You really can’t go into it with the idealistic thought that there will come a difference just if you shoot it.
Images cannot stop a war, although some have tried to use them to such end. A viral video of a shocked and bloodied toddler in an ambulance cannot turn the exchange of missiles into a peaceful settlement, although thousands on Facebook may view it. Still, photography refuses to be just an illustration. Its nature is action, and framing is an exercise in taking a side. To see where taking pictures as taking action can bring us, we talked to seven experts in the fields of photography and activism.
MAKING A CONNECTION
“No photograph has ever made a change unless a political or social response was ready for or aroused by it,” Vicki Goldberg says. “The whole world saw hundreds upon hundreds of videos and photographs of the destruction in Mosul and Aleppo, but nothing was done about it because almost no country could see a clear geopolitical path or support for intervention.”
The power that a photographer has over circumstances starts a bit earlier than the action. It starts with the activism of knowledge.
“Being an expert at your craft is the starting point,” says Amy Yenkin. “If photographers are trying to do more than shoot images for the daily news cycle, they have to involve themselves in the existing environment, develop a deep understanding of the history and circumstances, and form connections on the ground to the actors involved, both subjects and advocates. That’s a very different approach from going in and shooting a body of work and then trying to figure out how to sell it around.”
Over the years, within the framework of the Documentary Photography Project at the Open Society Foundations, Yenkin helped to develop and present hundreds of projects whose creators were stubborn enough to believe that change was up to them.
“Just because you have a really strong NGO partnership, a well-developed campaign, a clear goal and an audience, doesn’t necessarily mean that change is going to happen. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard. Even active documentation — keeping a record — is vitally important. You never know how or when the result will come.”
Writer and scholar Michelle Bogre names artists whose works are obviously documents and demonstration of activism.
“Depending on the subject, the story and the audience, a less traditional documentary work can be powerful,” says Bogre. “I think work like that — of Alfredo Jaar or Shahidul Alam — should be mentioned here. If you just look at their installations, you would think it’s art, but when you try to read the story, you will realize it’s actually documentary.”
The absence of actual change as a result of hard work becomes an unavoidable circumstance, Yenkin says.
“You can’t go into it with the idealistic thought that just because you take a picture, change will happen,” Yenkin says. “But, that does not mean we should stop taking pictures. Recently, New York Times photographer Daniel Berehulak took enormous risk to photograph the extrajudicial killings by the Duterte regime in the Philippines. I don’t know what immediate change it can bring, but it is imperative and urgent that this be documented.”
Since media agencies started cutting their budgets and long-term projects became rare, NGOs and photographers have strengthened editorial and financial partnerships, leading to mutual benefits.
Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s Director of Global Initiatives, believes photography is a key tool to be included in reports on human rights abuses that HRW produces regularly.
“A photograph often is an entry point for viewers to engage with our work. By using photography and multimedia we’re able to connect the media and ordinary citizens to testimonies and stories in our reports.”
More freedom means more responsibility, which is why Michelle Bogre talks with her students about being a sophisticated viewer.
“My students are far more sensitive than I am,” Bogre says. “Maybe because I’ve been a photojournalist and I’ve seen things. On the other hand, they are more desensitized because they are oversaturated with images and don’t think about the power of a serious photograph...I don’t think there is anything too graphic for people to see. Describing the Abu Ghraib photographs or an image of a child washed up on a beach with words does not have the same value as an individual photograph.”
Sympathy toward a viewer is generally a rare thing among photographers or activists, and the reason is clear.
“It’s not about telling a sensational story to get someone’s attention,” Worden says. “I think images, for example of landmine victims in Burma, are striking and difficult to look at, but it’s the truth. They represent consequences of the war and reality for these people, and for their families, which is much harder than the viewer’s experience of the photo.”
Situations where a viewer becomes a photographer are numerous, although Bogre is rather skeptical about citizen journalism.
“As a viewer, I trust a photographer more than I trust an image,” Bogre says. “Citizen journalism is a little dangerous. New media shifts responsibility to a viewer — unless you do your own extra work you can’t assume that what you’re observing has any accuracy.”
The problem of actually getting to a viewer or to an extensive audience is complicated. Vicki Goldberg gives the main reason — the lack of a generally acknowledged national newspaper or a generally trusted TV channel. Digital sites are multiple and have their own audiences, as do TV stations and newspapers.
