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.