Many people act as if photography can make horrible things beautiful. Well, it can.
But it can also make beautiful things look horrible, too. Why? Because photography not an art, per se, but a medium. And as a medium it can be used to interpret and frame and present things in many different ways. Many photographers use our medium to produce art, but that's not the sole expression or limit of photography.
That said, socially valuable photography will not try to romanticize poverty in an untrue way. Most poverty is not like rustic Japanese fishing villages (almost idyllic in their simplicity). Most poverty is chaotic, cluttered, caked with uncleanliness, and frustrating. Those in poverty live in constant fear of disease and infection and often don’t feel they can ever just “get on top” of things to take a break and get perspective. They suffocate.
What, then, is the role of the photographer in this? Of course some may try and go for artistic pictorials of poverty to try and beautify it or exploit it. All mediums allow for this kind of exploitation, and it occurs with photography as much as all the others.
But the real relationship that can be had here is the bigger question of the stories than can be told. We live in a social world with systems and structures that try to provide basic needs and basic health services wherever they can. So when we find pockets of deep poverty, there is always a story to tell. Was it the failure of policy or governmental structures? Was it catastrophe or disaster? War? Famine? Disease? Economic collapse? Issues of mental health (for those who seem to seek poverty and embrace it)?
Capturing and telling that story is a powerful responsibility for photographers. And this isn’t just “professional” photographers—it’s anyone who communicates through images. If you take iPhone pictures, post to instagram, or etc, you have the ability to tell the story of the communities you are a part of (or have access to).
And because images can shape our thinking, they can shape public policy. You don’t have to be an activist or a polemic to affect this kind of change (I don’t have an activist’s heart, though I often work close to policy issues in other areas of my life). You can simply tell the story in a way that allows a window to open to a part of the world that others may not be connected to. You can begin a conversation.
Most of my storytelling about poverty occurred with film cameras, and thus, I don’t have much digital work to display on it. I also have a very different point of view about the world than I had when I traveled across Africa and Asia, and I’m not sure the story that I was trying to tell is as relevant as it wish it were (ah, the perspective of time and maturity).
Because I don't have much current work to share digitally on this issue, I've included a photograph by Phil Moore, who has worked to tell the story about the real costs of war in the Congo. It's a very effective photograph--as is his whole essay (which is linked if you click on his name). Moore is one of those great photojournalists of our time that deserves to be studied. His work is a fantastic example of how images of poverty and distress can be emotionally effective without having to glamorize or exploit the subject matter.
I still connect often to photojournalistic sources when I seek perspective on world events. While I read about the Arab spring, protracted war in the congo, and the spread of Ebola in sources like the Economist, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, I was also careful to seek out photographic sources. For me, this helped the issue come to life in a way that written intellectualization didn’t always make clear for me. It kept a human face attached to it. It allowed me to see behind the debates we have online, or on tv, and to keep in mind how real people deal with these issues in real life.
A great source for these images is the TIME LIGHT BOX site (click the name for a link, as with all Photographer names referenced on this blog).
Two major events are unfolding now, in our world, that deserve to be seen through photography instead of through editorial writing only: the protests in Hong Kong and the spread of Ebola to the western world.
Regarding the Ebola story, I don’t support the raw panic behind it. But I also think that we have a very effective, yet very invisible, approach to disease control that deserves attention in our social minds. We have done so much to eradicate diseases like polio and TB (and many others). This often came as a result of great human effort and sacrifice. The stories that can be told here could fill the pages of page-turning novels.
On the edges of this effort, though, we now we have debates occurring about anti-vaccination, the spread of a new virus, and the potential for the re-introduction of diseases previously thought eradicated. Seeing the human faces involved in these efforts, and what they mean to average people, can do more to make us informed policy makers than hundreds of pages of pious internet debate.
So no, as a whole, poverty is not glamorous. It is not romantic. Not in-and-of itself. Social issues can be hard to gain perspective on. They can be messy. Cluttered. Frustrating. But great photographers are often driven to try and tell those stories--to open a window to see into them in meaningful ways--and whether their tools are an iPhone and Instagram or a more professional set-up, it is important for them to become better and better storytellers. Photography is a medium by which we can communicate and influence thinking, the only question is, how good will be be at it? The more we see, and the more we understand, the more skillfully we can help shape our society.