Monday, August 17, 2009

On Being a Photographer and Interventionism

Had the photojournalist not been there with a camera, it would have resulted in these kids not looking into the camera. I exist, therefore I intervene. Photo: Isaac Hernández

I love Photo District News. Yet, I love to disagree with an article in their August 2009 issue, which unfortunately you cannot read unless you're a subscriber to the website, or have the print magazine. But you can see the video/slide show (for free) featured in the story, at Soul of Athens, a website produced by students at Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication and E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

The story in question is titled "A Lesson in Observation vs. Action," signed by David Walker, senior editor at PDN. I quote the introduction: "Photographer Rachel Mummey struggles with her obligation to maintain a journalist's distance while documenting the unplanned pregnancy and abuse of a vulnerable 18-year-old."

I don't get the "lesson". I read the story twice and I still found no moral. Is Mr. Walker's point that we have to be unbiased photojournalists and not intervene in what we document?

In Walker's story Mummey says of her 18-year-old subject, Caeshel Sue Rae Allen, "she thought I was nice and polite to her. She said I wasn't just taking pictures, I was talking to her and trying to help her through it. I guess this is what I had trouble with. I saw things that I thought that were wrong that no one should have to put up with. And it was really hard to create that boundary."

When Caeshel got pregnant by her boyfriend Mark, Mummey offered to document her life during the following nine months. At one point, she was pretty certain that Caeshel was being beaten by her boyfriend. And Caeshel had the words "Property of Mark Anthony Butcher" tattooed on the nape of her neck. "But," Walker writes, "as a journalist, she didn't want to interfere with the story by calling the police to intervene."

The moment one breathes, there's intervention. If you have a camera, you influence people to do things they wouldn't if it wasn't for the camera being there. Isn't Susan Sontag's On Photography required reading at the graduate program of Ohio University, where Rachel studies?

Sontag quotes Diane Arbus on pages 41-42 of the book: "the camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibilities towards the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you're not intervening in their lives, only visiting them."

It's as if we're having the same conversation from when I went to photography school 20 years ago: If you know a monk is going to set himself on fire, do you not show up to try to stop him, or do you take a Pullitzer Prize winning photo? At what point do you give up on the story? When do you stop being a journalist, and tell the woman you're photographing that she'd be better off not having the baby from a boyfriend that hits her?

As we all become journalists with our blogs and photographers with our cellphones, at what point do we intervene, even if it means not getting the story/video/photo?

Don't get me wrong. I believe in ethics in journalism. There are photographers who have intentionally changed the course of an event, or even "photoshopped" a photograph in order to make the story. I don't agree with that behavior. But I also believe in ethics in humanity. Sometimes you have to follow your heart, stop being a journalist and just be a human being.

©2009 Isaac Hernandez

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