A Conversation with a Reader – Photography

I love photography. I feel we are living in a renaissance of the art of photography. There are cameras for all levels and despite many people being snooty about the value of point and shoots and camera phones there is a kind of immediacy and charm to them. Let’s just say that nearly every single one of us is a photographer of sorts.

If you are new then you may not have heard about one of the things that kept me busy just before my exams in January. I went along to one of the protests against rape in India. Here my camera met with an unfortunate end.

In the aftermath I had a conversation with Marcus Ranum.

We diverged a lot into what we thought was good and what isn’t in the camera world, but what was weird was his “fear” of India because it may turn his photography into poverty pornography.

I thought that was nonsensical because poverty is relative and you can be poor and happy (as many of my patients are). That there is a lot of vibrancy and life within people even if they are poor and that if your photography celebrates that life and the experiences of these people, then there is absolutely no reason as to why you cannot take photographs and not make it poverty porn.

What I find important is the “connection” that photographers often fail to realise. Your subject is a human being and deserves to be treated as such.

But here in lies the photographer’s dilemma. You see, if you approach for permission then you end up with a “fake” photograph because the subject may be aware of the camera’s eye. If you take the photograph you may insult the person you photograph. How do you communicate the art of photo? The legality is on the photographer’s side (in a public area anyone can be photographed) but the ethics are grey.

Just how do you raise awareness of a topic such as HIV or AIDS without delving into photos for the sake of suffering?

It’s possible IMHO through work like this.

I feel chills running down my spine every time I see that. The music helps too. Because after I started blogging I ran into people who genuinely think that Anti-Retrovirals do “fuck all”. They are astonishingly effective. This was normal to me. Emaciated and wasted skeletons turned into functioning human beings. They would still die one day but for now they have been given the gift of time to find some happiness.

Sometimes you NEED suffering porn. The unsanitised photos of Africa and the South East Asia may have pricked our eyes between bath and pre-lunch beers but they made some of us stop and change the world in little ways which had big effects. While the war photographer is a dying breed it is an undeniable force for the good of the world.

I didn’t have an answer to Ranum who feared that if he visited India he would be another purveyor of suffering porn.

I may have one now.

The story is important, the people you photograph are not just the photograph they are also alive. Go ask them their stories. People are friendly and curious and this will astonish you but very few people want to ask these people their lives. In exchange for the photo make their life better in some tangible way if you can. Otherwise spend some time learning from your subject. This will give your photograph a deeper meaning. It will not just be “old man leaning against a wall” it will be “Bob resting his legs because he is tired from visiting Ingrid, a woman he has loved for decades and wants to marry”. The story makes those photos mean so much, much, much more.

Take the Shot. Then Take The Time To Talk. Remember you are dealing with humans and your art is about humanity.

And Marcus Ranum? Please visit India. It’s not as bad as you think.

In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.

The War Photographer – Carol Ann Duffy.



  1. Ysanne says

    But here in lies the photographer’s dilemma. You see, if you approach for permission then you end up with a “fake” photograph because the subject may be aware of the camera’s eye. If you take the photograph you may insult the person you photograph. How do you communicate the art of photo?

    I have a bunch of people in my family who are squeamish about getting their photo taken because they think they look horrible in photos. Which they do, a lot of the time, because they can’t manage to not screw up their face when they notice a camera pointed at them. (I’m one of them.) What I do is have my camera with me all the time at family gatherings, and take photos when they don’t notice me, which usually results in a good picture. And later, with each normally unwilling subject, we go through their pics and I delete the ones they dislike right before their eyes.
    Maybe a variation of this can work with strangers as well? Most people I met while travelling in India were extremely happy about getting their photo taken, and asked for an e-mailed copy.

  2. says

    I’ve been thinking more about this since our initial exchange, because there are photographers who have managed to make the ugly beautiful or at least important. W.E. Smith’s amazing photographs of Japanese mercury-related birth defects, Sebastiao Salgado’s gold mine photos, and James Nachtwey’s war photos come to mind. But those photographers were not tourists. There’s a wonderful documentary about Nachtwey (“War Photographer” highly recommended) showing how he works and it seems to me that a big piece of it is that he “embeds” himself – he gets permission from his subjects then becomes invisible because, after a while, he’s just the guy hanging out with the camera and nobody notices him and he’s able to record truth.

    In photography criticism circles it’s sometimes popular to dismiss photos that are intended to be beautiful as “glamour” and idealized – not “real” yet the photography of ugliness can be just as idealized and glamourized. Why is it appropriate to criticize a photo of beauty as shallow and meaningless – where’s the depth and importance to a photo of ugliness taken by a person who’s sleeping in the Hilton on the club level?

    What got me thinking about this issue was when Bill Jay published his book “Men Like Me” (http://www.nazraeli.com/bookdetail.php?book_id=100067) which is a compendium of pictures of old gritty-looking homeless guys. Jay was one of my favorite photography commentators (in Lens Work magazine) for years and I really enjoyed his opinions and thoughts about the art and craft of photography. But then he went and shot this book of people looking dirty, old, rugged, ugly. And I realized that that was really all that there was that was compelling about them – that’s as shallow and empty as shooting supermodels that have been made-up and lit to within an inch of their lives.

    I’d love to bring my wet plate camera to India and shoot some of the buildings. The crowds would become indistinct blurs with 60 second exposure times… The problem is, it’s really hard to load your luggage on an airplane when the contents are nitrocellulose, ether, ethanol, cyanide, glacial acetic acid, and cadmium bromide. It’s frowned upon. :/ And apparently you can’t even mail a laptop to India. ;) So maybe it’s all sour grapes on my part.

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