Exercise 3: Reflecting
Write a reflection in your learning log about some of the ways in which marginalised or under-represented people or groups could be badly or unhelpfully portrayed.
How might being an insider help combat this?
“It was when I recognized, working as a social activist, how powerful images were, that I decided I’d become a photographer.” Shahidul Alam
Images help educate and create awareness about marginalised and under-represented people. Photography has served society well in that respect; consider the images of Dorothy Lange and her work during the great depression for the FSA or Lewis Hine’s work that helped pass the first child Labor Laws in the US, or Zanele Muholi’s activism supported by images of South African South Africa’s black LGBT, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities. Great photojournalism, or great photography in general, helps shine a light on marginalised groups and, done right, tells their stories and creates awareness.
However, there are key considerations when doing this type of work, including:
- Objectivity: we all bring our own unique experiences into play when creating images.This can take the form of our social, cultural, educational and political backgrounds-all colour how we view the world both conscious and sub-consciously-being aware of this is a start and a must to produce blanaced work.
- Sensitivity: how we actually photograph images can have a huge impact on both the subjects and the images themselves. For example, the series done by Gideon Mendel on the ‘Calis Jungle’ called dzhangal-rather than photographing the people themselves,and adding to the visual narrative and objectivaction of asylum seekers, he focused on the everyday artefacts they use, like their toothbrushes, clothes etc-this sensitivity helped create a very powerful (and human) and memorable series
- Context: it’s very easy to draw the wrong conclusions if you don’t know or understand the context of a person’s social and cultural background. Current debates highlight the role of photography in imperialism to reinfoce power structures, stereotypes, cultural superiority and justification.
- Objectivication: According to John Berger, photographing someone reduces it to an object as it can be viewed and interpreted by viewers (an interpretation and viewing that, in most cases, cannot be controlled). He emphasised the importance of context to understand an image and saw photography in a broader eco-system of power structures, including race, gender and class. Examples include how women are portrayed (still!) in photography, minorities, homeless or cultures that are outside ‘established’ Western societies creating and reinforcing the notion of otherness and exoticness.
- Trust: Building trust is key to developing relationships and creating more empathetic and nuanced images. As the saying goes, ‘the devil is in the detail’ and understanding group dynamics and power structures help present groups or individuals in a more balanced way.
- Being self-aware: Often marginalised groups (e.g. Travellers or Romani) are consistently stereotyped, and reports about them concentrate on a specific topic or slant, introducing bias- being aware of this and challenging it helps produce a more balanced view.
- Giving the group a voice: Gaining trust, and understanding a group from intimate experience helps give that group a voice and allows them to somewhat control the narrative and tell their stories
- Emphaty: I lived in Germany for many years and during that time become integrated into the society, customes and mindset. When I moved to the UK I was often surprised at the way people stereotyped Germans,the usual tropes- no sense of humour, efficient, Hitler etc and have to admit was probably the way I viewed them before I went to live there. Being an insider gives you a deeper understanding of how a group thinks and behaves and helps you understand their perspective thus helping present them in more nuanced and balanced way
Becoming an insider within a group and getting to know them helps to reduce bias and can help present them in a more nuanced and emphatic way, including:
I tend to agree with John Berger when he says “Every image embodies a way of seeing” ( Ways of Seeing)-how we exercise and inform that way of seeing has a huge impact on the outcome.
Berger,John,2008,Ways of Seeing,London,Penguin classics
Berger,John,Understanding a Photograph, (First Edition) London, Penguin cLassics
Mendel Gideon, https://gideonmendel.com/dzhangal/ (accessed 28/04/20230)
MEIXLER,ELI 2018,Journalism Is Under Threat.’ Inside a Bangladeshi Journalist’s Dangerous Journey From Photographer to Prisoner https://time.com/5475494/shahidul-alam-bangladesh-journalist-person-of-the-year-2018/