19 April 2010

The Problem With Conventions

Election observers taking notes at a polling station. Voting in
Sudan’s elections has been extended by two days to ensure
technical problems do not prevent voter participation.
Photographer © Pete Muller/AP (The Guardian, 13 April 2010).

David Campbell has written this typically smart post on the photography of famine generally and famine in Africa more particularly. His concluding comments, referring to the image I've lifted above, are especially on point:
"One of my refrains for how we should understand photographs in these situations is that the problem lies with the absence of alternatives as much as it does with the presence of the stereotypes. Which means I should conclude with a double-page spread published by The Guardian this morning on the Sudanese elections. Clearly any place that is home to both food insecurity and a practicing democracy cannot be simply represented."
David is concerned with the conventions of documentary photography and photojournalism that inform depictions of large-scale human suffering in forms such as famine, epidemic, war, and other sorts of mayhem. He is especially concerned that such depictions dominate the ways that African countries appear in the Western media. David has put his finger on two distinct problems:
(1) How can one depict famine and so on in ways that do not assume stereotypical form (familiar images of starving babies, lines outside of distribution centers, the crush of people with outstretched hands as aid workers distribute provisions, etc.)?

(2) How can one depict the diversity of social and political experience in African countries in ways that, while not ignoring the difficulties that people face across the continent, nonetheless do not perpetuate what some refer to as 'Afro-pessimism'. (I've posted on this matter here a number of times.)?
These are daunting questions and David is correct both to raise them and to suggest that on both dimensions we are captive to conventions. The problem, in other words, is not necessarily one of bad intentions on the part of photographers or the NGOs who host them. Moralism, after all, is a none-to-attractive convention too.

My suspicion, though, is that very similar conventions inform photographic depictions of democracy, especially in African countries and in other 'exotic' places that have yet to embrace our own faith in that political form. It is not so much that I want to question the faith (although it is important to keep an eye on how it actually manifests itself) but that I think we need to keep an eye on how we serve up democracy as antidote. This is a theme I plan to take up over the course of the summer. Thanks David.

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Blogger Ian said...

Jim - You're doing great work here. Photography and photojournalism need critical assessment, and readers need to learn to keep their wits about them when looking at photographs.

And you're right that "democracy" is particularly prone to being portrayed in standardized (or deliberately political) ways. One need only think of the sea of purple finger photographs published during the first post-invasion elections in Iraq.

20 April, 2010 10:29  
Blogger Tom White said...

I think a lot of the problem lies with outsiders going to these countries and photographing only what they go there to find, rather than what they actually encounter. There are plenty of exceptions of course. Photographers are not immune to narrow mindedness and culture shock. I remember as a 19 year old going to Morocco thinking I was worldly and streetwise and getting a real wake up call as to how little I really knew of the world outside of my Western European experience. Since then I've always tried to go places with my eyes and mind open rather than with a preconceived notion. As an aside, I'd like to point you to some photographs by a good friend of mine who was born in Sierra Leone. He doesn't claim to be a professional photographer though he has made documentary films and exhibited some of his work. His daily life and street scenes certainly show me a side of Africa you don't often see in the mainstream media. http://www.tomwhitephotography.com/Sierra_Leone/

22 April, 2010 22:02  

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