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Duckrabbit’s Benjamin Chesterton on the Blindfolded Photographer

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[We recently met Benjamin Chesterton at the Frontline/ICP symposium, where he participated in a discussion on the future of visual narrative. He had some strong opinions about photojournalists and storytelling, and we thought our readers would be interested in hearing his ideas. —Ed.]

One surefire way to irritate blind people is to think that you can put a blindfold on for an hour or two and understand what it is to be blind. It sounds like a good idea until you really start to think about it. I should know. I once set out to make a radio documentary for the BBC about the contrasting ways in which the visually impaired and the sighted experience the countryside.

For the purposes of the program I intended to blindfold the presenter Richard Uridge and send him up a hill accompanied by two “real” blind people. It was a dumb idea on many levels, not least because the program would have ended up being about the rather superficial experience of the presenter. The majority of the audience no doubt would have loved the show because they love Richard, but it would have been as deep as a puddle. The story would have been all about him.

What’s this got to do with photojournalism? As I have been discovering over the last couple of years, a little too much.

My interest as both a practitioner and commentator is principally about how we use photography to tell stories about the developing world. In his book Truth Needs No Ally, Howard Chapnick writes of photojournalists,

They give a voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and help to the helpless.”

It’s a widely held and romantic view of a profession whose lifeblood is often the worst the world has to offer. But what worries me is the pictures we celebrate and the two-dimensional stories they sometimes tell.

In 2006 I moved to Ethiopia. One of the things that struck me when I arrived was just how different the country was from my expectations. Until that point in my life I had mainly been experiencing Africa through the eyes of photojournalists, TV news reports and NGOs, whose stories are too often those of a blindfolded man who claims to be a spokesperson for the blind. It became obvious to me that I had picked up an unbalanced visual history of Africa.

To explain what I mean, I’d like to address two differing approaches to depicting global health crises, both of which have been undertaken by some of the most talented photographers working today.

Since 2008, James Nachtwey has received funding to work on an important story about a dangerous strain of the tuberculosis virus called XDR. In the multimedia presentation “Struggle To Live: The Fight Against TB,” Nachtwey describes how more than 2 billion people are infected with TB. He then goes on to show a sequence of progressively more disturbing images.

What interests me as a documentary maker about Nachtwey’s film is that he chooses to use his own voice to tell other people’s stories, rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. It reminds me of UNICEF’s recently launched Put It Right campaign, which advocates for the rights of children to be heard but scores a spectacular own goal by failing to include the voice of a single child.

For me, the “objects” of many of Nachtwey’s pictures in this series are victims not only of their medical condition but also the pity Nachtwey’s photos evoke. Watching the video, it is all too easy for me to think of these nameless people as apart from the world rather than a part of it, because I feel no connections between myself, the imagery and Nachtwey’s somber voice.*

It troubles me that the photographic community puts weight in this kind of storytelling. Can you imagine the same being true of literature?  Opening a book by Ben Okri only to discover that every chapter just told the story of another African’s miserable death?  It’s inconceivable that such a book would be published, let alone be awarded grants, no matter how sharp the prose.

The photographic agency Magnum took a very different approach to this critical health issue in its thought-provoking multimedia presentation “Access to Life,” in which eight photographers portray people in nine countries around the world before and after they begin antiretroviral treatment for AIDS. Some, who have tuberculosis, don’t survive. Others make a recovery.

What’s different about these features is that each of the photographers is committed to telling the story of one individual, and most importantly, that we hear that person speak. However much a photographer’s style impairs or enhances a story, the sound of someone’s voice, in all its openness, has a unique power to move us from pity to understanding. That is a powerful experience for them and for us.

