Image Problems: The Prejudice of Travel Photography – George Mather

market-lalibela
Market, Lalibela

Gravely, with composure, leaning his rifle against the window, the soldier vomited into the open bag at his feet. Out of a pragmatism which was rapidly becoming familiar, two rows of packing crates had been inserted into the cramped minubus, and so my attempts to ignore the retching man behind me were a polite fiction. I focused with determination on the man to my right, who was explaining Ethopia’s military pride:

“Boko Haram would never happen here.”

I nodded sincerely. What I had seen so far suggested the National Defence Force maintained a near-ubiquitous presence throughout the country, supplemented by paramilitary police dressed in blue camouflage, later described to me by aid workers as the ‘no-mercies’. The man behind us in the green uniform of the Northern Command tossed something out of the window which I tried not to think about.

“This is all pre-Cambrian rock.”

I deferred to my new friend on this one. I had no idea what pre-Cambrian rock was. We were travelling the winding route between Mek’ele and Adigrat, which hugs the path of mountain spurs leading north towards the Eritrean border, the heights of which expose the layers of rust-brown stone towards which my friend was gesturing. The ashen-faced man behind me, now panting wetly against the window, had joined us early on at the first military checkpoint and seemed unenthusiastic about the remaining three hours.

These checkpoints were regular institutions across the country, particularly at airports, roadsides, churches, hotels and anything else which you enter, exit, move past, through, in front or behind. The inevitability of searches and x-ray scanning presented me with a particular problem, because at the time I was attempting to be Steve McCurry. Rather than take a modern, portable digital camera, I had instead loaded up on 35mm film and a camera made in 1976, which needed to be regularly dismantled and inspected. There are many reasons why these have been largely superseded in the field of reportage, including (but not limited to) their sensitivity to x-ray machines; their sensitivity to being opened by members of the Ethiopian Northern Command; their sensitivity to an amateur student photographer accidentally opening the back of his own camera; their sensitivity to said amateur student photographer falling down a scree field on the side of a mountain; etc.

I was persistent, in the face of adversity. I developed a strategy for getting around the problem, which involved dropping two words into conversation:

National Geographic.

I only did it once; I had absolutely no evidence to back me up; I was surprised when it worked and I immediately regretted it. I was hurried through the security check in record time, and uttering the words had fed nicely into the fantasy I had been constructing. But the name had made the guard’s eyes widen, and was quickly followed up with an urgent, apologetic deference. There was no reason why he should have believed me. I was relying on a historical precedent where photojournalists, often white Americans and Europeans, were granted privileged access to people’s lives across the world because they claimed to be informing their home readership about unfamiliar cultures and situations. But in the prosperous West, what was ‘unfamiliar’ was all too often poverty and suffering. The heavy, metal-bodied camera I had chosen to haul around Northern Ethiopia came from an era when a photographer’s equipment represented economic empowerment, and when the medium itself embodies a power disparity, it can easily become an echo chamber for prejudice.

***

teddy-world-vision-lalibela
Teddy, World Vision, Lalibela

“I see photographs everywhere,” wrote Barthes in 1980, “like everyone else, nowadays.” With the rise of Instagram, this might seem obvious. We recognise, in a mostly unphotogenic world, individual moments which we could imagine static in a frame, on a wall, in a gallery; we press the shutter, the image is recorded, and the photograph made. But to recognise is to experience again. We know that there are certain rules of composition, certain casts of light, a sense of coincidence or immediacy that all contribute in some vague way towards something we call good photography, and this comes largely from having seen photographs before.

Photojournalism’s chief attraction is its perceived transparency. Unlike the engravings that it superseded in the early twentieth century, it feels unmediated; we can experience the ‘raw’ horror of famine, civil war and refugee camps, in the knowledge that the photographer has reliably captured every grain of dust, every plume of smoke, and every emaciated child. We enjoy the idea of its ‘gritty realism’. The problem arises when the grains of dust, plumes of smoke, and emaciated children become symbols of authenticity. I don’t deny that these are often an accurate picture of world events, but on occasion, photographers conditioned by a long tradition of reportage let this heritage dictate how they portray other cultures.

