Sep 11, 2011

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Photography storytelling

Last year I had the privilege of being able to visit a tribal group in the Philippines, the Eatis tribe. We took food and drink with us and gave it away, we also shared the gospel message and took lots of photos. The tribe has very little and the people from the local town don’t interact much with them. They live a simple lifestyle and have basic housing and clothes. The term tribe doesn’t mean they wear traditional dress or do traditional dances – we saw neither when we were there.

I have 53 photos on my computer from the day, but I’ve only shared a handful of them. This isn’t unique, photographers all around the world take photos, edit and release them. We make decisions about what we release, what we delete (or throw away) and what we edit and our choices can have a big impact.

Photographers have power

Photographs were a media revolution when they were first available. The ability to capture images and add them to newspapers changed how we learn about world events. “Pictures don’t lie” became a known phrase – reporters could fabricate text but not photographs. In truth this was always a dream. When we look at photographs, our perception of an event, place or people is shaped by what a photographer sees and captures. Images stick in our minds and come to define an event for us.

VJ Day

Afghan Girl

Iwo Jima

Each one of these photographs tells a story but leaves a part out. War photos like these don’t show the number of men who died and the photograph of the Afghan girl (Sharbat Gula) doesn’t tell us much at all. I couldn’t have told you what her name was before I looked it up for this post. I can only assume that at the time people were aware of the conflict she was running from.

Photographers are limited

There have been times when I haven’t taken photos out of respect or common sense. I don’t try to take photos of airport security guards at work or of government buildings in some countries unless I want to answer lots of questions. That’s a bit of a no brainer in certain parts of the world.

I also don’t take portraits of people who do not give me permission. Getting formal, written permission in a country where you don’t speak the language is very tricky, but if you mime taking a photo with your hands and ask in English you can usually convey your intention and that you’re asking with your tone. We also had translators most of the time. I don’t have photos of some people I’ve met because they shook their heads or (in the case of children) hid, but many were happy for me to take their picture and liked seeing it on the screen.

I’m also limited by my own conscience and humanity. It’s difficult to strike a balance between capturing the suffering and respecting the dignity of a person. Also, as a male, there is more risk that I’ll be accused of taking inappropriate photos, so that makes me more cautious when taking photos of women. As such I don’t have photos of people passed out or of women breast feeding their children.

Photographers change where they are

People change their behaviour when they see there’s a camera pointing at them. This means that if you get permission to take a picture they’ve seen you, seen the camera and won’t be acting like they would have been if you weren’t there.

Of course unless you want to hide your camera and take photos sneakily this is unavoidable.

Photographers are story tellers

Photographers are not necessarily Photojournalists. A journalist should have integrity and report factually. A photographer tells stories through their images. Some stories are blatant lies, backed up by Photoshop to make you buy the latest magazine or product. Every once in a while someone doesn’t do a clean edit and you get an arm floating in the air or a hand missing a finger.

Sometimes the image you have doesn’t properly represent what you saw. Ever see a photo where it looks like you’re pulling a stupid face but really you were just talking and at that moment your lips happened to curl or you were part way through blinking? That’s an accurate capture, but it’s not what everyone saw so it gets deleted.

The decisions that we make on which images we keep and which we share paint a picture that others see.

Two images, two stories

I want to share two photos with you. They are both of the same girl and were taken within two minutes of each other. The first one I haven’t shared until today. These photos tell two very different stories.

The first image tells us about poverty in the tribes and shows us a nervous child looking at newcomers nervously.

The second tells us about a beautiful girl who is happy. We don’t see that her clothes don’t fit and we don’t see her nervousness, it’s gone. When put together with the first and kept in chronological order it tells us a story about how she same to trust us enough to let us take photos.

So why have I held this first photograph back until now? For better or worse I didn’t want to add more photographs to the Internet of malnourished children. Google can provide you with all you need in that regard. We’ve heard stories and we agree the situation overseas is bad, we’re already aware there are problems. Instead, I wanted to capture the beauty of the tribe, but more than that, I wanted to show the beauty of the Filipino people.

Nowhere in the world have I seen people who are so happy with so little. The lasting impression I left Philippines with was one of a people who appreciate what they have, even though everything they own is worth less than the iPod we have or the TV we watch. This is the Philippines I wanted to show you.

In retrospect

In the process of writing this post and thinking about how I release my photographs I have decided that I would have been better to release both images together in a single, composite image so that they painted a more rounded picture. This video of Chimamanda Adichie talking about the danger of the single story nails it by saying that the single story isn’t inaccurate, but it is incomplete.

My goal was to balance out a single story of poverty with a different story, however, in isolation that story can become a single story too. I also lost sight of the fact that I’d been in the country for two months and I’d become attuned used to things that my friends overseas just wouldn’t realise were part of the picture.

I also confess that I was proud of the second photograph – I still think it’s the best portrait photo I’ve taken – and that pride meant I wanted to have it stand as a portrait on it’s own. In this I wasn’t telling a story, but showing the progress I’d made in taking photographs. I needed to remember why I went overseas and why I took the photos I did.

The best thing I did with this photograph was include it in the Powerpoint presentation I have of my time in the Philippines. I’ve seen people react to the different photos I have in the slides and I’m right there to tell the stories, gauge reactions, pick up on when I think I’ve miscommunicated and answer questions.

Telling the story

In all this, I really do consider myself a storyteller, not a photojournalist. Despite this The photograph of the Afghan Girl caught the attention of the world – I hoped to catch the attention of the people I show my photographs too.

An image by itself may not tell an entire story, but it does capture a moment. Those moments can impact people and get their attention. Images can’t explain the politics of a situation, the smell of a place or the feeling the photographer had when they took the shot but they can show a situation, good or bad.

Can we ever tell the whole story? No. There will always be something we miss, someone overlooked, some factor not explored because of time or because we don’t know it’s even a factor. What we can do is tell the most accurate story we can. This will require words – spoken or written – to go with the images of importance that we share.

If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.  ~Lewis Hine

I don’t think stories can be told just with text. How often do you pull out your phone and take a photo because you want to take a picture, not just write about it? Anyone who has seen my camera gear knows it’s bulky and it’s not that much fun to carry it around every day, but I want to be able to take photos, so I pack it when I travel.

As with everything I post, I’m learning as I go and I’m keen to hear your feedback. I haven’t covered everything I wanted to, but this post is already huge so I’m going to cover the rest in a later post.