New Internationalist

Haiti on camera: photojournalism or poverty porn?

close up camera [Related Image]
Eric Wüstenhagen under a Creative Commons Licence

I was alerted to the website Turning World by some friends here in Haiti. The site is run by photojournalist Brad Workman, who has an ongoing photo documentary in Haiti. Looking at the site, I took issue with the language, the project, and the fact that there is no acknowledgement of – let alone an indication of giving back to – those whose lives are invaded under the guise of social documentary. The books and prints are for sale on the website. I emailed Workman to express my concerns but received no response, so I decided to make my concerns public on my website, Black Looks.

There are ways to tell a story without invading people’s lives and assaulting their dignity – such as the photos chosen by the Camp Acra residents on their blog, a lesson on what Haitians see for themselves. 

My email to Workman only began to touch on the whole issue of the ethics of disaster photojournalism and the ‘white saviour’ mindset. Two well-known examples of disaster voyeurism photos are: the young Haitian girl, Fabienne Cherisma, who was photographed dead, having been shot by police after the January 2010 earthquake. The accompanying text states that looters then ‘went through her pockets to steal what they could’; meanwhile, all 14 photographers stood by her body adjusting their lens for further shots – a kind of double shooting: one causing death and one prolonging death as imagery forever. Two of the photographers won an award for the series.

A second, even more disturbing, photo is one of a Sudanese baby dying of hunger while a vulture waits in anticipation of her death. The photographer, Kevin Carter, who also won an award, waited 20 minutes before chasing the vulture away. Journalists in Sudan had been told not to touch famine victims, so instead of, at the very least, holding and caressing the child to give human comfort, or trying to get her to the nearest field hospital, she was left alone.

Below is a summary of the points I sent to Workman in my email. (The full text can be read on the Black Looks website.)

Firstly, without text and context, photos do not tell the story that needs to be told. So even before your photos are presented, the text you write is a shadow of the reality behind the story. So how will the truth be told?

You use the words ‘human bondage’ and Haiti’s resistance to this. Why not simply be clear and upfront by using the word ‘slavery’ and writing that Haiti has a history of revolution, beginning with the only slave revolution which led to the first black independent nation? Instead, you imply that this ‘human bondage’ is not only continuing but you erase the very resistance you attempt to speak of. Presumably after 20 visits you have an in-depth knowledge of Haiti’s history, culture and politics?  

You write that ‘Haiti is a deeply troubled country’ and go on to speak of poverty as if it happens outside of the socioeconomic and political regional and global landscape. How is Haiti troubled in ways that other countries are, by implication, not troubled? This kind of Eurocentric exceptionalism is counterproductive; it ignores the underlying systemic structures of capitalism which perpetuate poverty from Guatemala to India to Nigeria to Haiti to South Africa.  

You talk of hunger, child labour, street children, environmental degradation, limited healthcare, cholera as ‘troubles’. These are not TROUBLES, they are acts of violence, and the direct effects of colonialism, élitism, occupation, capitalism and rampant disaster capitalism, and what Paul Farmer calls structural violence for which Western nations (the US, France and so on) are the driving force.   

I have viewed the first-stage photos and I am deeply concerned at your showing photos of wounded, hungry, sick, vulnerable people. This is objectifying and insulting and pure pornography of poverty. I also take issue with a number of your tweets, which are extremely damaging in reinforcing negative stereotypes of Haitians as poor, needy and desperate people. You even go so far as to imply that the misery is so intense that even roosters and the sun itself are somehow saddened.

So the world will see these photos and the false narrative that Haiti is a poor, diseased, violent country is perpetuated. Yes, this I know to be the narrative. It is one told to me regularly whenever I visit the US and mention Haiti, which the media loves to describe as ‘the poorest country in the western hemisphere’, as if that is the sum of 10 million people and 300 years of history! How on earth does this help Haiti? And why do you feel you need to publicize the struggle rather than support or come in solidarity?

How about giving Haitians cameras and letting them take their own photos? How about providing equipment for Haitian photographers to train youth and kids so they can document their own lives as they see fit, instead of a self-centred careerism on the backs of the poor people?

The full version of this post can be read on Black Looks

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