Among the many influences on modern travel photography, the legacy of Magnum Photos is perhaps the hardest to escape. Founded in 1947, it became synonymous with reportage, and its photographers were responsible for many of the iconic images of the following fifty years. Robert Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War, Josef Koudelka’s work on the 1947 Soviet Invasion of Prague, René Burri’s 1963 photographs of Che Guevara, Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl in 1984; all hail from the Magnum stable. For many it codified the ‘look’ of authentic photojournalism, and I, like many amateur photographers, have almost certainly taken these aesthetic prejudices to heart. One of the oddities, nowadays, of working with film photography, is the delay between taking the photo and seeing the results. It was only after developing my film back in the UK that I was presented, for the first time, with a series of images which felt uncomfortably familiar.

***

adigrat
Adigrat

I spoke to Kalpesh Lathigra, an internationally-renowned photographer and winner of the World Press Photo Award, whose work spans reportage, documentary, portraiture and fine art, and who has spent the last sixteen years photographing people, news stories, communities and cultures.

Hi Kalpesh; thanks for agreeing to the interview. In the past, you’ve talked about your early work in India and said you found it easy to achieve what you called the ‘Magnum look’. Could you tell me what you mean by that?

So, I did a postgraduate in photojournalism, and at that point in my career I was very much a black-and-white reportage photographer in the Magnum tradition, and that was all I really knew. When I went to India I was shooting black-and-white film; I was influenced by Sebastião Salgado, James Nachtwey, Paul Lowe; these guys were members of Magnum and all had that same tradition of reportage, and I think as a young photographer you find yourself emulating others: you subscribe to the three-lens, two-camera view of the world. You’ve got your 28mm, your 50mm, your half-telephoto, and you’re wandering around, and your influences stylise the way you take photographs. In the past, that tradition – and I have to say it’s changing – was something where you went in as a foreigner, almost like a voyeur, and you were documenting and reporting, and it was subjective but it wasn’t called subjective. Nowadays people are talking about it being subjective, it’s the photographer’s eye authoring it. I think maybe we’re evolving to be more sensitive to other people. I’m not saying that everybody does that – I speak to plenty of people who subscribe to the old tradition – but I think as I’ve gone along I’ve made it more collaborative.

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Unemployment queue,  Addis Ababa

It’s interesting that you talk about the ‘old tradition’; do you think that photography over the last century, particularly reportage surrounding other cultures, has struggled with something like a colonial mindset?

I think it depends on the photographer or the artist. I just saw some amazing photographs by Paolo Pellegrin following the Peshmerga’s advance into Mosul, it was in the New York Times this weekend and they just look great: they just look like he’s a reportage photographer, documenting what’s going on. He’s a news photographer, and I can see that, there.

But, let’s say I look at someone like Steve McCurry. For me, his work has that gaze – that kind of voyeuristic gaze – and I find that more problematic than Pellegrin’s. Pellegrin’s work is hard news and so I don’t see him as being voyeuristic; he’s reporting. It’s a difficult one because if you’re not careful you can exoticise stuff. I had a meeting with a recently-graduated photographer and was looking at some of her work from India, and I told her she needed to get away from the exoticism; the eyes were all lit up, it focused on the skin and vivid colours. It just had that look to it.

Do you think it’s morally defensible, nowadays, to take that kind of photo?

Well…if you’re a tourist, you want pretty images. I think of it like a really great pop song – which is really crap, if you get my gist – which everyone loves because it’s cheesy and it tickles your fancy and ticks all the right boxes. But it’s not Leonard Cohen, is it? We all look for that great sunset, whether you’re in a country in Africa, or Russia, or Japan, or India, or America…but if you’re an artist, or you’re in journalism, surely you want to question the way you’re photographing, question the way your eye is seeing. You want to push yourself to evolve past that gaze, because that’s the easy shot. We can all do that – and with digital, it’s even easier. If I go to India, I see those images all the time in front of me, and I’ve had to train myself not to take that picture.

So, do you think that because we’re so immersed in this culture of photography, we need to consciously take a step back?

I think that if you’re a tourist and you enjoy that stuff – fine. If you’re a journalist, or a reporter, or an artist, I think that you’ve got to think, and think, and think again, because those photographs are going to be out there. I reckon we have a library of images in our head from childhood. We’re exposed to all this stuff, and it’s familiar. We refer to our memories, and if you see that picture – I could see a McCurry picture, or a McCullin picture, or a Cartier-Bresson picture –  it’s there. It’s quite easy to…perhaps not replicate…but to see a moment where the composition and the colours make you think, ‘oh yeah,’ and you pull in that reference. And I’ve done it – I’m sure I’ve done it! But now, I stop myself and I really think about it. And it’s hard! I think you have to stop yourself and think about what you’re doing.

