A few months ago, I took an overnight bus from Pokhara, Nepal, to Kathmandu. Arriving at five in the morning was not a part of the plan; nor was losing a night’s worth of sleep to dangerous curves, heavy rainfall, imminent landslides, and music that blared until shortly before arrival in the city. When I got there, I wasn't in too pleasant of a mood.
While waiting for a shop to open, my fiancée and I were sitting on the doorstep by the street. After almost a month of travel, we were weary, though satiated, and just wanted a hot shower. The streets were quiet, as most are at that time of day, but my ears perked to the sound of English being spoken without a Nepali accent. Down the road jaunts a large, bearded foreigner with two cameras dangling from his shoulders — two pro bodies, one with a 70-200mm f/2.8, the other with an ultrawide. It appeared as if he was leading a woman around in some sort of photo workshop situation, showing her what to shoot and how to shoot it, and my fiancee and I were immediately struck by how. . . unapologetic he seemed. He wasn’t being a fly on the wall. He wasn’t observing life in Nepal to learn about it or preserve it or respect it while documenting it at the same time. He was getting right in people’s faces with his long lens and standing out like a big, sore thumb, doing whatever he needed to “get the shot” as if he were about to win a Pulitzer.
But the worst part was when it was obvious that the people he was photographing didn’t want their photo taken, and he didn’t seem to care.
Maybe it’s the introvert in me, I don’t know, but my personal feeling towards photography is that if I’m taking photos of people and they don’t notice me, most things are fair game — especially if I’m in a public place. But if they do notice me and make it apparent that they don’t want their photo taken, I try my best to exit the situation with humility, respect, and grace. I lower the camera, offer some sort of apology, whether it’s mouthing the word from afar, bowing my head, or whatever seems most culturally appropriate. So when I saw an article by Simon Sharp about photographing vulnerable people who obviously don’t want to be photographed, it really struck a chord.
Sharp came across some photos taken by Turkish photojournalist Bulent Kilic and wasn’t too happy about what they represented. Kilic is fairly well-known in the photojournalism world. He was named Best Wire Photographer of 2014 by TIME, shoots for the AFP, a French-based news agency that is the third largest in the world behind the Associated Press and Reuters, and his images are really good. He’s obviously put himself in dangerous situations, frequenting war zones in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and his home country of Turkey. I can’t even imagine the kind of courage that takes, the kind of life it brings, and how hard it is to have a family while doing it.
But even though many of Kilic’s images are documentary in nature and of subjects that most photographers would take, I would have to agree with Sharp’s criticism of these particular images that he shared.
Take a look at the image above. Men are hungry, looking up at a man who appears to be in the military, searching for answers. That tells a story. It invokes compassion for the subjects.
Now, take a look at this one.
Notice a difference?
The caption describes it as a Syrian woman walking with her baby. But that caption, as Sharp points out, is a bit disingenuous.
It’s a refugee camp and thus, by definition, this lady and her child are vulnerable people fleeing a war zone and trapped in no man’s land. Is there not more at work here than simply ‘a woman and her baby on Thursday?' Does the raised hand blocking the line of sight to the face, which is turned to the side while the child is held, along with the soap, as far from the intrusion as possible indicate an encounter? Is she waving goodbye after a chat? Doubtful, the physiognomy is too strong and defensive, the elbow raised high and out to thrust out the hand to create a safe space while the hand itself is flat, flaying like a cockerel its widest protective form as if to block something.
This is an encounter in which a woman is in the simplest possible way indicating with what power she has left the message ‘please do not photograph me.’ Therefore, meaning-wise this image equals nothing as even without an identity or name to attach to it the subject or context of a strong photograph in its essence communicates the soul and voice of that subject. Unfortunately those human traits are impossible to communicate if the subject in the image is unwilling as above and is thus objectified into a soulless commodity along with her child.
That’s something I’d have to agree with.
