Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Photographic collaboration

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


Lasse said...

Let's flip the view and ask what is respect in this matter? There is nothing in the womans reaction to Nachtwey photographing her that would show her anger or irritation of him photographing. Of course it is a really disturbing situation for her and James is probably the last of her concerns. But still, there's been things done in their war, crisis, that outdones his "disrespect" by miles.

The camera is not a gun, even though it is referred to as 'shooting' - it does nothing in the manner a gun does, so 'pointing it in someones face' isn't really that harsh.

I would like to think the people he depicts really need a spokespearson, a link to the outside world. And really, what's the negative thing in what he does? Is he doing it to gain success and fame? Hopefully, not.

Collaboration is needed often, but not always. As this greatly changes the outcome and feel of the pictures. If you're indeed documenting something ongoing, like Nachtway does in Kosovo. I don't think you can capture the genuine feel by first discussing the image with the subject.

AcrossCultures said...

Good points.

I do of course agree that you cannot "capture the genuine feel by first discussing the image with the subject."

It is an unresolved question for me. I feel not so much troubled by the result but by how this result was obtained. Or, in other words, I couldn't imagine doing what Nachtwey is doing and I suppose (but I might be wrong on that) that he has similiar concerns which is why he so often (in that movie) stresses the importance of having respect.