One of my main interests in photography is documenting people and places in an authentic way. There are various questions to be considered about this area of photography but some of the main concerns I have about it are whether it is ethical, and how the pictures are received and interpreted by viewers.
I have long been fascinated by people; people that I know as well as strangers. I like to “people watch”, especially in unfamiliar places, and am always intrigued by the decisions people make regarding their choice of outfit, hairstyle, what they’re doing or where they’re going. I don’t think this is a particularly unique interest, I would think that most people like to observe other people, and even the term “people watch” is a common phrase in today’s world. I have always been intrigued by culture, both my own and foreign cultures. The similarities and differences between cultures/cultural norms, and the similarities and differences between people. But in wanting to record those observations, and in wanting to record different people and cultures, I need to question whether it is ethical to do so. Is it right to go to another country and photograph the people and the places because I find them interesting and want to record them?
Jimmy Nelson’s “Before they pass away” project makes me uncomfortable for those very reasons. I can’t deny the technical beauty of his images, and from having read/watched various interviews with him I know that the people he photographs have all given their consent for him to do so, and he has explained the reasons why he wants to photograph them in the way he does, and I know he believes in the good of his work. I know he spends several weeks with the tribes getting to know them before taking the photographs. But does all of that make it right for him to show this one aspect of those people? His website adds the disclaimers that Nelson is not a scientist or anthropologist and his work is not meant to show a documentary truth, his website states the following:
He has focused on the beauty that struck him as an outsider. He wanted to create icons.
Focusing on what he saw as an outsider produces a one dimensional view, and if that is the only knowledge that viewers then see of those people, then they will have a potentially very distorted view of those cultures. Additionally is it right or ethical for him as an outsider to be taking those images and presenting them to the world for review and judgement? As a photographer it is near impossible to control how our images are viewed and interpreted, but I do believe it is something that we need to think about in today’s world – where images are distributed and shared so easily and can be so easily seen out of context. Many people, including tribal people, have criticised his work for not showing the truth about the lives of the tribes he photographs and for presenting the false view that they are dying out[i].
I am concerned that having this interest and wanting to document people and places means that those images, taken as an outsider, are unethical. There will be a lot to think about during my research project about this and how I can take images that show people and places from a more truthful or authentic perspective.
I wonder whether being an outsider to a culture could be an advantage. Without having the prejudices that come from being a part of the culture, and perhaps without the emotional need to show a particular aspect of the culture/society, could I see it more objectively, and perhaps even more fairly?
What if, however, you are both an insider and an outsider to a culture? As a mixed-race person I grew up being a part of two cultures, and not completely identifying with either. Therefore if I were to make images of one of those cultures would I feel a need to show a particular aspect of that culture, to present it in a good light for example. I have been wondering lately whether this is the basis for my desire to record and document people and places in a visual anthropological way. The following is from the Discover Anthropology website:
By taking the time to study peoples’ lives in detail, anthropologists explore what makes us uniquely human. In doing so, anthropologists aim to increase our understanding of ourselves and of each other[ii].
Through photography am I hoping to understand others and myself better? Does this mean my intention is more introspective and less surface curiosity, and does that mean the intention of my work comes from a less judgemental place of preconceived ideas?