If Kilic were in a refugee camp taking photos, and there were some people who didn’t seem to mind (or even came up and asked him to take photos of them, possibly), then that’s fine. But when someone obviously does not want their photo taken, why wouldn’t you back down and show them some respect? Some humanity? Some humility? If these people are scared and displaced and worn, and they don’t want to be in your photo, why would you deny them that? To me, as to Sharp, this photo is nothing more than a photographer getting in a woman's face to take a photo and her trying to make him go away.
I don’t get it.
Am I missing something? Should we, as photographers, as storytellers, as historians, always do whatever it takes to “get the shot?” Or should we remember that our subjects are human as well and pick our battles accordingly?
The other shot that Sharp comments on is this one of a small child hiding behind her hand while trying to eat a piece of bread.
Yes, it's sad. So is the previous image. It's an image of the what happens when the worst of humanity is left unchecked. It's an image of something you'd never wish on yourself or anyone you love. But the subject, again, appears to not want to be a part of the story, does not want to be brought in the news cycle, isn't interested in being documented at that moment, and is telling the photographer just that.
Two points here: First, this child does NOT want her photograph taken, she has NOT given her CONSENT. She’s not playing a child’s game of peek-a-boo like children do. She’s hiding behind her hand, using it to defend herself and sneaking a peek through her right eye to see if the intruder into her space has gone away. Her ‘meal’ of bread remains in the hand because she’s hungry and does not want to soil it which might be the reason her facial features speak not of joy but are sterile, her mouth is drawn down, there is no smile present, only sadness remains behind her last defense, the left hand barely large enough to be guarding what’s left of her dignity after God knows what forced her to this place.
An NGO, Care International, apparently ran this image on their Facebook page, with the tagline "So much horror for such young eyes, but she is one of many refugee children who need help."
Here's Sharp's take on that:
Did somebody from Care International actually look at this shot? Did they see it? I propose not as these kinds of visualisations in no way humanise the suffering within them as the sole purpose is to create an aesthetic out of a situation in which the ‘models’ clearly wanted no part in being scrutinised. Read raised hands attempting to protect the face from view, analogous to reaching out in front of you to break a fall. A basic survival instinct and ironically the metaphorical fall these people are defending themselves against is their supposed saviour, the affluent spectators and would be NGO donors viewing the image. These subjects don’t even want to be looked at and so for them to be used in promotional material is the ultimate irony.
I'll give the person at Care that ran the image the benefit of the doubt that they were just trying to fulfill their mission, trying to help the world, and thinking of the children in these situations with love and compassion. But Sharp's critique is an honest one, and he's not wrong.
One would think that there would be plenty of other images than these that a news agency or an NGO could run to get their story heard and get the point across. Why these were published, let alone why they made it from Kilic's computer to the rest of the world, is something I don't understand -- especially the image of the woman. You could make the argument that the girl was wiping her eyes or something like that, but in the image of the woman, it is pretty obvious that she does not approve of being photographed.
Simon's conclusion sums it up:
With that said I don’t blame the photographer for taking these pictures. I blame the industry for publishing them and, moreover, for creating the space, creating the very market for them which in turn feeds into the (any) photographer’s head that this is the stuff they want, what we the audience want and above all what humanity both wants and needs.
This industry is a business and it appears at times a business that pressures field operatives to produce the most sensational, aesthetically pleasing and saleable images they can no matter the human cost to those within the images, to the photographer who took them or, indeed, the ethical cost to the industry itself.
It's hard to know what I would do without being there, in those situations, in those moments, but I can tell you that I think I would have, at the least, felt an intense sense of guilt after taking those images, and probably wouldn't have put them out to the world. Maybe being a photojournalist is different than other types of photographers in that regard. Maybe Kilic felt like he was still telling the story, even though just his presence there obviously impacted what was happening around him, potentially rendering the situation unauthentic. Photographers do weird things when they're trying to get images. But afterward, in the editing room, one would hope that compassion for your subject would influence your decision on what to send out to be viewed by the masses.