09 February 2009

NGOs as Mercenary: The Task is to Manipulate Emotions

I spend a lot of time here railing about the tendency of photographers to depoliticize the subjects they are addressing. For a good example see my recent post on Julio Bittencourt. But I usually also have tried to recognize that photographers do not work in a vacuum - they often are 'embedded' with this or that organization, agency or publication. And these sponsors typically have photo editors with agendas of their own, working within a set of conventional expectations. There is a short essay here at World Press Photo by Evelien Shotsman, photo editor at Oxfam Novib, who underscores this point in a succinct, troubling way. Essentially Shotsman is telling photographers that they ought to do precisely what I criticized Bittencourt for doing.*
"But I still think photography is a strong tool in advocating a world without poverty.

Not by trying to capture the big contemporary issues, like climate change and food crises in a general way.But by telling small stories of people trying to live a small but happy life. Not by tryng to show 'the truth,' but by showing that the truth has many faces.

Not by showing harsh images alone but trying to lure people into another reality by showing the love and beauty that exists, even in the most deprived situations. Showing the similarities between those viewing an image and the victims, rather than the huge differences.

We all love our children and good food. We all need a safe place to stay, reliable neighbors and friends. Focusing on the strength of the people, not as powerless victims but as capable individuals in need of support to gain control (again) of their own lives."
Shotsman's advice is clear. Treat aggregate catastrophes like genocide, famine, epidemic, war, and so forth, as well as the displacement, hardships and suffering they generate, as problems for remediation by charity. Treat the ensuing hardships as tasks for individuals to overcome provided, of course, they receive a philanthropic hand. Focus on our common human dignity even in the face of hardship and deprivation. Ignore, at least by implication, the political and economic forces that continuously create catastrophes. Neglect the political actions groups or communities take in hopes of addressing their shared predicament collectively, taking aim at what they see as its probable source. That would require that we acknowledge and strategize about collective problems and their structural sources. And that would distract us from giving alms.

And, of course, veracity can go too - so long as it is for a good cause!
"For people to become interested they need to be moved in an emotional and esthetical way.

So all techniques, manipulations and enhancements are allowed to highlight the emotional quality of the photo. In this sense I see the need for the photojournalist to become the photo artist of reality."
If Don Rumsfeld, or Dick Cheney or Karl Rove had uttered something like this in public, there would be an outcry. (I am confident they thought something very much like this!) And, of course, groups like Oxfam do important work trying to clean up large scale messes that trail in the wake of political and economic catastrophes. Yet, insofar as the work of photographers is shaped and constrained by the strictures Shotsman lays out, photography is disabled politically.
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* I do not know if Bittencourt's work was underwritten directly or indirectly (see the essay by Simon Norfolk I note in the previous post) by an outside agency or organization. It seems, though, that his work adheres quite closely to the strictures Shotsman articulates. This suggests the points she is making function very much as the 'common knowledge' that animates standard practices.

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1 Comments:

Blogger dtm said...

Thanks for this (and all of the other) posts. Shotsman’s essay and your comments left me thinking about the different roles photographs of individuals vs. those of larger scale might play in representing (distant) suffering. Despite the depoliticizing work Shotsman is promoting, I wonder if there is not some merit that still rests with the closely cropped photograph of an individualized instance of mass suffering. While these sorts of photographs may not communicate the aggregate effects of war, genocide, famine, etc., perhaps some utility might be found in their ability to communicate the ‘costs’ of political/economic policies in a more ‘accessible’ way. To be sure, photos of individuals alone are not enough, but maybe they provide an important way of grounding mass suffering for distant viewers. While increasingly rare in mainstream news media, photographs that capture the ‘costs’ and ‘causes’ of suffering within the same frame have a considerably political potential. Unfortunately, too many of the photographs used to illustrate catastrophe are the sort that Shotsman describes, the sort that make suffering visible without providing any notion of their cause - a strategy that visually enacts what Elaine Scarry refers to as the ‘euphemistic redescription of war’.

09 February, 2009 13:35  

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