“Back in the age when an image could cost the presidency, as with Michael Dukakis in a helmet sitting on a tank in 1988, we had a limited number of television channels instead of the 500 we have now, USA Today increasingly functioned as a national paper, and private ownership of computers only reached something like 15% in this country in the late 1980s, all of which meant that a very large percentage of the voting population saw the same images.” Goldberg says. “Now audiences are divided, which means that people tend not to see opposition news, often being completely unaware of things published in sources other than those they choose to read or were directed to by an algorithm based on what they had visited or liked before.” The opportunity to sift information has become a censorship of its own.
Yet, simply reaching a viewer means nothing, even though the culture of new media is built upon the number of likes and the fake feeling of belonging and acting.
“I don’t think that just putting images on a website, having an exhibition, or publishing a photo book, absent a larger campaign to reach targeted audiences, will work,” Yenkin says. “The same can be said of appreciation and acclaim by the photographic community. All of these are important and good things for a photographer’s career, but they don’t necessarily impact the issues.”
Moreover, the topic to which a photographer-activist tries to get attention often appears to be less than comforting. That is why Yenkin, as well as the other experts, agree that communicating stressful information requires giving a viewer a way to act.
“I think people can become desensitized or they can turn off emotionally if they don’t know what to do or how to process the information they’ve seen.”
Donna Ferrato never gets tired, and she never runs out of anger and compassion. Ferrato is not only an inspiration to photographers and activists, but also a committed advocate for victims of domestic violence.
To those who take photographers’ work lightheartedly, Ferrato has no mercy.
“Scratch and sniff stickers — that’s the new media,” she says. “If you are a photographer, you have a huge responsibility to go deeper and you never know where you will end up. There’s no magic platform — the agency model doesn’t work anymore.”
Documentation for Ferrato requires attachment to the subject.
“I don’t pretend to be a photographer who’s there just to watch people like a fly on a wall. I’m more like a five-hundred pound gorilla with a camera in their house. And there is no screen between me and them.”
The work of photographer-activists demands putting all their skills into their work. For Ferrato, an image without a voice or action has no value.
“If my pictures arouse misunderstandings, I’ll talk about that again and again. My voice is as important as the photographs.”
Ferrato talks about walking away from a subject, a privilege that is often unavailable for the subjects themselves.
“I did jobs in both Somalia and in Iraq where, at the end of a day, I could always go to a safe place. And so I quit, because I wanted to stay in that hell and not run around with other photographers. I admire those photographers who risk their lives, who get on boats with refugees, but not the ones who wait for them on the shore. I also admire the refugees who carry cameras, who become journalists themselves, because that’s how you learn to be a photographer or a writer. Being a photographer, we watch people with our camera. Why should we watch them in safe zones? Let’s watch them where horrible things are happening and be a presence of some sanity for these people. Let’s really be there for them. Otherwise, what we are doing with our cameras — just trying to win awards, earn money, make ads, be cool.”
Photographer Greg Constantine, who spent 10 years working on a project about stateless people, says initially, he took a very traditional approach to photography, simply trying to get his work published.
“I walked away feeling that getting published just wasn’t enough. It didn’t serve the amount of work I had and the importance of the stories of the people I had met,” Constantine says. “Therefore, my work shifted from just having it published to trying to figure out how I can actually engage people in the issue. Because so much of it just dissipated into this world of publications.”
Constantine started his journey trying to reveal the stories of stateless people through national and international organizations and communities working on the issue and raising awareness to create change.
“As a photographer working on the theme of human rights abuse, I know it is unlikely I will be able to force the government to change national laws. However, I can collaborate with the organizations which have more influence.”
“I think that these days, the most important thing is not necessarily to reach the widest audience possible. I would rather have a couple hundred people coming to an exhibition, spending time, really looking at the photos and reading, really exposing themselves to the stories of the stateless people so they have a deeper understanding of it, than thousands of people looking at these pictures for a few moments on their iPhone. I really believe in the power of social media and I use it to inform people about the opportunities to become more involved in the story, but I don’t think that 2,000 likes on Instagram actually mean that all these people have engaged with the picture. Issues of human rights are too complex and they cannot be explained in a few images or a single post.”
Ruddy Roye is an immigrant, then a writer — afterwards, an unemployed father, and now, a successful photographer who addresses the issues of human rights. His Instagram profile identifies him as a humanist and activist.
