The ethics of seeing
Neeta Satam discusses combating colonialism and sensationalism in photographing “the other” to bring equitable discourse to photojournalism.
Years before I became a photojournalist, I was a geologist in awe of landscape photography. To hone my shooting skills, I began attending weekly meetings of photography enthusiasts at a local camera club in the Boston area.
In the first few meetings, I noticed the club was dominated by wealthy men who spent enormous amounts of money on the latest gear and “photo expeditions” to foreign countries. The equipment they owned and the countries they visited seemed like status symbols among this circle.
I often wondered, what if the “subjects” from the countries they visited showed up in the United States to snap pictures of them mowing their front yards or of their grandkids jumping on a trampoline?
At the Missouri Photo Workshop two years later, that imagined scene became a reality. On the first day of the workshop, when photographers were out in the town of Troy photographing daily life, a local woman became angry about the presence of Showkat Nanda, a workshop participant. Nanda, a brown man who sports a beard, was not taking pictures, but quietly sat on the periphery of a playground with a camera around his neck.
Though he explained that he was a part of a workshop documenting the community, which was being conducted with support from the town, the woman continued to express suspicion and disdain in an angry tone and asked him to leave.
“In that moment, I felt like I was not a human being. I felt hurt,” Nanda recollected. “Westerners consider Kashmir conservative and third world, but we treat people with dignity, especially outsiders.”
This treatment had a profound impact on Nanda, who grew up in Kashmir. It fueled a frustration he has long felt about the way some outsiders portray certain parts of the world as only being conflict-ridden, with photographers trying to advance their careers by parachuting in to capture dramatic scenes of war.
Nanda became motivated to start a documentary workshop in Kashmir to nurture localized storytelling. Kashmir has many emerging photographers and numerous stories to be told, but there is, in his view, a dearth of formal training. And he is disappointed that most emerging Kashmiri photographers are drawn to breaking news as opposed to in-depth storytelling.
Many seem to believe that they must travel to a foreign place to make an impressive body of work. Nanda refutes this idea by telling his students that the most recognized images of his career were taken within a five-mile radius of his home.
Although Nanda’s experience did not shock me back then, I was naive not to see it as a harbinger of what I would come to understand about photography while pursuing a graduate degree in photojournalism at the Missouri School of Journalism. From 2013 to 2015 during graduate school, I worked as a coordinator for the Pictures of the Year International (POYi) and College Photographer of the Year (CPOY) photo contests. The behind-the-scenes perspective I gained about some of the most important contests in our industry greatly shaped my views about visual language, sensationalism, and photography’s colonial aspects.
In 2015, Giovanni Troilo was a POYi finalist for “The Dark Heart of Europe,” but during the final round judges began to question whether he had photographed found situations or staged his shots. After additional correspondence between POYi director Rick Shaw and Troilo regarding his work, it was clear that Troilo had staged some scenes. Troilo was disqualified.
The previous year, I witnessed Souvid Datta’s work documenting prostitution in India win the silver medal for CPOY, making him an emerging star in photojournalism. However, his success came to an abrupt halt after a series of controversies last year. It began with a LensCulture photo contest advertisement that used one of Datta’s photos of an underage woman being raped by a client, from his series on Indian brothels. Shortly after that, it was revealed that Datta had manipulated the image, pasting a woman from a Mary Ellen Mark photograph into his own. Datta also admitted to stealing entire photographs and presenting them as his work.
After Datta was caught plagiarizing, he admitted his wrongdoings in an interview with TIME Magazine. In the interview Datta also said, “Validation and exposure are things I continue to struggle with today as a freelancer, but earlier I did seek after them more actively.”
Reading this interview, I wondered, did he consciously manipulate his stories so that they would conform to a Eurocentric perspective to gain validation in the Western world? Does validation often mean being part of the grant, award, and workshop cliques? As a person of color, would he have had the same success if he had challenged the traditional Eurocentric visual narrative and not fallen to the pangs of sensationalism? Is journalistic sensationalism a formula used to gain visibility in an industry dominated by Western media?