Despite the increasing number of projects like “Access to Life,” I’m left with the impression that photo essays often tell us much more about the photographer than the photographed. As Lane Turner explains in The Boston Globe:

“The mythology of my profession suggests that photojournalists can reveal subjects in ways most others miss. The camera is credited with the ability to probe personalities, to parse meaning from the chaos of life. Photographers often encourage these beliefs, as the myths imbue the profession with power, mystery, and, perhaps most important, romance. Photographers themselves believe the myths because that’s what we’re taught, and because they make us feel good about our jobs. But many times pictures say more about who took them than they ever do about their subjects.”

One way in which pictures reflect their makers is in the information and context that accompany an image. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie has spoken eloquently about the danger of the single story, which permits us to reduce, in the case of Africa, a whole continent to a series of mainly negative stereotypes. While Adichie addresses oral or written stories, in the single-image story, all too often the aesthetics of a photograph are celebrated above content. Yet accuracy and context must be the most important elements if journalism is going to maintain credibility.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the most celebrated of photojournalism awards, the World Press Photo. I am a big fan of the World Press, which each year brings us visceral and arresting accounts of the major events of the previous year.

This year a winning photographer was disqualified for a removing a tiny element of an image. The photo was later revealed to have been massively cropped and de-saturated of color, although this was deemed acceptable to the judges. There is good account of this on Professor David Campbell’s blog, which encouraged me to dig a little deeper into the competition’s journalistic grounding.

I was surprised to find that the World Press has little to say about captions in its entry rules, which seems startling. Colin Jacobson, renowned photo editor, critic and founder of Reportage Magazine recently wrote on Foto8:

“As an ersatz educator, I spend much time and energy trying to persuade photojournalism students that context is all, that a photograph is incomplete without its supporting text.”

Colin is spot on, and his point is illustrated in The World Press awards. Stefano De Luigi’s thought-provoking picture of a dead giraffe came second in the contemporary issues, singles, category. You can buy this image on his agency’s Web site where the caption reads:

“A giraffe lies dead, killed by drought in Wajr (sic), North Eastern province, Kenya on Oct. 9, 2009. Kenya hasn’t seen a drop of rain for several years and is now facing a devastating drought …”

That’s about as accurate as providing a picture of the office of Lehman Brothers with an accompanying caption that says “due to the economic crisis all the banks in America have gone bust.” [See De Luigi's response in comment #2 below. —Ed.]

In fact, according to the Kenyan MET office, heavy rains fell in Western Kenya during September 2009 and led to floods and loss of life. Even in some areas of Wajir, where a severe drought was taking place, there was a limited amount of rain. Images that accentuate the negative are all too common because few in the industry seem to care if you take a localized issue and then apply it to the rest of an African country, especially if you are giving “voice to the voiceless” by drawing attention to a problem. The result is the homogenization of Africa as a “country” of famine, tribal warfare and corruption. Fred Ritchin, author of the seminal work After Photography, believes that ultimately this loss of context will lead to the end of photojournalism as a relevant vehicle for storytelling,

“Until we agree that it is intolerable to continue witnessing horrific events without exploring their causes and putting them in context, to have one’s imagery selected by others to emphasize the sensational at the expense of the more nuanced and authentic, as well as having photographs miscaptioned to simplify and distort, photojournalism will become an increasingly self-referential and dead-end pursuit.”

Ritchin lays much of the blame for misrepresentation in the media on the shoulders of the photo editors who commission and publish much of what we see. Photographer Asim Rafiqui offers great insight into this process on his blog The Spinning Head:

“Editors (and not just photo editors, but the main editors) have significant influence in determining what kinds of pictures are made because they have a significant influence on what kinds of pictures are published. And the dirty little secret of photojournalism is that all photographers, particularly young and ambitious ones, learn quickly what editors want.”

