Poverty’s a business.
That was my thought after a bit of documentary (Enjoy Poverty Episode III, Renzo Martens) watched this morning at university.
It’s a movie about this filmmaker going to Congo and ‘examining’ poverty there. The clips we saw concerned him, “teaching” locals to use their knowledge of photography to sell something that will bring them more money.
He makes very simple math: if they go on on taking pictures of birthdays and celebrations for the local people, it won’t bring them any money. But if they start taking pictures of “raped women, corpses and malnourished children”, then it will be more lucratif and they can sell them.
He goes further as to go with them take pictures of such subjects, stripping children out of their clothes to expose their ribs where a camera is shove on their face. Same for a woman who just lost her husband at war and is left alone with her child. She’s asking for help and so do other women, gathering around the young men and the filmmaker. They then leave uncomfortably, arguing:
“we just came here to register their problems, not help them”.
Then comes the question, to whom belongs the photographs taken? To the people, committing the action, or the to the photograph who pressed the shutter?
The filmmaker asks the question to an Italian photographer working on site and after painfully arguing his way for 2mn, knowing plainly what he says is not sufficient, he ends up by saying “I choose the way to take the picture and that makes this picture mine.”
More than just overall disappointment, sadness and frustration regarding this kind of situation in countries of Africa, it hit me as it was touching photography and I considered taking this path at some point. And the question did arise at some point, wondering to whom does the photograph belong?
To the subject taken or to the photographer?
I don’t ask when I take pictures of people in the street. I don’t ask because then it breaks the movement of what they do and people start immediately posing, a 21h century trend. I also don’t ask because I’m too shy to come forward and shove a camera up their face.
I don’t ask because I’m afraid they’ll say no.
So yeah, I became one of these person who takes a shot from afar and looks away when busted. It does feel stealing someone’s image, and laws on the matter are such a big reflection of it. They’re ambiguous, allowing people to take any image they want in the street while still trying to keep a privacy right. The whole ends up by being free of interpretation, and it is just a big blurry mess.
So when I see this kind of documentary with people being used for photographs that will be sold later (and that can be sold only by foreigners, the locals having no access to the market of news and so on), getting absolutely nothing out of it and being put in the position of an object, it reflects and I wonder.
On the bigger scale, should you stop taking pictures of people?
I want to say no, I want to say that documenting is a precious feature of human lives and photography is making it easier. I want to remember how 2015 was and show it later on, and you can’t capture a time by only taking pictures of landscapes.
But I cannot ignore the whole problematic behind it, and how we are making this ‘stealing’ of image self a banality. I don’t know what’s the solution behind it and it made me think pretty hard afterwards, being puzzled.
I guess a solution could be to go in these countries where poverty is being a business only used by foreigners and make a change. Try to give local photographers an access internationally, giving them a voice (so they can be able to share another point of view than just the most shocking situations! Not everything is about war and famine, there is still life going on) and allow them to get something in return for their work.
But again, it’s an initiative coming from an outsider and there will still be this bias, this foreign intervention with the idea that we’re here to help and that we have something to teach, that ‘we’ can give ‘them’ access to ‘our world’.
I don’t know, the whole thing made me pretty depressed about the whole process of photography and taking pictures of people without their acknowledgement. The thing that jumps into my mind when looking at it this way is that I’m trying to take pictures ‘artistically’. I’m not trying to sell anything, I’m not trying to show a face, I’m trying to compose something and include a human factor in the story as a whole.
You could say I’m basically dehumanizing the experience to make it fit into a landscape and something nice to look at.
Even though this is constantly on my mind, it won’t stop me from trying to take pictures in the street and take pictures of people. It feels like I learned something new and am willingly ignoring it, but I really don’t have an answer on what to do.
I guess that’s the way life is. Nothing is really 100% moral, and whatever you do, there’s another side of looking at it that will be easy to criticize?
Anyway, back to a more ‘normal life’ and usual worries. My chin has now become the not-so-proud wearer of a pinkish scar. I guess I need to wait a few more months to see how it’s going to look like in the long term, but I don’t think it will disappear completely. Meh, it’s life.
I also realize, as scars, mental wounds do heal as well but they never completely disappear. You just live with it. I mean, it seems obvious and I’ve made the experience in the past already but it feels like I’m learning a bit better and identifying what’s happening better every time. I can finally put words on what I feel, and can take a step back more easily.
So yeah, unfortunately, it still hurts and punches my heart every time, but I just get used to it. I remember there’s more to it, there’s a bigger picture to look at and it’s certainly not the end of the world.
It still hurts though, and this constriction of your heart is not a comfortable feeling.
Didn’t ask for any of these people’s permission. -sigh…-