There is something terribly indecent about it and we have to be honest and acknowledge it.
The hoards of photographers and wanna-be photographers, most eyeing each other and copying each other so that they may not get ‘left behind’, that have descended on Haiti since the devastating earthquake there remind me why I have felt so alienated and disconnected from this entire craft. The specious justifications of ‘bearing witness’ or that ‘…news pictures help drive a response of aid’, just no longer ring true.
Rarely have so many people used so many clichés so repetitively to justify an act (the news photograph) so lacking in engagement for so long. Decades since photographers started using the language of ‘concerned photographer’, a new generation continues to parrot the same language, and continues to hide its real motivations – determined more by careerism, a pursuit of awards, or just plain bravado, behind a veil of moral, and messianic language of ‘bearing witness’, and ‘in the hope that it will change things’. I am hearing it all over again in Haiti and its driving me nuts!
It’s not only tiresome but insulting to the intelligent. It’s blather. I would rather prefer that photographers were honest and respected their own work enough to admit that they are heading to Haiti because 1) they are on assignment and its work, 2) it’s the ‘hot’ story and disasters sell well, 3) that it has legs in the NGO and post-trauma markets, 4) there is potential to make career-making images, 5) this will be an important awards story and 5) every one else is there so why not. Photographers crave such situations; they are in the global media spotlight, they are easy to work in (logistically they are tough, but images are very easy to produce), and they can garner a lot of attention to the photographer for his/her bravery and gumption.
Now, to help spread the gold to others, some are offering ‘disaster workshops’ to those demented enough to consider the horror of another human being’s life as an opportunity to study how to photograph and film it. At this very moment there are people asking students to fork over in excess of $4000 to take part in ‘on the ground’ workshops among the debris and corpses of Haitians to learn about “…working in disaster zones and other difficult and dangerous situations, survival and logistics in difficult environments, photograph people, working with NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) and aid organizations, editing and digital darkroom technique and marketing and making your stories available for the world to see.” The sheer callousness of this leaves me ashamed to even call myself a photojournalist. The indifference to the situation on the ground, the carelessness about the long-term, complex horrors that await the survivors of this disaster just leaves one wondering whether we, as practitioners, have completely lost our moral compass.
It’s a party, and everyone is invited!
A number of insightful pieces have been written about the television news teams, photographers and videographers descending on this disaster that in fact does not need them there. Others have accused this hoard of ‘journalism’ professionals indulging in nothing more than disaster porn. We now live in a decade of deeply connected worlds, with communications and emergency response institutions and infrastructure that does not rely for pictures before kicking into action. We say this during the Asian Tsunami where photographers were largely late to the situation because of its remoteness. We say it again after the devastating earthquake in Kashmir and even after the catastrophe in New Orleans. Most of the photojournalists are not ‘breaking’ the story here, if they ever did, but merely gawking at it. One could argue, that they may in fact even be distorting it by their relentless pursuit of stories that will garner publication and awards in next year’s World Press Photo and that perpetually remove any political context of the disaster. And that will continue to demean and marginalize the Haitian’s as victims, helpless beggars and criminals. What else can explain the mindnumbing and repetitive nature of what has emerged from the country so far and the determined focused on not the Haitian’s as people and human beings struggling to overcome, but on the aid organizations, media celebrities and the US military as heroes and messiah. Or at worse, it is just about the media itself.
Haiti is a man-made disaster being sold on prime time television as a ‘natural’ disaster. Economist Edward Glaeser argued this recently in a piece called Preventing Haiti’s Next Crisis and pointed out that we have a hand in creating this mess. And Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently in a piece called When The Media Is The Disaster about the dehumanizing language and imagery that is typically used to describe such post-catastrophe situations when it comes to ‘the other world’. And for those who can be bothered to read, there is Paul Farmer and his books on Haiti. His troubling The Uses of Haiti and the simply brilliant Pathologies of Power:Health, Human Rights & The New War On The Poor are both must reads for those who seem to have found a sudden and deep concern for the Haitians.
But you will not hear such insights from the photographers who continue to hide behind a messianic language, and their apparently uncontrollable moral imperatives that drive them to such situations. Erased are their more human motivations fueled by careerism, vanity and access to easy publication. I of course generalize; I am sure that there are some whose motivations may incorporate something more. I certainly hope that this story, a story that will required years to unfold, will be their focus. For most, even the most ‘morally committed’ or ‘witness washed’ will quickly move on once the magazines and news spotlight moves on. And it will move on, if it has not already.
