I feel like there are many layers to this conversation regarding the ethics of documentary storytelling, its more complex than a simple ‘unlearning’ of years and years of intersections of gazes. It is also a little more complex than confronting ones own colonial or western gaze.
To recognise ones privilege and try to confront it is commendable but easy. The truth is, we can have as many discussions as we want regarding the intricacies of Documentary Photography, we can continue to ‘educate’ people and have conversations surrounding ‘Othering’, ‘Exoticism’ and the objectification of people of colour, but then, does it stop there?
The Photography industry in itself is still colonial to a certain extent. Many publications, INGO’s, Communications Officers and Photo Editors still prefer to fly in Photographers from the West to capture the stories of of those based within Africa or Asia who apparently need their stories told for them, depsite the evolving of many Documentary Photographers who are based within that region and are more than capable of telling these stories themselves.
These Photographers will then fly back to the West, get their images published and maybe even win a World Press Photo award for such a ‘compelling’ single image or body of work, and then who knows… this might even get them a blue verification tick on their instagram, but then the question is… what happens to the subjects in those images? Whilst that Photographers life changes for the better, its subjects life stays the same.
Its easy to talk about needing a change, but it is harder to do it. The same organisations, publications and individuals that are eager to have conversations regarding the colonisation of the Photography industry, are the same individuals who are perpetuating it. What many fail to realise is that by continuing to fly in people who are more ‘equipped’ to tell someones story, is essentially saying to all the other Photographers who are based within that region ‘you are not good enough’.
Does this mean that people from the West should no longer fly into certain countries for assignments?… No. It basically means that in order to change certain narratives and ‘unlearn’ repetitive ideologies, there not only needs to be conversations happening but collaborations taking place. Collaborations between the Photographers being flown in and the Photographers based within that region. An exchange of skills and ideas. an intersection of not only a Western gaze but the gaze of the individual/s witnessing the action first hand and can tell the story a little further. Of course, its a little more complex that this, but it is a start.
The truth is, at times I wonder if change can ever really take place? Unfortunately I saw a very disturbing image from a White Photographer who did a project on HIV in South Africa, an image that completely not only objectified his subject, but completely dehumanised and demoralise her. Of course, he was called out and offered a ‘heartfelt’ apology, but how many more Photographers are continuing to do the same thing? How many more organisations, publications and industries will continue to cause controversy by mis-representing a person of colour and then write an eloquent apology afterwards?
I must add however that it is easy to blame others, its easy to blame the West and hold them accountable for the numerous mishaps occuring in the Photography industry, but we must also question what the many Photographers in regions within Africa, Asia or where ever doing to also change the narrative? To be quite frank, many articles and conversation surrounding colonialism within the photography industry are being facilitated by people from the West, some are being initiated by Africans and Asians but not many.
One must not only participate in these conversations and specks of change, but own it. But again, its a little more complex than this.