Monday, February 16, 2009

Photojournalism and the public’s health: art or information?

My addiction to taking pictures started when my grandfather traded my cheap little camera for his better quality 35mm Kodak. Long before I considered myself a photographer, I just liked taking pictures. I’d annoy family and friends, intrude on mating animals, disrupt a dance, or make babies cry with curious clicking or a blinding flash. In the end, that shot of my 20-month old niece dumping milk over her baby brother’s head was worth my brother’s laughter and irritation.

I bring a camera everywhere I go. A few years ago I upgraded and bought a new one specifically for my move to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. I wanted to document everything with photos. I shot my house and the flora and fauna surrounding it. My neighbors and colleagues obliged my interest in their culture by stopping and striking poses for their American friend.

The first time I encountered resistance was on the street - cruising down the main boulevard a group of police officers with rifles sat on either side of a bench hoisted on the back of a standard Toyota pick-up truck. It wasn’t just that the passengers of the truck intrigued me but how young the policeman looked. Unfortunately for my portfolio, there were laws about taking photos on the street. I couldn’t risk exposing my camera to the officers so I tried to conceal it. One of the officers spotted it and reprimanded me with a shake of the head and wagging his forefinger. I wasn’t bold enough to disobey the law in a foreign country – especially when the law blatantly displayed their rifles with a shoulder strap of bullets. The second time I whipped out my camera on an unsuspecting passerby I was met with fierce eyes and a hand gesture that only included his middle finger. After that, I learned a hard lesson about treating people as inanimate objects for foreign curiosity.

A fellow American colleague helped me put my intrigue into perspective. Just ask, he said; if not directly (since I didn’t initially speak the language), at least indirectly with gestures of the eyes not only visible through the camera’s looking glass. Permission – wow, what a novel concept? Unfortunately that wisdom fell on deaf ears when we attempted to empathize with the privacy of a young girl suffering from the debilitating physical symptoms of a deadly disease. At least, we tried to compromise, cover her eyes with a black bar for some measure of anonymity. The investigators and presenters did not see (no pun intended) the logic and that young girl unknowingly became the poster-child of a disease that may have taken her life.

As a scientist and artist I am torn between the constant quest for knowledge and the desire to display that knowledge photographically. However, exploitation is rampant around the world. Especially when politically, economically, and socially-disenfranchised people are involved. Out of respect for them, I have to put my intellectual power and artistic ability aside and respect their right to privacy and to consent. The fear, understandably, is loss of the creative moment or lost opportunities for information sharing. Yet, there is a much appreciated richness when the spirit of collaboration is invoked and no one moment or person is taken for granted.

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