Before I left for Africa, I asked Greg Vestri about how sensitive he thought people were about having their picture taken. He said that it was not much different than most places, just use common sense, and go ahead and ask the subject for their permission first, if possible. Then he mentioned that recently, there has been criticism leveled at photojournalism that focused on poverty. The claim is that a typical photograph of a hungry African child is decontextualized, sentimental, and exploitative.
Honestly, I can see the critics’ point. It’s easy to justify these photographs as a vehicle for spreading a worthwhile message that will inspire people to act in response. The message is probably well-meaning and truthful. Help this hungry child. But as a photographer, I will be the first to tell you that a photograph isn’t truthful at all, even if it is taken honestly, without (obvious) manipulation or modification. Part of it is truthful, but the context will (and should) always be in question.
This is a photo I took at a school near Jinja. I think this is a fair representation of the kind of picture you might see in a save the children campaign, designed to have people running for their checkbooks. This photo was not manipulated in any way, either at the time I took the shot, or in post production. I saw the child sitting outside a classroom and I walked over and took several pictures. In that sense (and in the sense that this child does, in fact, need help), the photo is honest.
What isn’t honest, or at least what is obscured, is the context. What we all forget is that a photographer is usually part of the context. In this case, I walked over to the child and he was looking right at me. What might be perceived as sadness or worry in his expression, might simply be curiosity at seeing a mzungu. The truth is – the child had that expression on his face, because…
…I hadn’t made him smile yet.
As a student of journalism and a photographer (and now, as someone who takes photographs of poor African children), I am very interested in this debate. If you have any thoughts about the subject, let me know in the Comments section. However, I would like to make a more important point – if these photographs or blog entries about Africa (or anything else) inspire you, then I would urge you to seek the truth for yourself and go see things with your own eyes. I can tell you that even with a lifetime of preparation, nothing was quite like I expected. No photograph, no book, no story could have prepared me for the things that took my breath away. They only inspired me. I didn’t see the truth, until I went to see for myself.