September 21, 2015

Invited In

Photographing Vulnerable Communities

Rwandan genocide survivor Murangira Emmanuel stands in front of buildings full of preserved bodies from the 1994 genocide at the Murambi memorial site. Shot in the head and left for dead in a mass grave, Murangira miraculously survived but lost his wife and children. (Photograph: Sean Sheridan)

I am a firm believer in the power of the image, that a single photograph can change the world.

Intrigued? Try this: What was it that put the Syrian refugee crisis on the front page after more than four years of being a second (or third) tier story? Caused world governments to spring into action and dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees they let into their countries? Compelled the Pope to declare that every Catholic family in Europe should take in a refugee family? Answer: the single photograph of a dead refugee boy washed up on a beach. Unbelievably, that image alone did all of this—and more.

I am not surprised.

Syrian refugees trying to live their lives as normally a possible in a refugee camp in Lebanon. (Photograph: Sean Sheridan for Medical Teams International)

So it would follow, given the power of the image, that the question is, what are the photographer’s ethical responsibilities in making images of vulnerable populations, like the many to be found in the Syrian refugee crisis?

First and foremost, it is my belief that I cannot operate ethically if I do not make an attempt to show the full truth of a scene or situation. I need to search out and photograph the worst and the best that a scene holds—if I want the story to be fully truthful. And this is the role of the journalist. To tell the truth. So I often tell my hosts wherever I shoot, “Take me to the worst and the best of life in your community.” I want, and need, to see it all or I am not doing my job.

However, it is a common temptation to go right to the worst of the worst, zeroing in on shocking images in order to get published or force the point. And…there are times this needs to be done (think Rwanda genocide: the world needed to see what was really happening or it simply would not have believed it). And I will admit that, like a moth to the flame, I often look for the worst before I look for the best. Part of this is the “rubber-necking” human nature that we all have, especially people like me who are looking for compelling images. And in the case of the Syrian boy on the beach, it can be vital to waking up a world that too often slumbers in the face of suffering. So kudos to that photographer and those of us who don’t shy away from the hard things we often see unfolding right in front of us. Kudos to the truth-tellers.

Despite having her eyes destroyed by land mines in the Rwandan genocide and her land stolen by a greedy uncle—and subsequently restored by a justice nonprofit—this woman has discovered joy in the midst of turmoil. (Photograph: Sean Sheridan for IJM)

But it would be ethically questionable, at best, for any photojournalist to stop at the worst of the worst if they have time to “work” a scene. Doing so feeds the vulture called “Poverty Porn,” (much has been written on this subject; see Emily Roenigk’s fine blog for a primer) that feasts on images of children with flies on their faces and distended bellies, so I won’t take the time to make that point other than to simply say it would be a mistake for a photographer to go for the easy shots like this if they are not representative of a community as a whole. Since I work for nonprofits that are attempting to effect great change, I must not bring home photographs that create a false stereotype. Doing anything less than striving for a true picture of what a community is like as a whole puts me into an ethical conundrum and dangerously close to falling into poverty porn. If I fail on this account, I lose something incredibly valuable: trust.

A beneficiary of an innovative safe water project in Tanzania takes a cool drink on a hot day. (Photograph: Sean Sheridan for Water Missions International)

At this point, trust is broken not only with the people who have spent good money to send me on an assignment, but with the communities where I walk and shoot. And as an ambassador of what I call “all things good,” I simply cannot do this. Ever. Again, being ethical means being truthful, which starts with a commitment to tell the full story. This starts with building trust with those who are sending me—and those whom I ultimately photograph.

Think about it for a moment. If someone came into your neighborhood and said, “Hey, I just want to take a few photographs to show what life is like here in this place,” and later you saw what he or she shot and it was decidedly not what the neighborhood is actually like, would you trust that person? Would you be hopping mad? Of course you would be. And rightly so.

Which brings me to my last point: I go to where I am already sent or invited in by people who have an existing relationship with the nonprofit who hired me. If this isn’t possible because of some fast-moving crisis on the ground, then I make sure I am getting at least a nod of assent by holding up my camera and gesturing “Okay?” Making eye contact and showing deference like this goes a long way in keeping trust.

To by sly or sneaky and try to “steal” a shot of people who are in turmoil or acting privately is to rob them of their dignity. And at the end of the day, restoring and building people’s dignity may be the photographer’s highest calling. On rare occasions, like the image of the boy on the beach, it does take a difficult photograph to be the catalyst to change. But more often than not, it also comes through images of joy in the midst of hardship, hope in the midst of turmoil, or reconciliation in the midst of conflict, especially in situations where the situation looks and feels far different than my home. I often have to remind myself that it is a great privilege to even be there in the first place.

In a few weeks, I’ll be talking more about the power of this type of compelling storytelling and how it can change the world for good in front of a huge audience of changemakers at Blackbaud’s annual conference for nonprofits, bbcon. I can’t wait. Blackbaud is even giving nonprofits a chance to win an on-location photo shoot with me.

Sean Sheridan