When you were in the US recently, you were photographing Native American reservations, home to cultures which are often exoticised and appropriated. You talked about having to think and think again – would you say that’s how you personally cope with that risk while you were working on the project?

With Lost in the Wilderness I was photographing the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Now I’d seen images shot there before, I was aware of the history of photography of Native Americans, and on my first visit I took my digital camera and took lots of photos. I came back, looked at them and they were exoticised – and that wasn’t what I’d been trying to get. I went away and did lots of research; I had a process where I looked at landscapes and still life, and I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t photograph pow-wows or clichés. In that whole body of work, there’s one picture of a man in a headdress, and that’s the only one. There are no whooping Lakota on horseback; there is a very still photo of a boy on a horse. Don’t get me wrong, on my first visit I did have a man riding a horse and all that stuff. I went on a Buffalo hunt and followed the herds. But I did a lot of careful editing and I really thought and stopped myself. For me, that particular project was a turning point. I really researched before I went back again. When I researched, I imagined the type of picture I’d like to take; I almost planned it.

Does this help you to avoid the influence of past photographers?

Absolutely. For more and more photographers who are crossing between fine art and documentary, I think research is playing a bigger part in our practices. If I was going to shoot a commission for someone else, as a reportage or a commercial assignment, they might ask me to shoot in a particular style. That’s commercial practice. But personal practice is very different.

Kalpesh Lathigra’s work can be found at his website, www.kalpeshlathigra.com.

***

getaneh-mt-abuna-josef
Getaneh, Mt. Abuna Josef

On the occasions when tourists succeed in climbing Mount Abuna Yosef, it is Getaneh (pictured) who often leads them to the summit. At 4200 metres above sea-level, the mountain caps the Ethiopian Highlands (the ‘Roof of Africa’), looming over the rock-churches which were carved into the basalt of its foothills in the late thirteenth century. Climbers gain just under two thousand metres in altitude, over a distance of about eighty kilometres, reaching a final camp which sits in the saddle between two mountains. Here, clouds are funnelled by the valleys of the north-east into vertiginous columns, ascending with solidarity between the peaks of the range, leaving the Giant Lobelia which puncture the montage slick with condensation even at midday. The Ethiopian Space Agency is headquartered slightly to the west, its satellite dish offering a target for the gelada which live among the outcrops, jumping between the rocks. During the cold nights, the cloud vapour freezes into perfect spheres, collecting like marbles between the rocky exfoliations, which crumble away down the mountainside at the touch, echoing.

During the final two-hour climb we were regularly overtaken by pilgrims crossing the mountain range to reach Lalibela in time for Gena, which is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s celebration of the birth of Christ. It was easy to feel ashamed as children in plastic shoes ran past me on narrow mountain tracks, quickly disappearing over the rise, while I struggled despite all the equipment I had brought with me, the quality of which had been assured by the number of hyphens and high-scoring letters in the brand names. We approached an ominously steep slope. Through perspiration and thin air, affecting what I hope looked like steady breathing, I asked Getaneh for his photo.

I knew at the time I was at risk of producing something misrepresentative. In grainy black and white, Getaneh stands without smiling in front of the exposed mountain. The silhouette of his gabi, his traditional shawl made from a single stretch of cloth woven to the width of the loom, mirrors the shape of the summit behind him. This is an image with which we’re familiar. He appears embedded in the landscape, and the photograph becomes a picture of rural subsistence living, the unmediated experience of a hard, foreign existence.

Photography’s “pure deictic language”, to quote Barthes, allows us to say anything we want, and what we say has so often been said before. Getaneh lived in the nearby city, working on the mountain occasionally during the tourist season, and was at the time studying for a university qualification. It’s very easy to manufacture narratives in this mould because we are accustomed to the idea that the camera lens points like a compass-needle, away from the powerful and towards the disempowered. When I ventured into markets, or went in search of salt caravans marching out of the Danakil, I was poking my nose into people’s real lives, at times exoticising images of poverty, at others manufacturing them. It was the sublimated ideology of photography, my privileged presumption that these people were a legitimate spectacle, that I used to defend what I was doing.

workers-at-teff-threshing-plant-adigrat
Workers at a teff threshing plant, Adigrat
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