While the photojournalism community expressed outrage over Datta’s plagiarism and unethical use of Photoshop, few individuals talked about some of the more complex issues that riddle photojournalism such as Orientalism, Eurocentrism, and sensationalism.
In a 2001 article in Oxford University’s Past & Present, Terence Ranger argued that photography creates “landscapes,” constructs the idea of “wildlife,” produces stereotypical illustrations of “tribe” and “race,” and gratifies colonial desire with “soft pornographic postcards of naked African women.”
Prior to Ranger, Susan Sontag, in “On Photography,” wrote:
The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them.
The connection between photography and its inherent nature as a tool to “colonize new experiences,” as Sontag wrote, is another aspect that should be discussed more often among photographers. Is a lack of discussion on issues like this a reflection of privilege within the practice or a deficiency in visual literacy?
Again, discussions about ethics in photojournalism often tend to focus on issues such as the physical alteration of an image or staging a scene and much less on the deeper, perhaps more problematic, issues of representation.
When the Datta controversy erupted, some were eager to point out that he was not formally trained. This is immaterial. Whether professionally trained or not, photographers offering their work to the public need to make a conscious effort to understand the theoretical and ethical aspects of the profession — observing and thinking about the roles of photography and the visual arts in our society, both in historical and contemporary contexts — and operate accordingly. Furthermore, they should be well informed about the issues they are covering in order to produce a well-balanced story.
Once, during an open Q&A session at an award ceremony, I asked one of the recipients — whose work was produced outside his country of origin — how much time he spends researching a story. He said he is too busy shooting to have any time to focus on research.
It was a troubling response because he is not alone. Many photographers travel the world to document places with very little cultural and historical perspective. Outsider perspectives are important, but they should be perspectives that are sensitive and knowledgeable of the nuances of the places and people they represent.
Numerous photographers I have met tell me that they travel to India because they thought it was “a colorful place to photograph.” All too often, it seemed, their favorite photography destination was the banks of the Ganges, where they focused their lenses on the burning of corpses and the holy men that eat those corpses. These perspectives do nothing to challenge the clichés of India that photographers have created over decades. They reduce a multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multilingual country of 1.3 billion people into a monolith — the land of elephants, snake charmers, and holy men.
Fortunately, not all photography from an outsider’s perspective is problematic, nor should we ignore issues that are frequently presented as sensationalistic in nature. For example, a portrait series by photographer Ken Hermann that documents male flower vendors on the banks of India’s Hugli River is unexpected and surprising. Although the men in Hermann’s images come from a low economic strata, he photographs them in a way that challenges the established stereotype of “poor and miserable Indian men.”
Last year Andrea Bruce photographed a story for National Geographic about the issue of public sanitation worldwide, which recently won first place in POYi’s “Environmental Vision Award.” While many photographers have documented the issue by taking images of people defecating in public, Bruce steers away from cliché. Her images are subtle and powerful, informing the viewers on a challenging world health issue.
The image that struck me the most was of community organizer Santoshi Tiwari as she stood strong among a group of villagers, hand on hip, lecturing on problematic sanitation habits. It deftly handled delicate subject matter while also grappling with the complexities of male-female interactions, poverty, women’s empowerment, and class dynamics in India. The image is free of exoticism, sensationalism, or graphic quality.
While there have been times I felt crushed while navigating this industry, I have also felt hope and redemption from photographers who have received recognition for quiet yet powerful images. For example, the same year Datta was recognized by CPOYi, Lisa Krantz and Tim Matsui were awarded at POYi.
Krantz’s work struck a chord with me because she has dedicated her career to communicating underreported issues in her community. By photographing people with immense dignity, she has told emotionally moving stories like “Twice Betrayed: Military Sexual Trauma” and “A Life Apart: The Toll of Obesity.”
