How, and do we represent the interests of those we photograph

How, and do we represent the interests of those we photograph

This is an attempt at a serious answer to some comments that were posted on my facebook page where I was promoting a documentary photography workshop in Dharavi slum. Some people felt that the fact that I am going to run a photography workshop in Dharavi is nothing less than exploiting the poor, using their situation, living environments and personal spaces for my own promotion and benefit.

Readers are quick to react when they feel a photographer has crossed the line and intruded into a subject’s personal life. This is especially visible when victims of violence and their families are suddenly thrust into the harsh light of public scrutiny, their private life suddenly the subject of front-page pictures and articles.

How, and do we represent the interests of those we photograph

The fact is that documentary photography is one of the simplest and most powerful tools available to tell a story. It is often more effective than any surveys, campaign or debate to send a message and to raise awareness. Complex problems undermining human rights violations, torture, and others crimes often go unnoticed by mainstream media and are therefor unknown to the rest of the world. Photography is a very straightforward and effective way to reveal such issues and bring them to the front line of public awareness.

WWP 2012

Paul Hansen, Sweden, Dagens Nyheter

Take for example this year’s recent winner of the World Press Photo picture of the year? Is Paul Hansen’s photograph a simple case of voyeurism or does it serve a higher purpose bearing witness, as war photographer James Nachtwey once said, to the suffering around us? Is this an example of how an ‘insensitive’ photographer exploited the misery of a tragedy to promote himself or does it represent the interest of the people whose agony he had captured?

One of the most memorable images of all time was Dorothea Lange’s picture “The Migrant Mother”. It is a sad, roadside close-up of a destitute mother with a faraway look and her shy children. Unfortunately, the mother in the portrait, Florence Thompson, complained that Lange received fame for the picture while she lived in relative poverty. Nevertheless, when Mrs. Thompson suffered a stroke and her family could not pay her medical expenses, people around the country donated over $15,000. Many wrote that they were touched by Lange’s photograph (see Los Angeles Times, November 18, 1978, p. I and “Symbol of depression,” 1983).

When does a picture present the ‘significance of facts’ and when is it porn?

Ragini, a transvestite.Falkland Road, Bombay, India. 1978 by Mary Ellen Mark

Ragini, a transvestite.Falkland Road, Bombay, India. 1978 by Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark’s extraordinary portrait of Falkland Road was first published in 1981, following years of interactions and relationship building trust with the prostitutes of Bombay’s infamous red light district. These eventually led to 65 photographs made over six weeks that show the daily life lived by the women (and men) of the street. Mark’s images are beautiful, electric, shocking, and remarkable for their emotional power and for the visceral brilliance of their color. Together with Mark’s captions and introductory text,Falkland Road is an astonishing insight into a raw and frightening world, made accessible by the completeness of the photographer’s involvement, by her humanity, and by the way she captures the variety of individual life and the color, passion, and tenderness that still abide there.

On the flaps of the dust jacket to Falkland Road there is an outline of the many awards and honors Mary Ellen Mark has received during her distinguished career, including five honorary doctorates.Does the fact that the prints are now selling for approximately $3,000 mean that the photographer, one of the most respected documentary photographers in the world, is an exploiter?

How we effect a person’s self-perception and how our work depends on it

Another famous photographer who gained a reputation for exploiting her subjects was Diane Arbus. The writer Eudora Welty had described Arbus’s work as “totally violates human privacy, and by intention”. Arbus like photographing the blind “because they can’t fake their expressions. They don’t know what their expressions are, so there is no mask”. Her late pictures of inmates in various mental homes represent an extreme exploitation of this idea, almost to the point of mental sightlessness. These people have no idea of who they are or how they are perceived and are powerless to control the way they are regarded.

Each one of us has his way of approaching our subjects. Arbus herself said she had a way of being able to ‘figure myself into any situation’. Awkwardness was her starting point. In this way her approach to photography was similar to Joan Didion’s to journalism. ‘My only advantage as a reporter’, Didion explained, ‘is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interest. And it always does’. (from the book The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer)

A documentary photography workshop in India. Dharavi, Mumbai 2013The Where and When of Picture Taking

Because many readers react strongly to pictures that seem to violate the privacy of others, it is important to be clear on the legal and ethical issues surrounding the right to privacy. More than the law, it is important that we as documentary photographers value people, their inherent beauty and dignity.

P.S And as a final note, and shameless promotion; The documentary photography workshop in Dharavi will address all the above and more in an open and collaborative manner. I am always open to suggestions and criticism as long as it is polite and in the sprit of sharing and learning.

