“I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain, of starving or wounded children”- Kevin Carter, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and member of the Bang Bang Club that captured the injustices of the Apartheid era.
These are the haunting final words of Kevin Carter in his suicide note of 27 July 1994. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist is best known for his heart-wrenching photograph, aptly named, “Vulture stalking a child”. He captured the image in March of 1993 on assignment in Sudan where he had come across a starving girl struggling to make her way to a United Nations (UN) feeding camp—a vulture had landed and encircled her emaciated body. Kevin waited and angled to capture the best shot, photographed her, and left her there, some would argue, for dead. Kevin Carter took his life 3 months after he received his Pulitzer Prize for the image, he was haunted by guilt and shame.
Carter operated in a time where photojournalists were not allowed to handle victims of poverty for fear of spreading diseases. Flash forward to 2018, years after Apartheid has ended, and I believe that photography is still as much an ethical issue now as it was during times of war and institutionalised racism, regardless of who is behind the camera, who is the oppressor or who are oppressed; photojournalist, civilian, black or white, local or foreign.
From the lens to the desk
I have practised Development Communications for over a decade now, seen, shared and taken thousands of photos as well as supported the production of numerous video documentaries. My precarious positioning and the racially and politically charged power dynamics of being a black foreigner, capturing the poverty and angst of other black locals for the consumption of mostly white, foreign eyes has irked me since I laid eyes on the blood-red corrugated iron walls of Township dwellings through a camera lens for the first time. Though the main aim of the media content was to raise foreign and local funds for the uplifting of what we called “needy” communities, this fact never eased the conveyor belt feeling that hitting the “Upload 60 images to Facebook” button evoked while I waited patiently to garner “likes” from potential funders, in the $32-a-day Club.
$32 dollars a day is the average spend for only 1 billion people in the world. Bill Gates recently proposed four levels that reflect the socio-economic living conditions of the world population. Level 1 is where people live in abject poverty, surviving on less than $2 a day. One billion people are at Level 1. Level 4 population have cars and go on holidays and their children go to High School – Bill Gates (https://bit.ly/2KVIbSY)
I remember sitting with a lady who cleaned the office of one of the organisations I worked for. She was looking at her phone, at the image of her child she happened to come by on Facebook, she was shot at her nursery school and happened to have snot running down her face from a cold and some sleep in her eyes because she had just woken up. The photo was captioned well for tear-jerking. Her child was described as “poor and needy”. She didn’t know the photographer and no one had asked her for consent to use her child’s image. Her eyes shifted and I felt her heart sink. This woman was one of the hardest working women I knew, her child got 3 meals every day, was always adequately dressed, healthy and happy. I could only imagine how devastated she felt when she realised that for a select group of people far away, this was not enough. Granted, life in the Township was hard, but she would have never described her own child as “poor and needy” and would have at least run a warm towel across her face before taking a photo.
Is there a better way?
On the other side of the world, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Rene Byer’s exhibition, “Living on a dollar a day” (https://bit.ly/2Nf4aky) aims to preserve the dignity of her subjects by showing how hard they work, not just their lack but their smiles too. “I want people to go and look at those images and immerse themselves as if this were their reality”, says Byer. All her photographs were taken with the consent of the subject and have managed to express the tenacity and resilience of barefooted children rummaging through waste for scraps to sell for food. “One of the myths about poverty is that people who are poor are lazy, I have to say that in all of my travels through four continents that couldn’t be farther from the truth”, she adds.
The work of Rene Byer begs the question “Is there a dignified way to portray abject poverty?” I say Yes. Although it is tempting for small organisations to use and re-use photos of beneficiaries without consent, out-of-context and without regard. No good intention can outweigh the harm done on subject communities when these images are found incorrectly captioned and floating in the public domain. I for one, have experienced embarrassing, yet warranted backlash from one of the 4 town communities (Adelaide, Bedford, Cookhouse and Somerset East) I am working with where I support the activation of monthly social dialogues. I used an image of someone from Bedford on a poster designed for Cookhouse. It was a good image, and I didn’t think anyone would mind. This mistake was pointed out during a community dialogue and had to be answered for. It was a steep learning curve for me.
How to get it right
Although there are many forms of media, photography is one of the more popular methods of capturing social justice issues for development workers, photojournalists, and even volunteers. Unite Sight provides some valuable tips on how to take ethical photos: (https://bit.ly/2Lofc6o)
- Always get the subject’s consent first, especially if you want to do a close-up.
- Examine your motives. It is not acceptable to use the photographs simply to harness pity. People who donate out of guilt tend to see subjects as pitiful objects, which is dehumanizing and disrespectful.
- Do not bribe subjects to feign despair, anger, or other emotions
- While it is fine to portray the fears and poverty of your subjects in some photos, others should also convey the community’s strengths and expectations.