communities to “turn the camera on themselves.” As someone raised by a single mother in the inner city who was later able to use photography as a way to explore, learn and share the world with others, I also hope that digital media affords this privilege to others with similar backgrounds.

While riding the train home last night I sat next to a tall man, tanned with long hair, dressed in a t-shirt and Tommy Hilfiger cargo shorts. Totally relaxed, he flipped through the Fall 2008 ICP programs guide and circled photojournalism, photography marketing and business classes I assumed he was interested in and planned on taking. Knowing how expensive these classes are, I thought to myself “how lucky he is!”

Then I imagined him in some exotic location, camera in hand.


5 Responses to “Privileged POV: Closing the Disparity Between the Photographer and the Documented”

  1. Art & phtoography are one in the same, and still people find people suffering forms of art...I have been a witness to people taking pictures of those living in misery for their personal gain and it's so disgusting....You have a gift for photography and also possess respect for life. You care for human dignity and many people lack that these days...You article was very well written and I totally get it! Point taken! Looking forward to reading more of your blogs and seeing more of your work....

  2. Art imitates life...but I fear as well that some artists have ignored the reality of life, the humanity within while attempting to capture the winning shot. I appreciate your wisdom and heart. It is important for artists as ordinary citizens of the world to not become jaded by a promise of celebrity. Thank you for your blog!

  3. Too right Lori. As someone who lives in the 'Developing' (or 'recovering world' as dad made us call it)it's disgusting to me when people come down to 'capture' (and cage and put in some zoo for the middle classes to chat amongst themselves) shanty town & bush people who often go along because the Photographer is First World (and we know our place). Qianna really is different, and that's why we invited her down to our getto island in the caribbean sun because we knew she wouldn't come with that Poverty Pimp mentality, which we see here all the time.
    How you do it Q? and can you spread it around to others?


  4. First - have to say that I wholly agree with this article, a perspective I haven't heard voiced much.

    I was on a project in Morocco where a colleague had just started shooting the neighborhood - in awe of the poverty and trying to capture the image on film. I asked her to stop. We argued - I went through the rationale similar to that laid out here, but we still disagreed. Even further, she said that it should be documented "for the good of the people there."

    Everything does not need to be documented in pictures. I can tell you that someone is living in misery and you can then either take a picture to "help" or you can That said, I have done work in areas that are clearly impoverished by any estimation. I didn't take any images on the sly and just worked in cooperation under a mutual understanding of what we were trying to accomplish.

    It's just being people to people vs. hiding behind a camera and treating folks as objects. There is still art to be found in that kind of collaboration. We shouldn't be so skeptical as to be scared that we'll miss out on something, especially when that something is an image we've already constructed by our own preconceptions.

  5. I am a very amateur photographer and have been wrestling with this issue for quite some time now so I appreciate your position and question asking. Being an amateur I have not taken very many photos of folks I don’t know. I am just too shy right now to even attempt to approach. However, I was consumed by the idea that I am exploiting my friends and family by putting them on a wall for others to look at and examine with out knowing them as amazing people who’ve contributed to my life. All of my photographs began to strike me as very personal as I was choosing which to put on display for my very first show. So while I understand the questions you pose regarding disparity, isn’t it quite possible that photographers every where are “pimping out” their subject regardless of their social-economic background. Isn’t it what the paparazzi do to the famous?

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