At the end of last year I helped set up the Web site A Developing Story as a way to discuss some of the issues outlined above. It’s been informative and entertaining to watch esteemed photographers like Jan Grarup take the trouble to debate with Kenyan photographer Dolphine Emali about whether his work, as featured in The New York Times Lens blog, offered a fair representation of the refugee crisis on the border of Somalia. It’s the kind of dialogue that might lead to greater transparency and self awareness in the profession. Emali questioned Grarup’s representation of the refugee camps at Dadaab, where she had been a recent visitor:

“In the camps there is of course suffering but I would also have loved to see images of the children that were playing in the camp, images of the schools set up, images of the street with all the shops where refugees who’ve refused to be victims of circumstances are taking charge and rebuilding their lives. Where are the photos of the weddings that happen in the camp and where are the photos of people who despite their many tribulations, still observe prayers without fail? Where are the photos telling the other side of the story? … People in the camp, at least in Daadab (sic) are alive, not waiting around for death.”

To his great credit, Grarup offered a robust and thoughtful defense of his work, some of which mirrored the point Rafiqui made about which images are selected for publication.

A Developing Story also acts as a showcase for storytellers who reject the idea of the photojournalist as a messiah and who are genuinely looking for ways to give a platform to people we wouldn’t otherwise hear from. Joseph Rodriguez is one such storyteller, as demonstrated by his self-funded project, “Reentry,” about men and women preparing to leave the criminal justice system.

NGO’s like Human Rights Watch, OSI, Save the Children, and MSF are also building reputations for themselves with this kind of storytelling approach, using photography in some of the most thought-provoking and indeed journalistic ways found on the Web. Given the risk of confusing advocacy for their organization with advocacy for those they’re trying to help, it’s interesting, even challenging to a journalist like me, how often they get it right. This is something I would have found hard to believe until duckrabbit partnered with MSF last year on a project on the Congo.

What I hope comes across as important is not the photographs but the people in the photographs. And that’s the difference between the blindfolded speaking for the blind and the blind being allowed to speak for themselves.

Francoise’s Story from duckrabbit on Vimeo.

Benjamin Chesterton is creative director of duckrabbit, a multimedia production company. As part of a three-person team, he received a 2009 POYi Multimedia News Story award for ”Praying for the Rain,” a project on Nakuru Camp in Kenya.

*For another take on James Nachtwey’s images, see today’s New York Times Lens blog.




11 comments

  1. posted March 19, 2010 at 4:52 am | permalink

    bang on the money.

  2. Andrea Pitzer
    posted March 19, 2010 at 9:00 am | permalink

    [Stefano De Luigi sent this comment to the Storyboard in reference to his photo. --Ed.]

    Thank you to inform me about the comments of Mr. Chesterton on my work in Kenya and specifically on the picture of giraffe. That picture is having a huge visibility, so I found correct that somebody makes an enquiry to understand if by chance I didn’t shoot the giraffe in order to get a WPP. Indeed I have a deep respect for all the career of Mr. Chesterton, so I am quite flattered that somebody whom I esteem has spent some time on my work (even if, in a different way I would have liked), and I found really appropriate the debate and fair the chance you give me to explain and reply to his essay.

    I spent 14 days in Kenya between the end of September and the first week of October 2009. It has been a continuous appointment with death (animals and human being due directly or indirectly to the terrible drought which was affecting the country). So I found really shocking that somebody can doubt, but I can understand.

    Then in December 2009, February and the first days of March 2010, there were rains in North and Central Kenya even in some of the places we have visited. That for the moment, kept away the worst consequences of this critical situation. I was travelling on assignment for the magazine “Le Monde 2″ with the writer Emilio Manfredi who wrote the article. I can witness that “several” times we heard from different people that “not a single drop of rain has fallen since two years).”

    From what we have seen and what you can see by yourself in VII website watching the pictures of my reportage “Drought in Kenya” confirm this evidence. But in order to be more exhaustive in my reply I have asked Emilio Manfredi to forward me some quotes of “real people” we meet, that you can cross along his article published in Le Monde 2 and in Vanity Fair Italy November 2009.

    [The following are excerpted passages from magazine articles with quotes from sources on rainfall.--Ed.]

    “‘It’s years since the last time it rained,’ Isaac Namudani recalls planting his stick in the barren land. ‘At night, I stare at the sky and pray. If rain doesn’t come, we’ll share my cattle fate within a week.’ He puts straight his gun shoulder strap and starts off again, skeletal as his donkey.”

