Photo: Eddy Lackmann

The Colonialism of Photojournalism

Clary Estes
May 20, 2017 · 18 min read

I have a rule as a feminist (and let there be no mistake, I am a raving feminist); if I am not willing to give something up as a privileged white person, I am not allowed to ask for it as a feminist. What I mean by that is that I am in a constant state of privilege checking as part of my feminist (both with regard to women and men) identity and development. What do I have? What do I not have? What is withheld from me? What am I withholding from others? I exist, to some degree, in a kind of rights and privilege grey area. And in this spirit of feminism v. white privilege, I started thinking about my place in the photojournalism community and eventually moved to thinking about an issue I like to call the colonialism of photojournalism; otherwise known as white guys love to take photos .

My thinking, and subsequent frustration, with the the colonialism of photojournalism issue started with my observation of what I call the hopeful Magnum photographer phenomenon. This phenomenon drives me up the fucking wall! An aspiring male photographer who wants to be in the Magnum photography agency behaving badly as an excuse to take photos at best, or just to fuck off at worst, characterises this phenomenon. These guys are typically pretty good photographers, but they have a bad habit of mimicking the bad behaviour that they have seen, or perceive to have seen, in veteran Magnum photographers. They typically look at photographers like or and their “extreme” lifestyles and think, “Hey! I can do that and I can be a self important dick about it to boot!” (It should also be noted that I really like these Magnum photographer’s works and am not shitting on them in any way. Hell, I took a d’Agata workshop).

The results of this phenomenon are two fold; you get some heavy partying photographers using an opportunity to get loaded as a photo-op; and you get photographers seeking out projects based on the belief that they will get them into the agency. Either way, I have never seen this behavior lead to a Magnum invite and it makes these guys a really pain in the ass to hang out with. I am all for photographing the extreme sides of life, but the idea that you are going to get photographs of substance by photographing a night of drinking for its own sake is a joke. I could go on about this issue, but for now I am going to move on to my main point.

The hopeful Magnum photographer phenomenon got me thinking, “Why do I only see this in men?” and honestly, I don’t have a fulfilling answer for that question. What I do feel comfortable starting around are the statistics of photojournalism in the world today. And so this issue eventually lead me to wondering; is there a colonialism of photojournalism?

To start actually looking at this issue I started at the source, the . Watch out because it is going to get a little numbers heavy for a second, but just bear with me! On the site the agency lists 92 photographers and so I took my numbers only from that list and I analyzed the info as best was possible on the site (and of course Wikipedia). Of the 92 photographers as of May 20, 2017;

  • 12 were women; 13% of the entire list
  • 31 from North America (which we can take overwhelmingly as the US since only 1 is from Canada), 7 of which had some kind of immigrant or dual citizenship status, typically from Europe
  • 46 from Europe
  • 14 from Asia, Africa, South America and Australia (which for colonialism purposes we could lump Australia in with Europe and the US)
  • 1 photographer is black,
  • 3 photographers are from the Middle East
  • 2 photographers are from East Asia.

If you look at the numbers from a purely western standpoint, only about 14% of Magnum photographers are working from a non-Western context. It is also fair to mention that largely English and French speakers populate the agency. So if you want to be part of Magnum, being from the US, the UK, France or Belgium, will really curb your odds.

To say that doesn’t have an effect of the type of work being done is absurd and this is where my growing concerns for the ethical well being of our industry have started. Stick with me.

Simply put, the Magnum agency, the most prestigious agency in the world, is overwhelmingly white guys who love to take photos. The overwhelming visual vocabulary of photojournalism today is defined by a white, male, middle class eye.

Screen Shot of my chart for reference

Now before anyone gets too up in arms I would like to recognized that Magnum is an old agency, (by 4 white guys, by the way), and the standards and practices are still catching up to the numbers, so I might even be willing to admit that the data, as a result of history, is going to be a bit more harsh.

That being said, as a form of progress, I believe that institutions should prioritize finding diverse talent to an exaggerated degree. The pace of progress is defined by intentional deviations from the norm and inclusion of ‘the other’. Unfortunately, Magnum’s nomination process makes this deviation a bit more difficult since it is the photographers nominating new members, which, by default, would perpetuate old norms.

But maybe I am wrong and it is just a matter of old practices screwing up my numbers; what about a younger agency? Let’s look to the , which was started in 2001 and is considerably smaller but similarly prestigious. Of the (again, this only those listed on the VII site);

  • 3 of them are women, about 17% of the photographers — which is not much better than Magnum
  • 7 are from the US
  • 1 is from the UK; making about 44% of VII members are from Western, native English-speaking countries.

