Thursday, August 27, 2009

trying to get it right

Tonight I chatted with a writer friend who just returned from a couple weeks in Southeast Asia. We talked about many things, of course, and among the richness was conversation about how to tell stories of people we meet in such places, that are so different from our homeplaces, without descending into unfair cliche and stereotype. How do you tell stories of far-away people and places to people back home who've never visited them? How will they understand?

Relatedly, we talked about photographs, as she considers which photos to share from her trip. She realized that in Southeast Asia she wanted lots of photos of people, but when she and her husband stopped off in Paris for a couple days, she specifically didn't want people in her photos. Was she exploiting the people in Southeast Asia?

Oh, how I understand what she's wrestling with. So many people who visit points in Africa or Haiti or other developing countries return home armed with photos of themselves posing with cute kids. I'm sorry to say that I have a harder and harder time with these photos, as well-meant as they are and as much as they populate my own photo album. And it's because of that exploitation question. That sense of white Westerner showing off the good things they're doing for the poor little kids of Africa is something I find increasingly troubling. And it's sometimes all too embodied in these photos.

The fact is that kids are easy to come by in many developing countries. To explain: particularly in warm weather cultures, much life happens outdoors. That's where children play. So they easily notice the strangers walking through their village or down their street. Warm weather cultures, where many developing countries lie, are also often very communal, so communities watch over children and children watch over each other and everyone is friendly to strangers. It's just not so easy to take pictures of children in places like France because culturally the children aren't so likely to be running around without adults hovering over them. It's just all so different. On a related side note, I think that people in India and many parts of Africa, for example, are some of the most beautiful people in the world. So photos of many of them make for stunning portraits. And that's partly why so many people are able to take compelling photos of them. But...

After working alongside a photographer while in Uganda, I've started paying a lot more attention to the kinds of photos that make their way into the literature of development and mission organizations and into newspapers and other media. My photographer friend is a very good photographer, but the reality is that I see his photos repeated again and again by other good photographers. The faces are different but the photos tell the same story. But it's not necessarily a true story.

You see, there's no way photographs can tell a whole story. In the same way movies are almost never as good as the books they're adapted from, photographs need words to give them context. Photos on their own aren't fully contextual. They can be artistic and amazing, but as sole tellers of true stories, they can be, well, misleading. Everything going on outside a picture's frame is lost, unable to be considered by the photo's viewers. All the viewer can see is the way things looked for a split second of time within the space parameters of the photo. Photographs rarely provide back story. They rarely explain what prompted the smile or frown captured by a snapping shutter. All of this missing information can tell a story that isn't true at all.

As I seek opportunities for further work abroad, I'm coming to a frustrating suspicion: I need to be a photographer in order to be certain to be sent to points outside the U.S. Photographers must necessarily shoot on location. There's no way around it. Writers, on the other hand, well, if you're looking to save on travel costs, it's much easier to ask the writers to stay home and gather quotes via email. At a loss, I think, to true story-telling. There's nothing that can substitute for being on the ground in a place, gathering the back story and the outside-the-frame action that the camera can't possibly capture.

Sure, writing has limits too. There's never space to tell everything. And some photographers do an amazing job telling stories through their lenses. But though a picture may be worth a 1000 words, as the saying goes, there are 1000 other words the picture misses. And I think it's those words, composed thoughtfully, that protect a photo subject's humanity and ward off exploitation of the poor people the world loves to photograph.