    “Not only agricolture has been affected by drought. Tourism, Kenya’s economy second heart, is at high risk as well. In Samburu National Park, unaware tourists watch an apocalyptic paradise. ‘It’s three years since it rained last time,’ explains Daniel Lentipo, a researcher for Save the Elephants. ‘The big herbivores have almost nothing left to eat.’ The situation has got irreversible when the surrounding pastures turned desert. Then shepherds brought their flocks into the protected areas, careless of the grazing prohibition.”

  3. JEM
    posted March 19, 2010 at 10:03 am | permalink

    Wow. Much to take away and think about. I’m happy to see this sort of critique in this forum. Many of us who work in the developing world share Chesterton’s concerns.

    As he suggests, Nachtwey’s work on TB is all too typical of as certain sort of contemporary photojournalism. Black- and brown-skinned people are relentlessly depicted as abject victims, incapable of responding creatively to their plight.

    A broader and more inclusive view of XDR TB crisis would show that many people with the disease are their own best advocates, who are organizing and fighting for treatment and resources.

    Like much reporting about the developing world, Nachtwey’s story is not so much wrong as it is massively incomplete.

  4. Dolphine
    posted March 19, 2010 at 11:16 am | permalink

    It’s good that the sentiments above are being expressed. I’m for telling things as they are especially when presenting myself as a journalist or a storyteller – what I consider myself . Everyone has a right to their opinion, even world renown photographers. Thing is though, that while they put their great skills into use capturing the ‘most beautiful’ images of the developing world, they forget that it’s not about them and how they feel about an issue but the story of their subjects. Unfortunately, this is not something that is only synonymous with foreign photographers as native photographers mostly working for international media sometimes tow the line.

    The fact that many people in the West/North assume that Africa is one country comes from the images that have been used to represent us. Africa is a continent. It’s a continent with great diversity. Sure we have problems. Some of them similar. Mostly we address them differently. Even within the borders of our countries, we still are as diverse. To put together bodies of work that have people making comments like ‘Africans are suffering…’

    I have lived in Africa all my life. I still can not claim to represent Africa in my work. My work is always about the people affected at the time and even then, I try to present them in ways that show them in whole. I don’t sit around and wait for them to show their sadness, I capture them laughing like people do sometimes even when going through hard times and capture them sad too. I try to stay as close as possible to the truth. In my work I always hope that after they overcome their problems, if they ever come across their images of their hard times, they are not ashamed of looking like pitiful creatures but human beings with dignity.

    I know a foreign photographer who publicly tells people that when photographing children, if they are being cheeky and smiling, he makes a mean face at them which then has the children having sad or scared looks in his photographs. What is wrong with children smiling or being cheeky. That is how most African children are. Always smiling at visitors even when they aren’t photographers.

    As we discuss this, The pan African media conference going on in Nairobi has all attending echoing these sentiments. There’s talk of there being ‘an African Aljazeera’ that will reflect Africa to the world for what Africa is.

  5. posted March 19, 2010 at 12:10 pm | permalink

    [This comment has been edited due to its length. --Ed.]

    First of all, thanks for this, Ben! There is a lot of truth in it and raises many important thoughts that need to be discussed in my opinion.

    As journalists as you said, it is often claimed to give a voice to the voiceless. And seldom it is done directly. Now where photojournalism is slowly developing into multimedia at many places, the use of audio is the first step. Why do many use the photographer’s voice to tell stories? Maybe one of the reasons is often: because it’s easy. To tell some backgrounds that perfectly fit into a story you shape, as we do with captions. So time-wise it could be way easier. Plus you can do it under good recording conditions and all that. I think that many photojournalists still struggle with learning the for them new types of media, how to use them.