All but 2 of the remaining photographers are European; of those 2 photographers both are from Asia, which means that VII has no one from African or South American photographers in its ranks. It also has no black members. So despite my best wishes, the VII Photo Agency doesn’t look much better statistically. Again we have a largely white, western viewpoint dictating what good photojournalism looks like and how stories are being told.

Screen Shot of my chart for reference

But enough with photo agencies, what do photojournalism awards look like? Let’s take a look at the holy grail of photojournalism awards; for photography, more specifically, the Feature Photography award. If you want a quick and dirty run down of how this award stacks up, you don’t have to look very far back.

Just within the last 7 years, from 2010 to 2017, there have been;

  • 2 female winners
  • 5 male winners, one of which won the award twice ().

Of all of these winners;

That is 50% of the winners being from the US, all but 1 of the awards being to a US newspaper (Javier Manzano won the prize under Agence France-Presse). None of the winners of the prize were Asian, black or part of any other minority group (unless you count Manzano in the hispanic category). In fact, even though the award for photography was created in 1942, the first award to a black photographer wasn’t granted until 1969 (27 years later) to Moneta Sleet Jr.

Taken by Moneta Sleet Jr.

This photograph alone is a beautiful example of why we need a more diverse pool of photographers. This photograph is an essential voice of a repressed community and could only be taken by a member of that community. In fact, the very production of the photograph was an act of activism and rebellion on the part of Coretta Scott King.

Before her husband’s, Martin Luther King Jr.’s, funeral, Coretta Scott King discovered that not a single photographer in the press pool was black, to which she demanded that And indeed, in a press pool full of white photographers, a black man who was part of the community and had a unique voice born of diversity took the Pultizer Prize winning photo. I remember going to the as a photojournalism masters student in Washington D.C. and seeing this image; of all the images on display, this image hit me the deepest.

Another prestigious award, the Award, seems like it was practically made to adhere to the colonialism of photojournalism standard. Though the award was started in 1955, a woman did not win the award until 1977 () and only 3 more women have won the prize since. Photographers from the US have gone on to win the award 21 times out of the 62 years that the award has existed (though it should be noted that no award was given in 1958, 1960, and 1970, there is at least 1 instance of a multiple win, and the award was shared between two countries of origin twice); that is a 34% advantage over the rest of the world.

I feel like I could go on and on with these statistics, but honestly, not much really changes and I think you get the point I am trying to make…

So what does this mean for the industry? If the vast majority of work that is being done is overwhelmingly male, western and of a privileged class, how does that affect our ability to tell stories? Well, I think it does a few things; at the very least it creates a vocabulary of image making that is more restricted. We see what is considered a ‘successful’ photograph or series and that becomes what we emulate and thus the diversity of image creation is stagnated, as well as defined by a white, male western eye. But this isn’t the big issue at hand; the reason the colonialism of photojournalism needs to be combated is because, at it’s very worst, it erodes the foundational ethics and values of photojournalism itself. When the only legitimate voice is a western voice the humanity of people we take photos of is subjugated. Indeed, we take the photograph, giving nothing in return, and de-legitimizing the voices of the very people we are claiming to “bare witness to.”

Tara Pixley recently wrote an absolutely on point article called, about the issue of the colonialism of photojournalism from the perspective of a black, female photo editor; an editor that is essentially a white rhino of the industry; rare, very, very rare. And that is fucking terrible. We absolutely need more women like her!

As Pixley so poignantly points out, “‘When newspapers and other organizations lack people of color in their ranks, what that does is reduce the likelihood that stories of people of color will ever be told. If you’re from a white, middle-class background, then your vision is limited to white, middle-class people.’ Rare is the published image that highlights peaceful protesting en masse and black communities working harmoniously. Yet it is precisely these photographs — evincing empathy rather than paternalistic sympathy — that capture the collective imagination (quote by Lewis Diuguid, formerly of The Kansas City Star).

“‘Being aware that when trying to cover stories in the vein of black life, you probably should have someone who actually lived it,’ says Lewis. ‘You need to have insight from someone who understands that realm.’ When both photographers in the field and photo editors in the newsroom are primarily white and male, news images will reflect that singular perspective.”

Frankly, this article is amazing and I could quote it all day. I highly recommend you read it!

