How do you shoot war, hunger, poverty; capture the human impact of a rape, terror attack or natural calamity? These are questions as old as the camera itself, and there are no perfect answers. But there was general consensus that Italian photographer Alessio Mamo had got it wrong when he posted images from a conceptual series titled ‘Dreaming Food’ on the World Press Photo (WPP) Foundation’s Instagram account last week.
In the series, villagers in impoverished parts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are shown with their hands covering their faces, standing before a table covered with plates of fake food. “This series was not photojournalism or journalism of any kind,” says Arko Datta, who won the World Press Photo of the Year award in 2004. (WPP gives out internationally coveted awards in photojournalism every year, and occasionally hands over its Insta page to renowned photographers.)
So how do you get it right when shooting the poor, hungry person of colour? For one thing, you check your privilege, says documentary photographer Ronny Sen. Treat the subject as you would treat someone of your means, colour and social position.
“In their pursuit of something different, Mamo and the organisation have treated poverty in the third world as ‘interesting’ and that is an approach they should be ashamed of,” says veteran photojournalist Raghu Rai. “This was not documentation; the artificiality made it crude, insensitive and dehumanising.”
The post is still live on the WPP page, and what worries photographers is that the Foundation never explained why they thought it met their standards. A routine statement only reiterated that photographers are occasionally given the opportunity to “share work of their choosing…”
While it’s never a good idea to introduce props and request a pose, as Mamo did, several thumb rules are ignored in the field, particularly by people photographing the marginalised on a regular basis. Have you spoken to each subject; sought permission for the faces visible in a group; are you avoiding or reinforcing stereotypes, these are questions you have to ask yourself, says photojournalist Chirag Wakaskar, who runs the account Everyday Mumbai on Instagram.
Rai recalls a time in the late 1970s when he visited Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, to document the lives of the homeless people living there.
“Mother Teresa told me that she was fine with me taking as many photos as I needed, but asked me to ensure that the dignity of the person was not compromised. I was 36 and had been working for a while but this was surprising for me. This kind of concern had only come from celebrities and VIPs’ representatives. Her perspective helped me prioritise human dignity, which I believe is crucial for any good photographer.”
Rai adds that this also made him realise that there is constant dialogue between the photographer and the subject. “Every person in a picture says something in their silence; it is the job of the photographer to respect that silent voice,” he says.
Sen describes it also as the difference between saying something for shock value and actually having something to say. “If you have something to say, you are already likely starting from a place of compassion and context,” Sen adds.
Do your homework
Context is everything. You cannot tell stories in a place that is new to you, if you do not acknowledge the stories that already exist, says Wakaskar.
“Do your homework and learn about the place beyond a mere scratching of the surface. That is the only way to really move on from the racist past of photography, which has traditionally been the White eyes’ view of the world.”
This is also true of urban Indian photographers turning up overnight in parts of the country they know little about. Every photographer should spend some time in a new area, without a camera, as a research period, senior photographers say.
Because a press photographer is not at the scene in the role of an artist, or creator, Datta adds. “The most binding rule for the journalist to remember,” Datta says, “is that he or she is just a messenger communicating a ground reality. When you put yourself before the story, try to find ways to grab eyeballs, it starts to unravel.”
Back to the basics
“Colour, composition, tonality, literally your point of view… everything has an effect on how you tell your story,” says Sen. “It’s the politics of aesthetics. I never photograph people from a top angle unless that angle is important or my last option. I try to photograph at eye-level. If the person is sitting, I sit. You look at the arrangement, light and the skin tone of an editorial shoot with the CEO of a company and compare that with photos taken of Rohingya refugees, for example, in the very same magazine, and you will see the difference yourself,” he adds.
He shares an example of a photo he took of a woman from the Baiga tribe in Madhya Pradesh. “There is a tendency to romanticise or exoticise such images. I make it a point to try to capture the person as I would if they had commissioned me to do a portrait. The proof that I got it right, for me, was that she loved the photo. That’s very important to me, especially when representing the marginalised — the person should like what they see,” Sen says.
He shares a line from the public intellectual Susan Sontag as a tip for photojournalists, particularly when covering deprivation: “Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”
In a statement issued amid the uproar, Mamo argued that his intention was to shock.
“If the intention (as stated) was to alert people to the food wasted at Christmas time, there are enough homeless and hungry people in the US and UK to represent that contrast,” says photographer and curator Ram Rahman. “Many people have shot hunger in India too. Sunil Janah and Margaret Bourke-White focussed on the famine in Bengal and southern India in the 1940s with powerful images that shook the conscience of the nation. These images are terribly trite, at best.”
(With inputs from Paroma Mukherjee)
First Published: Aug 04, 2018 18:56 IST
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