World Press Photo Foundation released a story on their instagram page over the weekend that I’m just not going to share with you. Go see for yourself. Trigger warning - it shows the suffering and exploitation of brown people. The 18.4K likes it now has I find almost as disturbing as the content, especially given that other posts have an average 4 - 5000 likes. It say's alot about the people liking as much as it says about those who share this. It does also have 861 comments, which is also unusual for this account. Comments like this -
"As a photojournalist, it's extremely depressing that @worldpressphoto wouldn't immediately take down this photo...why are you dragging your feet?"
"A privileged violation of others poverty - not thought provoking more exploitative, eye grabbing for wrong reasons and unethical positioning shame on the NGOs who vetoed this."
You can read the rest and I think you get a good sense of why I'm writing this blog. Now many photographers do work with care and compassion, but they also often work to a system fuelled and encouraged by organisations such as World Press Photo. But as something with the title 'world' in it's name it asks the question who’s world?
I’ve always gravitated to being freelance because you know the word ‘free’. And not in the sense of being cheap labour, which I now know is also the reality for most of us, but because I wanted the independence to think about representation. But I made mistakes at the start, I to went flying into worlds unknown to me in the naive mindset that what I did might matter. That the cliche of ‘giving voice’ had purpose. But you know what, it’s often egocentric and privileged to think the work you do with people suffering is going to change the situation for them and even if it did help, why would you then want to get an award for it! Why not just work with other people on an issue to actually effect some lasting change and more importantly make space for those already covering it who already live and work there. Unless you learn or even un learn you’ll just keep treading the same path as the photographers before, thinking you’re helping to change the world when all we’re doing is keeping the voices of people of colour lower. Like we are somehow better placed to tell the story. Them and us. Exotic, wild, rare - we've used all these phrases in our photography. All damaging when used in the context of photojournalism and whiteness.
I've never been entirely sure about World Press and it's often hard to call out something which you can potentially work for so when I got a side door into the World Press Photo awards this year to teach a safety workshop I went with an open mind. I'd been asked to run a safety session for female photojournalists, something I do care about and perhaps can effect some form of change. If you want to understand more please do take a look at this article by Kristen Chick. They paid me a fee and put me up in a hotel. I ate and socialised on their funds, so yes I have now taken something from them which in turn implicates me in compromising my ethics. Welcome to the world of western photojournalism. I was curious and wanted to see what it looked like on the inside. It’s easy to get swept along with the ceremony and the professional side that benefits from such awards, but as each person clapped at yet another image of a person not of their own heritage often in distress I started to feel sick. Reflecting on this can lead to such difficulty as you try to rationalise what’s right and the questions of ‘well if we don’t photograph this the world won’t see’. I just don’t think this stands up anymore. Before social media and the rise of the internet we needed this more. Now we’re just replicating the tropes of privilege and displaying zero empathy to the people we allegedly talk about caring about. Western photojournalism as an industry has lost it’s way and more importantly lost it’s grasp of humanity. As cameras crowd round bodies and photographers jostle for the best spot I can’t help wonder what this is for. How many images of the same person suffering do you need to see? It’s almost grotesque to discuss the aesthetic of such images. It’s fair to say my time with this industry is over in the role of a photojournalist and one I never quite comfortably fitted into.
I recognise that once in a while an image makes impact. But it’s rare and the ones that stick with me are the ones that tell the story, to it’s fullest with all considerations to who took the image and what happened beyond the story to everyone involved. Idealistic? Maybe, but I’d rather evolve my awareness and keep learning. My favourite image of the awards was taken in Ashbourne by a mate of mine called Oli Scarff. It was off a football match in his home county. A brilliant example of someone working on the areas they know with an understanding of the culture.
Young photographers really look at who you are before you even start to take photographs. Read this. Question everything about how you got there. For the sake of ethics and humanity please stop this madness of ‘othering’. When I talked with a photographer friend of mine about reversing this model of western photographers exploring the globe and offering stories to cover for photographers outside the western countries my friend from Pakistan told me she would never chose to come to the UK to make a photo story. In her words ‘It’s boring, why would I go there when I have my own country to photograph.” The west is not this desirable place that we keep pretending it is. England is challenging, uninviting and often hostile in it's current state. It has parts I love and parts I dislike, and it's harder to photograph on your own backyard and indeed far less celebrated than the foreign photographers gaze. To evolve as a photographer you have to evolve as a person and my learning is far from over. For me you can't separate the photograph from the photographer. I'm not writing this blog as a definite solution, it's my opinion and how I feel about photography and why I'm making some changes away from this particular genre of it. It's taken years to rationalise but the image on instagram this weekend was the final snapping point.
Some will question whether I should be careful not to burn my bridges with these organisations, but when it comes to exploitation of other human beings in the pursuit of acclaim I’ll even add the petrol.