Once the voice is defined as a western, male voice, all other voices become secondary. This leads us into making non-western identities, stories, and people exotic and therefore ultimately un-human, which is the real and terrifying danger of the colonialism of photojournalism. I for one hate, and I mean utterly despise, categorizing anything as “exotic.” If there is one thing I have learned from living and working abroad it is that nothing is exotic; everything, everywhere, and everyone is normal to somebody; the fact that it is new to us (and I am speaking as a westerner here), does not make it exotic.

And we are seeing these issues in the industry today; in fact, these issues are hardly new. If you look back on the Bush presidency at the height of the Iraq war it was well know by combat photographers that you DID NOT photograph dead American soldier’s faces; doing so was a one way ticket out of your embed. The reasoning was that the government wanted to protect soldier’s identities; a noble cause, but a cause that is negated by the fact that there was never any issue of taking photos of dead Iraqi civilians, including children. The standard even expanded to photographing funerals in Arlington Cemetery and the coffins of fallen soldiers (this was later reversed under the Obama administration with the “”). Regardless of whether or not we should have photographed the faces of soldiers, the mandate was inherently a double standard.

I am also reminded of another moment, in 2014, when two disturbing photographs of children killed came into the public’s eye; one was met with outrage, the other with silence. In June of 2014 a storm chaser, Mark “Storm” Farnik, working in Nebraska snapped a picture of a gravely injured five-year-old girl, Calista Dixon, being taken to a hospital on a stretcher after her home was hit by a tornado. The girl later died and the . Farnik was called “a coward” and “a piece of shit” and a debate between the industry and the public began as to whether or not the photos crossed any ethical boundaries, with the industry overwhelmingly saying that they didn’t since Farnik did not obstruct the girl’s rescue, nor could he do anything to further help her.

I could not find the photo in question, however, this is another photo that Farnik took that day.

Also in 2014, there was a terrible conflict in the Gaza Strip, which lead to the death of numerous people over the course of a few days, in particular, one incident that killed who were playing in the area. Photos of the bodies were shared and re-shared across news outlets and social media platforms and I remember thinking that there was something a bit off about the response to these photos, which were considerably more graphic, compared to the photos of Dixon.

The two incidents, having happened so close together illustrated an important point; we care when our own die, we don’t if it is someone else. This is the effect of the colonialism of photojournalism. Effectively, the photos taken by Farnik violated not the ethics of the industry, but the colonialist mentality of the American public with regard to the news images that they see. And who informs the visual language around that mentality? You guessed it, photojournalist and news outlets!

My Facebook post and thoughts at the time from 2014, original link here;

Ever since the the conversation around the issues in the photojournalism community has split in a couple different ways; the issues of , and the fact that these plagiarized photos shine a light on a deeper and more sinister problem; the commodification of rape (or sensational stories more generally) within the photojournalism industry. Why was no one up in arms about Datta’s image of an under aged girl being raped before it was discovered that he had manipulated the photos? Why did it take the other issue of image fabrication to highlight is a genuinely more dire problem that has come up within the industry? These are the questions that our industry is grappling with now — and if we are not we sure as hell should be.

This is where the colonialism of photojournalism becomes dire. This is where we as an industry begin losing our souls. With regard to Datta, highlighted the ethical issues of showing underaged girls being raped as a form of contest recruitment in their article . Not only was Lensculture sharing a photo of an underage girl being raped, they were using that image as a recruitment tool for aspiring photographers to pay-to-play the photojournalism contest game. “You too could be the next Magnum photographer!”

Image taken from the duckrabbit article

But it doesn’t stop there; also highlighted the issue with work with underage sex workers as well — same issue, without the image falsification. And believe me, the irony of a woman perpetuating problematic imagery around rape is not lost on me at all. Duckrabbit has a good point; how are Hoyn’s images really different from Datta’s?

Rob Johns further breaks down this issue in his article, , and how everyone from McCurry (part of Magnum), to Sebastião Salgado, to Ron Haviv (part of VII), has let their ethics systems slide for the sake of… well actually, I don’t know what it is for the sake of; money? fame? notoriety? Pick you poison. Ami Vitale was also mentioned in the article and .

The fact of the matter is that there is a common theme with the subjects of each of these photo stories; we are looking at subjugated persons in a far away land who are powerless within their own lives. And so the ethics question becomes, ‘In what way is photojournalistic storytelling helping these people.’ I am a firm believer in the fact that we are people before we are photojournalists. There is a point in every story to put the fucking camera down and start being a human.

Colonialistic thought led us to slavery. Colonialistic thought creates terms like savages. Colonialistic thought separates us fundamentally from each other and ultimately infests our very souls. And when we see colonialism in photojournalism, the story is no longer objective, nor is it a means to improve a situation, it is commercial — plain and simple.

