ethics of photography

A rainy day + recovering from surgery has allowed me to catch up on reading and to put some of my thoughts into words, which is not an easy task for me. So there will be many words here.

Some may know that while I love capturing significant events and doing portraiture, I also hope to become more involved in some type of humanitarian photography. It is a way in which I can merge some of the things I love to do with the issues I care so deeply about that they often knock the wind out of me, in a way that will hopefully influence change and positively impact others’ lives. I have wrestled with this concept a lot lately. There are three things that have really gripped me as I think about venturing here.

1) Currently, I live in a wealthy, largely homogeneous (in so many ways) town. While I had diverse experiences growing up in the Central Valley of California, the majority of my closest friends looked like me. This all presents a strong cultural lens through which I see the world. While I strive to learn from the experience and wisdom of others, to displace myself often, and to form meaningful relationships with people from different backgrounds, I will always carry this lens with me (no photography pun intended).

2) I am often uncomfortable when I see other people’s faces hanging in cafe’s as part of some social awareness, as I have a lunch meeting in this privileged place. To be sure, there is a measure of guilt in there that I am spending $3 for coffee when I could simply make it at home or that I live where I do. But I also wonder, does this person know their picture was taken? Do they know that that it was being used for this purpose and did they give permission with this full knowledge? I can usually appreciate the technical and artistic skill of the photographer, as well as the beauty of the person, but I cannot help but wonder if practices such as this aide the paternalization of the “other.”

3) Possibly it has always been this way, but within the younger faith community of the U.S. the prevalence of social media has allowed our identities to become so entangled with that which we align ourselves, whether it is the next hottest “Christian superstar,” idea, or cause. Yet, when we step back into physical interactions, the supposed impact of these alignments has limited impact on our day-to-day lives, much less on our activism. Additionally, the issues become more about the face of the faith-based or secular organization (usually from the Global North) and their story than about the people they are striving to serve or the complex issues they are facing. “Good intentioned” actions that play out this way, in the name of “being a voice for the voiceless,” can result in oppressed people group’s voices being disempowered, misrepresented, and/or silenced. Stories and experiences of oppressed people groups are also in danger of being wrongly co-opted. I recently went through some training at our local women’s shelter. We were discussing how to debrief a crisis call and our trainer wisely instructed, “this is their story, not yours.” We can get caught up in the drama of it all (we all love good stories) and co-opt a person’s story for our own gain.

So, put simply, my struggle is: How does one help empower others to tell their own story without it becoming about me and causing more damage than good?

Yesterday I read an excellent paper, “The Problem of Speaking for Others” by Linda MartÌn Alcoff. She posits that speaking for and speaking about is actually “the act of representing the other’s needs, goals, situation, and in fact, who they are, based on [our] own situated interpretation.” I believe photographs and film, while they may have the ability to transcend cultures, are also subject to this cultural influence, especially in how they are captured and presented to others.

Alcoff also states that “Rituals of speaking are politically constituted by power relations of domination, exploitation, and subordination.” I have become more aware of this in the pasts few years. Whenever there is interaction, especially in actions of advocacy, there are power dynamics at play. If I am speaking to a room of people who are of different ethnicity, there are power dynamics at play that are different than if a person of there same ethnicity spoke. We can never fully control the context in which we speak and the affects that it has, no matter how aware we feel we are and how many disclaimers we may give. This however, does not “entail a complete loss of accountability.”

So shall I simply never speak about others and only make claims about my own personal experience? Alcoff calls this “retreat response” and does not promote this either. In my case, this situation would simply leave me to continue life simply to pursue individual gain since I would have little other course (though this is not independent of a message either). Additionally, she acknowledges that there are times when representing others has changed society for the better and uses Rigoberta Menchu as an example. However, the effects of speaking for others can never be completely diminished.

Too often I get caught up with either jumping in with both feet and taking a risk or waiting until I get it “right” to act. Unfortunately, both choices (and everything in between) open myself up to consequences and I need humility and strength to receive feedback, criticism, correction, and encouragement.

Alcoff outlines some guidelines to lessen the damaging affects of speaking for others:

  • Whenever possible, I need to change the dialogue from speaking for to speaking with and to. Dialogue based on listening allows the disempowered to have voice in the conversation and to shape content.
  • I need to resist the desire to always be the one to speak. Coming from privilege, I come from a socialization of domination and an assumption that I have the right answers. Those who are oppressed have often received a different message and will be less likely to take the space in the conversation to speak. I need to allow space and listen (I say this in the context in which I would likely be doing humanitarian photography. In many contexts I find myself in I am not given the space to be heard because I am a woman, while others characteristics, such as race, may give me more space).
  • I must do the work in analyzing the context, both what I bring and how it is received. If we go back to my experience of sitting in a cafe looking at a picture, we know there is implications of the context. I need to outwardly acknowledge these dynamics, the implications need to be considered, and they should have an affect on how I speak or act (or whether I speak/act).
  • I am “[accountable and responsible]” for what I say and do. This brings me back to retaining humility and openness to feedback.
  • I need to strive to discern the future ramifications of the political interaction taking place. For example, if I share photos to a middle-class group of mostly white adults, this has an impact on how I need to acknowledge what is happening and what the future implications could be. Possibly, the audience may reduce a complex issue into a simple, limited narrative, or the interaction may reinforce the assumed social hierarchy. This should influence my actions.

Alcoff asks that we consider all of this and ends with this simple question when using discernment, “will it enable the empowerment of oppressed peoples?“.

I still have far more to learn on this, but her paper gives me hope that informed and aware processes can lead to a merging of art and justice in a way that does not exploit or disempower.

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  • UnaOctober 23, 2012 - 5:49 pm

    I have often thought about what you mention in #2. I have wondered about the privileges of artists/photographers to take photos of people they don’t know & then make money or create fame by printing, framing and displaying the photos. Thanks for putting to words some ruminations that I’ve had.ReplyCancel

  • tinaireneOctober 24, 2012 - 4:44 am

    Hey Una, thanks so much for reading my thoughts! I’m hoping to do some more reading on the topic so if you ever come across anything will you let me know?ReplyCancel