    One of the major reasons for using their voices, beside respect for the people who tell often very intimate stories, is that their voices bring them closer, they become human, people like you and i rather than victims. That is also why i think multimedia should not only combine pictures and audio, but also some video sequences… To tell the single story of suffering and hardship on and on again will make no change.

    We tried that with a simple idea some time ago in Rwanda, where we asked people three questions, for instance ‘What makes you happy?’ (http://www.simonsticker.com/2010/01/21/onequestion/). It was done before in the western world, but it was interesting to see that many of their dreams, hopes and wishes were quite similar.

  6. Dolphine
    posted March 19, 2010 at 12:15 pm | permalink

    To Stefano I am Kenyan. I have been here these past two – well all my life. Your statement “Kenya on Oct. 9, 2009. Kenya hasn’t seen a drop of rain for several years” is incorrect and I think it is human to error but even more so to accept it and correct yourself. It hadn’t been raining in parts of Kenya especially the North rift, parts of Eastern Kenya and North Eastern Kenya. It’s wrong to say that it hadn’t rained in Kenya for several years when I know for a fact in my village and many other villages there was planting and harvesting. Maybe we didn’t have rain all over the country but we did have rain in Kenya.

  7. posted March 19, 2010 at 12:23 pm | permalink

    Hi Stefano,

    thanks for your response. So glad to hear that you didn’t shoot the Giraffe to win a WP! It is a great photo. You suggest that I ‘doubt’ there was a drought. But if you read my post I wrote that ‘a severe drought was taking place’, so there is no difference there, nor of the importance of the story.

    The story that ran on VII said that ‘Kenya hasn’t seen a drop of rain for several years.’ That statement was inaccurate. I thought that in your response I hoped you might offer an idea of how this came to pass.

  8. posted March 19, 2010 at 1:07 pm | permalink

    Your “blind for the day” metaphor is an apt one, especially in these days when sensationalism rules- which means it’s ultimately more about the recipient of the information than the person(s)or incident being reported on.

    Actually hearing from those pictured can go a long way towards actually “giving voice to the voiceless.”

    The foreigner sees only what he knows- African Proverb

  9. posted March 19, 2010 at 11:31 pm | permalink

    [This comment has been due to its length. --Ed.]

    A necessary debate. Benjamin touches on issues that are difficult for many to deal with, but for the sake of accurate communications need to be. Photojournalists take the image as a point of departure – they ‘witness’ for us – you must look even if you want to turn away. From here change will logically cascade as guilt and pity move the audience to act. NGOs take injustice as a point of departure – they provide ‘evidence’ – you are convinced by their argument even in the face of so many competing needs. From here change will logically cascade as you reflect on who you are in the world and decide to act.

    What has this left us with? Photos as tired, stereo-typical graphics, artistic canvases of a dissected world, obtuse angles and nameless icons. A world delineated by disaster and death, where people are issues and cases, black and white receptacles to carry a cause. Where our engagement, ‘activism’, is a click of the mouse or the signing of a direct debit.

    This voiceless, disengaged approach is dying. Has been for a while.

    Technology will see to it. A cheap mobile phone with a camera will gradually allow more to speak for themselves. As will participatory methodologies and ideas of agency and active participation. So to will a world more explored, a world that many will not recognise from the photos dished up by photojournalists, and evidence produced by NGOs.

    Rob Godden
    The Rights Exposure Project

  10. posted March 21, 2010 at 8:26 pm | permalink

    Yes it’s true at times we seem to celebrate photography that is technically brilliant but lacks any real depth. Something that is probably only apparent to those that understand the context. BUT that is only half the story.

    There is a tonnes of great photography, with real depth out there. The web has offered an explosion of possibility and I think we should all be genuinely excited about the role photography will play in expanding our understanding of the world.

    What I do think is that we owe it to the people in the pictures to at least debate ‘where we stand’ when we take the shots.

  11. posted March 22, 2010 at 6:49 pm | permalink

    Benjamin,

    Beautifully written. This is a fantastic piece. I loved it.

    eliza

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