One of my problems with photography, especially documentary photography, is that it is intrusive. To alleviate this problem, regardless whether it concerns press photos or portraits, photography needs the collaboration between photographer and subject.
"War Photographer", a documentary by Christian Frei about the work of the photographer James Nachtwey, was nominated for an Oscar (in 2002) and won twelve international film festivals.
Two mini video recorders placed on Nachtwey's camera allowed the viewers to see what the photographer was seeing. In Kosovo: a crying woman. People try to comfort her. She has just learned, one suspects, that someone close to her — maybe her son, maybe her husband? — was killed, or found in a mass grave? We are not told, we do not know, we are left guessing. Neither do we know what the photographer knows. We see what the photographer sees: a woman crying, her face full of pain, women who try to calm and comfort her. Nachtwey is getting closer and closer, he aims the camera at her face and ceaselessly presses the button. How is he able to do that? Doesn't he feel awkward, and embarrassed? Doesn't he have scruples?
On the website of this film, this quote by Nachtwey can be found: "Every minute I was there, I wanted to flee. I did not want to see this. Would I cut and run, or would I deal with the responsibility of being there with a camera?" In the film we can hear him more than once stressing the importance of having respect. He also says he understands himself as being the spokesperson for the ones he portrays.
I'm glad that Nachtwey's photos exist and remind us of things we would probably rather not be reminded of. I want to believe his good intentions. Yet, I also feel that there is something wrong with this kind of photography because the ones portrayed are used; they have no say in how they are depicted and later are put in pages of books, or hung on walls.
Let's look at Nachtwey's rationalizations.
I'm not sure what this is, "the responsibility of being there with a camera." Does that mean that because he is a professional photographer who goes to take pictures in war zones, he has an obligation to take these photos? According to whom? And if so, toward whom does he have this obligation?
Yes, respect is needed, it is imperative, but how does it translate into action? To hold a camera into the face of a grieving person is indefensible; it is the opposite of showing respect; it is the total absence of tact, courtesy and decency. Is he really their spokesperson? How can he be? How does he know that they need or want a spokesperson?
Photography is an intrusive medium. Quite a few photographers describe their business in somewhat aggressive terms as shooting pictures. One way of softening this intrusiveness — if one so wishes — is the collaboration between photographer and the ones portrayed. Such collaboration is not uncommon, just think of photo ops or portraits.
Want to know more? Go to photographic collaboration