disaster pornography

December 3, 2008 § 2 Comments


when i was working as an international human rights/accompaniment worker, i almost always had a camera in my bag.  it is part of the uniform.  and to be able to tell the story, photographs and video are very effective and necessary in this day and age.

but i struggled and still struggle with what are the ethics of capturing a picture.  if a picture tells a story better than a thousand words, then what kinds of pictures tell what kinds of stories?

especially since i have become a mother, these questions have become more pressing.

when i was at the women’s zapatista encuentro i got a sense of just how invasive a camera can be.  see, i was one of two, maybe three dark-skinned black women at the encuentro.  and i was the only one with a baby.  i felt like i was on display constantly.  people running up to me taking pictures of me breastfeeding aza, but never saying a word to either of us.  people staring at us and pointing amazed.  people standing close into my personal space while i was nursing to get that perfect shot. for three days.

i guess in each of these photographers minds we were a curiosity.  a symbol of the diversity of the encuentro.  a symbol of international motherhood, or womanhood, or solidarity, or something.  each of these photographers just wanted one or two shots for their scrapbooks.  but there just so many of them.  and then there were just the men who stood around, no camera in hand, to stare.  and the little boys.  and even though people told me not to ‘take offense’ at any of this, what very few seemed to understand was that it was physically and psychologically exhausting.  i felt exposed as if feeding my child was pornographic, simply because i was black. simply because my daughter was multi-racial.  and there was nowhere to hide.

and so i want to become a photojournalist.  i love the stories that a photo can tell.  and i want to tell stories of mothers.  of the marginalized.  of limnal beauty.  of celebration.  of resistance.  of love.   i want to photograph people throughout the world.  but how do i tell those stories?  what stories do i have the right to tell?

In the vanguard of the Marines, the press corps had already stormed Somailia. Now we will see more of the famailiar pictures of grotesque human degradation, with foreign angels of mercy ministering to starving children, juxtaposed with images of trigger-happy teen-age looters. Such pictures prompted President Bush’s military adventure-now they will justify it…Photogenic starving children are hard to find, even in Somalia.

Somali doctors and nurses have expressed shock at the conduct of film crews in hospitals. They rush through crowded corridors, leaping over stretchers, dashing to film the agony before it passes. They hold bedside vigils to record the moment of death. When the Italian actress Sophia Loren visited Somalia, the paparazzi trampled on children as they scrambled to film her feeding a little girl-three times. This is disaster pornography.

Do pictures of Somalia show herdsmen tending large flocks of well-fed camels, or farmers cultivating ripening crops of sorghum and maize? Do they show vegetable markets flourishing in Mogadishu? Are we allowed to see clan elders negotiating a local cease fire, or the women who have turned their homes over to orphanages, filled with the laughter of healthy children? All these are just as much facets of life in Somalia today as looting and starvation, but they are not what we are shown.

The truth is that, even in the areas of the country stricken by famine, outright starvation is the exception. Most deaths are the result of disease. The great majority of people will survive-largely due to their own efforts. International food aid is much less important than food grown by local farmers, the maintenance of animal herds, having roots and berries to eat and charity of relatives and friends.

perhaps these are questions that we could all ask ourselves more as we are inundated with media.  would we want our grief, our people, our joy, our family, our children, put on display in the way that we see it done for nameless people half way around the world?  what are the stories being told and are they the stories that reflect our understanding of these strangers?  or are they stories that reflect these people’s understanding of themselves?  do we have permission to look at these photos?  and who gives us permission?  the photographer or the person inside the frame?



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