Roye firmly believes that without new media — a smart phone and Instagram — his photographic work would be impossible. Roye’s images have lengthy captions that his followers say they love him for.
“The captions are there to bring the pictures away from what they’ve always been in history — a black man has always been perceived as a slave or a lazy person. I hope that my words will take you away from these stereotypes. I’m going to bring you to a place where you see this person as a man. Maybe he has failed, but he is still a man who is trying.”
Often people in his images are first invisible, homeless, the color of the sidewalk.
“Why is it that only I can see them?” asks Roye.
He never goes far, not more than 50 minutes from home in any direction, and he keeps exploring what life around him looks like. He talks with the people he shoots, sometimes following them for several days, looking closely into faces and listening carefully to the voices of the individuals, not the crowd.
Roye sees his documentary work as temporary, and hopefully not necessary in the future.
“Fifty years from now, I hope my work will not be needed. I believe that my work exists only in the present time and even if something will come out of it — it is not the reason it was designed.”
Addressing his audience, Roye has a very clear message, and that is not frustration over the injustices of life.
“I want people to write to their city council, senators, congressional representatives and demand change. When they drive home from the city center through poor neighborhoods, I want them to think that this is not normal, that there should also be big supermarkets and good schools. My pictures say that ‘homeless’; is not synonymous to the street light or a closed sign on a door. First of all, ‘homeless’ means a human. I’m hoping to jerk people from the ideas that have been normalized.”
New media attention is elusive and fashions come and go easily, but as Roye has been doing his work before, he will be doing it after. And, like Ferrato, he sees a camera as one of the tools of an activist.
“Being an activist, I do not necessarily have to be in fashion,” says Roye. “What will never change is the voice that I gave to the struggle. If it means going into the crowd without a camera, I will do it, or standing in front of a bunch of kids telling them the story of this struggle to inspire them, I will do it also. I’m more concerned with what I’m doing today. Do I want Trump in the White House? No. However, I also understand that he is entitled to four years. The question is, how do we manage as the citizens during these four years? Are we going to fight or just lie down and allow him to have these four years? It depends on us, our character will be born out of these four years.”
Personal reasons to do this kind of documentary are always there and photographers use the inner and outer struggles to create impactful images. “I grew up in Jamaica in rough conditions, but out of this roughness came me and many of us — who are brilliant movers and seekers in this world. I believe that changes come through the struggle, not through the niceties. And if I push harder, change will certainly come. There will be a new birth. And it is my job, not to worry about the birth but to worry about the push,” says Roye.
If we had any goal in writing this article — it surely was not to end a dispute over the changes photography might make. The only question is not if the photography can make a difference, but if the photographers can. Well, we named some who could.
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with more than 1,500 photographers from around around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,000 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website, www.socialdocumentary.net.
Spring 2017 Vol. 3/No. 1
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Interns: Kelly Kollias, Laney Ruckstuhl
Social Documentary Network Advisory Committee
Barbara Ayotte, Medford, MA
Senior Director of Strategic Communications
Management Sciences for Health
Lori Grinker, New York, NY
Independent Photographer and Educator
Steve Horn, Lopez Island, WA
Ed Kashi, Montclair, NJ
Member of VII photo agency
Photographer, Filmmaker, Educator
Reza, Paris, France
Photographer and Humanist
Jeffrey D. Smith, New York NY
Contact Press Images
Molly Roberts, Washington, DC
Senior Photography Editor
Steve Walker, New York, NY
Consultant and educator
Frank Ward, Williamsburg, MA
Photographer and Educator
ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2017
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
Digital ISSN: Forthcoming
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibited on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
Photographers and writers featured in this issue of ZEKE
Anna Akage-Kyslytska, Ukraine
Azad Amin, Iran
Sarah Blesener, United States
Emma Brown, United States
Caterina Clerici, United States and Italy
B.D. Colen, Canada
Nikki Denholm, New Zealand
Ariz Ghaderi, Iran
Saeed Kiaee, Iran
Kelly Kollias, United States
Mehdi Nazeri, Iran
Paolo Patruno, Italy
Laney Ruckstuhl, United States
Anne Sahler, Germany and Japan
Sadegh Souri, Iran
Frank Ward, United States
Cover photo by Mehdi Nazeri from Poverty in Wealth. Bandar Abbas, Iran.