Matsui’s work inspired me not only for its depth, but for how he has leveraged his work to impact policy. Instead of embracing quick visual gratification, Matsui invested years and tremendous research reporting on sex trafficking. He started his long-term project by documenting sex trafficking outside his country and utilized that experience to expose sex trafficking in his hometown of Seattle, Washington.
While both Krantz and Matsui present geographic “insider” perspectives, there are many photographers whose “outsider” perspectives have been key in shaping thoughts and perceptions within the communities they photograph and beyond. A classic example, of course, is Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” which challenged the idea of the American Dream.
David Guttenfelder and Kevin Frayer have brought thoughtful “outsider” perspectives to countries that are often misunderstood beyond their borders. Guttenfelder’s work in North Korea is particularly remarkable because of his ability to gain access allowing him to make insightful images about a country that has remained a mystery to the rest of the world.
Frayer has strived to push beyond the stereotypical visual narrative surrounding China. He shows the complexities of a geographically expansive country with a population of 1.4 billion people, keeping contemporary contexts such as globalization and the environment in mind.
In an interview with Huck Magazine in 2016, Frayer gave thoughtful insights on being an outsider and photographing minorities in China. He then went on to give advice to emerging photographers who want to document anthropological stories in foreign lands:
Pick a subject because it actually moves you, not because it’s quaint. These people are not quaint or charming. They don’t wear costumes. This is their traditional way of life. When you go to Tibet, it’s spectacularly beautiful — the Dharma is in the air, so to speak. It’s not something created for photography.
Photographers working as outsiders would do well to listen to Frayer’s advice. The lessons learned from presenting an outsider’s perspective can in turn inform one’s work as an insider.
Edward Said, in his seminal work Orientalism wrote:
The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance.
Said’s words ring true when one learns about the evolution of Krantz’s career. Early on, Krantz had a desire to work outside the United States. While working on a story about HIV positive mothers in Africa, Krantz found her true calling. “I realized what I was doing there, I loved to do in my home community: telling someone’s story on a deeper level and telling a story our readers might not know about otherwise,” she said.
That moment cemented her idea that “what is important is not where the story is, but what the story is.” She realized there were numerous stories in her community waiting to be told. “Someone needs to focus on those, especially as local newspaper staffs are reduced,” Krantz said. “I decided that was what I wanted to dedicate myself to.”
Documenting someone’s story is not a photographer’s right, but rather a responsibility to be carried out in fairness. A photograph by virtue is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s a powerful tool to record a moment and on the other hand it may brutally deprive everyone of the context or history that led to that moment.
When you raise the camera to your eye you become responsible for contextualizing the history of the person you are photographing. It is critical that photographers take that responsibility as seriously as they do the photograph itself. Stories need to be approached with intellectual curiosity rather than a mere visual curiosity. It is also critical they consider the people they are photographing as collaborators, not “subjects.”
Regardless of how much time and thought a photographer puts into researching an issue, a person, or place they are photographing, there will always be a lot they will never understand. Photographers could mitigate this, adding consciousness and depth to their work, by listening, learning, self-reflecting, and adapting frame by frame.
As we navigate our careers in times of controversies, political upheaval, and an increasingly polarized world, we need to hold ourselves to higher standards, both philosophically and ethically. Now more than ever it’s important for photojournalists to consistently evaluate the implications of their images and the power dynamics in the process of photographing the “other.”
We should strive to focus our lens on what connects us as humans as opposed to our differences. In doing so, not only can we challenge the Orientalist and colonial aspects of traditional photographic narratives, but we can also create a new visual legacy marked by equitable discourse.
Neeta Satam is a multilingual photographer and scientist from India based in the United States. She is the recipient of the 2017 Smith/Patterson Science Reporting Fellowship supported by the Pulitzer Center. Her work explores themes of cultural assimilation, the human condition, and the environment through documentary photography. Follow Neeta on Instagram.