* The cover image is from an assignment with the hand-pulled rickshaws drivers of Kolkata

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Comments ( 8 )

  • sanjay austa

    Sephi thanks for the post and for opening this up for debate. I  think the criticism you are receiving are not because you are photographing Dharavi but because you are conducting a photography workshop there. A Photography Workshop is a commercial enterprise no matter how much a humantarian glow you may want to give it.  So I am not sure if the comparisons with James Nachtwey’s  war photography or Mary Ellen Mark’s Falkland Road project are really valid here. On a photography project in slums, brothel’s or warfronts the photographer is documenting something and brings the world’s attention to people and their problems.  And as you rightly say documentary photography is a powerful tool to brings about  that awareness.    So the question is whose interest is served by this workshop? Certainly not the Dharavi residents. 
    Perhaps you may also want to consider that isn’t a photography workshop in a slum stereotyping  photographers and their  proclivity for slum photos because they are way to easy? 

    • Sephi Bergerson

      Thanks for the comment Sanjay. I am not trying to give the workshop a ‘humanitarian glow’. It is a photo workshop at one of the more colorful neighborhoods of Mumbai. Simple. The ‘poor-exploited-people-of-the-slum’ color is falsely attributed by the people that consider Dharavi out-of-bound for a photography workshop and thus making the stereotype live on. It is this dogmatic point of view that will keep Dharavi in the same spot as it has been in years; a slum. What if I ran a workshop in Kolaba? Will the interests of the residents of Kolaba be served? Would it have been OK to do such a workshop as people in Kolaba live in nicer homes? There are many stories in Dharavi other than how poor the residents are. If you go to Dharavi, and maybe you should, you will find that it has more beauty, power, and pride than many other places in India. Don’t discriminate by putting a simple tag on an entire population. Dharavi is way beyond that.
      And with the same attitude, maybe ‘slum dog millionaire’ should have also been shot somewhere else as it was a commercial project. Why stop here? What about the book? Did it serve the interest of the people of Dharavi? I have full respect for the people that live there. Putting them in a corner as slum dwelers does not help them more than taking eight photographers there and teaching them how to tell a visual story with respect to the culture they photograph.

      • Greg Acuna

         For me the problem/difficulty is that people label things before discussing them. It is possible to educate or exploit (and sometimes both) with everything we do. I appreciate Sephi’s intelligent and well considered answer to those who have challenged him. I wonder what the world would be like if all “arguments” began with the question: “what do you mean…?”

        Good luck…hope it goes well, is enlightening to students, teacher and those you touch.

  • barnali kalita

    Apart from being the largest slum in Asia, Dharavi is also a major hub for small scale industries. It produces more than $500 million of revenue every year. Although people find it comfortable to sympathise with the poverty side of Dharavi, they mostly fail to understand that it is an economy in itself thriving with contrast! An artist or photographer likes to be present and feel the uniqueness of Dharavi/ Kamathipura and many more such sites, whereas others may just feel content by talking about it! 
    One can not just pick up a camera and walk in to Dharavi and start shooting .. it does require specific skill sets and sensitivity. Although many people living in Dharavi appear hostile to photographers, there are also people who will love you for the attention you shower on them. It is one’s personal choice which side of the story pulls him more. A photojournalist tells you how to create an inspiring story out of anything that pulls him. After all, it is not Product photography.. this is not Advertising! A photojournalist has to photograph what’s around him..the reality, with a perspective! Why should a workshop be cheaper because it is conducted in Dharavi? Could it be more expensive if it was conducted in SoBo? Can you hold a photographer guilty of photographic aesthetically intriguing and equally challenging subjects? If not for the workshop, he would have been paid by a magazine or publication to go there. He charges for his ability to shoot a subject while creating a story and teaches you how to do the same. What someone charges as a fee has to do with his experience / skill and no one else should ideally pass any comments on that.  A person who respects his talent as a photographer and as a teacher will be interested in his workshops, so it is not your worry if you don’t. Since decades, Photojournalists across the world have been creating awareness and sensitivity towards Dharavi among common people . I wonder how many non-photojournalists went to Dharavi for like a stroll in the evening? It is sad to see that someone thinks this has to be stopped.. so that there is nothing left for the future generations to see.. Strange! 

  • Gaonwala

    Mr Burger, do you live in Dharavi…it’s easier to admit you are just promoting yourself than to prove there is a ‘higher’ cause behind what you are  doing. also, dharavi is going to be dharavi whether you or others hold workshops or not. yes it will amuse and interest some people. but no, don’t be delusional!

    • Sephi Bergerson

      First of all, the name is not Burger but Bergerson. You are right. My intention is to make money over the back of the poor Indians and nothing else. Not to teach documentary photography. Not to teach visual narrative. Not to teach anything to anyone! If everyone was thinking like you than Delhi would have a photo festival as India will stay India. Right? A friend of mine just said that people are so “concerned” about the moral and philosophical issues around photography that it’s wonder hardly any work gets done in India. I so agree with him!

  • barnali kalita

    “The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on”
    ― Joseph Needham

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