I am hard pressed to see how the Datta and Hoyn photos help their subjects, in fact, the photographs themselves strike me as another form of rape in a literal sense, we are taking something from our subjects as an industry— the subjects are highlighted, not the perpetrators. Why are we keeping rapist’s identities safe instead of those being raped? The victims of these crimes do not strike me as having control over their own story. The danger is that the project ultimately becomes another form of sex trafficking — trafficking the image. The photographs are used to promote competitions, but how does that get these underaged women out of their situation?

When it comes to these kinds of images and stories we are all at fault; the audience that doesn’t question the photograph, the institution that uses it to promote a competition or purely to increase sales, the judge who has let themselves believe that this work is more paramount because it is more extreme, and the photographer who didn’t stop something terrible from happening when it was within their power. As photographers, when dealing with these difficult stories, we have to ask ourselves every time we go out to shoot, “What is better? Taking the photo or intervening?” There are moments when all we can do is to click the shutter, but it is not every moment.

The states in part;

  • Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.

The state in part;

  • The dignity and rights of every child are to be respected in every circumstance.
  • The best interests of each child are to be protected over any other consideration, including over advocacy for children’s issues and the promotion of child rights.
  • When trying to determine the best interests of a child, the child’s right to have their views taken into account are to be given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity.
  • Those closest to the child’s situation and best able to assess it are to be consulted about the political, social and cultural ramifications of any reportage.

Do the projects we work on as photojournalists do that?

The fact of the matter is that the colonialism of photojournalism is alive and well and we have been unwittingly at its mercy for far too long. There are so many more examples of questionable ethics out there, but at this point, I think the problem is clear.

There is indeed a vocabulary for photojournalism today and most of us are using that vocabulary and thus we are all at risk of falling into the ethical trap we have set for ourselves. But just because we might be on the wrong team, doesn’t make us bad people. I would like to say here that I am on the wrong team; I am privileged, I am white and I have grown up in a western context — my biases have been set. But I want to become better. I want us all to become better. Pointing out our mistakes or how the system has benefited us is not an admission of evil within ourselves and our work; it is a necessary step in improving an industry that we all care deeply about, as well as improving the ethics and dignity of our own work. I genuinely believe that it is OK for us to question each other — to try and make each other better.

I have thought about this a great deal in my own work and am still thinking about this. What are my ethical boundaries? How am I contributing to a problematic system? What mistakes have I made?

We are not bad photojournalist when we unwittingly benefit from a flawed system. However, we become bad photojournalists when we manipulate that flawed system to our own benefit, instead of highlighting the problems that are crippling the foundations of the industry we care so much about. We are better when we accept our mistakes and try to grow from them. We are going to make mistakes, it is just part of life, the point is to not make them again. We are worst when we become defensive and let our ego take over. I have often said that ego is the last thing that belongs in photojournalism, but unfortunately, it is usually the first place you find it.

So let’s improve. Let’s admit that we make mistakes. Let’s figure out a way to make things better. There are so many organizations and projects out there who are trying to improve the situation; , started by , who’s mission is to share photography, film and new media with underserved Bronx communities and the cultural community at large, there is the , which uses photographs of everyday life to transcend media-driven stereotypes that depict the continent primarily as a place overrun by disease, poverty, and war, and there is the , started by , which was a year-long, socially-engaged collaboration that provided a visual narrative of South Kensington’s past and present through photographs, while creating shared spaces for fostering interconnectivity, celebrating the history, and preserving the heritage of, the community, and has trail blazed a path in journalism that is free of corporate influence and money, stating that for true democracy to work, people need easy access to independent, diverse sources of news and information. Even the seems to be trying to turn away from it’s problematic tendencies with such programs as the Arab Documentary Photography Program, the Inge Morath Award, and the like.

These are the kind of projects and organizations that will save the soul of photojournalism today. Projects that look to give a genuine voice to ‘the other’ and turn them into ‘the friend,’ or ‘the partner,’ or ‘the leader.’ We are standing at a pivot point for photojournalism today. Will we allow ourselves to fall deeper into the corporate, commercial, prize and award-driven hole we have dug for ourselves; will we continue with our colonialistic tendencies? Or will we start looking to give a voice to the generations of people who have been voiceless for so long? Will we become bitter or will we become better?

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Women Writing Wanderlust Worldwide & Daily

Clary Estes

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As a photographer, I have come to understand my work as being a delicate balance between a record of life and a testimony of the human condition.

4WD Magazine

Women Writing Wanderlust Worldwide & Daily