And along with it that messianic language, those morally upright statements, that will then be appended to the next set of car-crash images the ‘concerned’ photojournalist will gleefully produce, eager to see them anywhere and any how, for so long as they remain about his/her incredibly deep and committed concerns, and not about the people whose lives s/he used as fodder for a career.
I ask for forgiveness, for this post emerges from a sense of frustration. This is a sweeping condemnation and I write it to provoke. There are the serious photographers like Maggie Steber who has made Haiti her life’s work and can tell us something important about the disaster on the ground. And there are others, and we need them there because they will help us not just see but understand. It is however tiresome to see so many flocking to this situation, their egos fueling a greedy wish for disaster journalism, and their motivations carefully hidden behind hollow sounding niceties. We are not supposed to point our fingers at this, nor discuss this. It’s just not what photojournalists do. We remain quiet in the face of obvious exploitation of a another people’s catastrophe that is simply masquerading as ‘photojournalism’, or ‘witnessing’ or something else equally self-satisfying.
There is too much left unexamined about the motivations of this craft and of its practitioners. And that what is left unexamined touches on issues of decency, morality, judgment and power. We, as photographers, are ignoring these issues at the expense of our craft. We are too quick to reach for our six-shooter justifications to distract from what most actually do. And sadly the industry, the audience, the editors, grant juries and others just eat it up and echo it back thoughtlessly. I can’t think of another craft so immune to self-analysis, so trapped in its tired clichés, and so determined to just carry on as if nothing around it is changing. This is even more clear when an occasional voice speaks up and reveals the sheer exploitation, and misuse of it all, as the photographer Eliza Gregory so beautifully revealed in a piece she wrote called Photographer As White Messiah: Looking Back At A Picture I Wish I Had Not Taken.
If photojournalism is struggling it is because it is trapped, mummified in a language and power relationships to its subjects that have remained unchanged in the face of a changing world and media space. Something new has to emerge to rejuvenate our work and our craft, but it is not multi-media or better digital cameras. It is a deep commitment to self-criticism and re-examination of the postures we adopt in the countries and communities we work in, and the traditional roles we have assumed for ourselves i.e. moral voice, messiah, witness, voice to the voiceless or any number of clichés.
The catastrophe in Haiti must be revealed and images go a some way towards doing it. But why must they be so relentlessly exploitative and not informative? Why must they reduce the victims even further, rather than show their courage and their strengths? Why must they be so relentlessly about us, our work, our courage and our ‘role’ instead of being about those who have to actually live through and build through this catastrophe? And why must they always be the same e.g. Kashmir earthquake to Kobe to Haiti it all just ends up one big dump of similar stuff? Why is it so distant, so aloof, so demeaning, so simple, so unthinking, so formulaic, so predictable, so yesterday, so boring, so numbing, so infantile and so useless?
Please do not attend a workshop in Haiti. Please do not take your thousands of dollars worth of equipment and head there. It’s not fun. It’s not an adventure. It’s not exciting. It will not make you a better man. Nor will it make you a photographer, not even a better one. And to those photographers who had the courage to go there I salute you and ask that you just look a little longer, stay a little longer, wait a little longer, and understand a little more. Please help me, who is not in Haiti, understand what is really going on. Please do not produce work that is a substitute for the beggar’s bowl. Please don’t demean me, the Haitians or yourself. Please let me hear and see an Haitian.
ADDENDUM: And for those still making the inane argument that the images are helping bring in the aid, I ask that you please just stop. The Haitian earthquake response has been spectacularly quick and voluminous. So much so that we had clear evidence of too much aid overwhelming the logistical capacity and operations themselves. There were aid convoys that could not make it in and had to dump stuff, aid flights, including those of medical NGOs, that turned back and even ships were unable to get materials into the country. Just managing the logistics of the immense and intense global focus on disaster response may have exacerbated the plight of the Haitians as they struggled to find ways to fend for themselves while the aids organizations and systems were working out their details. Much like the earthquake in Kashmir, this situation has received an amazing response and by people more useful on the ground than yet another photographer justifying his fishing for nice pictures.