[We recently met Benjamin Chesterton at the Frontline/ICP symposium, where he participated in a discussion on the future of visual narrative. He had some strong opinions about photojournalists and storytelling, and we thought our readers would be interested in hearing his ideas. —Ed.]

One surefire way to irritate blind people is to think that you can put a blindfold on for an hour or two and understand what it is to be blind. It sounds like a good idea until you really start to think about it. I should know. I once set out to make a radio documentary for the BBC about the contrasting ways in which the visually impaired and the sighted experience the countryside.

For the purposes of the program I intended to blindfold the presenter Richard Uridge and send him up a hill accompanied by two “real” blind people. It was a dumb idea on many levels, not least because the program would have ended up being about the rather superficial experience of the presenter. The majority of the audience no doubt would have loved the show because they love Richard, but it would have been as deep as a puddle. The story would have been all about him.

What’s this got to do with photojournalism? As I have been discovering over the last couple of years, a little too much.

My interest as both a practitioner and commentator is principally about how we use photography to tell stories about the developing world. In his book Truth Needs No Ally, Howard Chapnick writes of photojournalists,

They give a voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and help to the helpless.”

It’s a widely held and romantic view of a profession whose lifeblood is often the worst the world has to offer. But what worries me is the pictures we celebrate and the two-dimensional stories they sometimes tell.

In 2006 I moved to Ethiopia. One of the things that struck me when I arrived was just how different the country was from my expectations. Until that point in my life I had mainly been experiencing Africa through the eyes of photojournalists, TV news reports and NGOs, whose stories are too often those of a blindfolded man who claims to be a spokesperson for the blind. It became obvious to me that I had picked up an unbalanced visual history of Africa.

To explain what I mean, I’d like to address two differing approaches to depicting global health crises, both of which have been undertaken by some of the most talented photographers working today.

Since 2008, James Nachtwey has received funding to work on an important story about a dangerous strain of the tuberculosis virus called XDR. In the multimedia presentation “Struggle To Live: The Fight Against TB,” Nachtwey describes how more than 2 billion people are infected with TB. He then goes on to show a sequence of progressively more disturbing images.

What interests me as a documentary maker about Nachtwey’s film is that he chooses to use his own voice to tell other people’s stories, rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. It reminds me of UNICEF’s recently launched Put It Right campaign, which advocates for the rights of children to be heard but scores a spectacular own goal by failing to include the voice of a single child.

For me, the “objects” of many of Nachtwey’s pictures in this series are victims not only of their medical condition but also the pity Nachtwey’s photos evoke. Watching the video, it is all too easy for me to think of these nameless people as apart from the world rather than a part of it, because I feel no connections between myself, the imagery and Nachtwey’s somber voice.*

It troubles me that the photographic community puts weight in this kind of storytelling. Can you imagine the same being true of literature?  Opening a book by Ben Okri only to discover that every chapter just told the story of another African’s miserable death?  It’s inconceivable that such a book would be published, let alone be awarded grants, no matter how sharp the prose.

The photographic agency Magnum took a very different approach to this critical health issue in its thought-provoking multimedia presentation “Access to Life,” in which eight photographers portray people in nine countries around the world before and after they begin antiretroviral treatment for AIDS. Some, who have tuberculosis, don’t survive. Others make a recovery.

What’s different about these features is that each of the photographers is committed to telling the story of one individual, and most importantly, that we hear that person speak. However much a photographer’s style impairs or enhances a story, the sound of someone’s voice, in all its openness, has a unique power to move us from pity to understanding. That is a powerful experience for them and for us.

Despite the increasing number of projects like “Access to Life,” I’m left with the impression that photo essays often tell us much more about the photographer than the photographed. As Lane Turner explains in The Boston Globe:

“The mythology of my profession suggests that photojournalists can reveal subjects in ways most others miss. The camera is credited with the ability to probe personalities, to parse meaning from the chaos of life. Photographers often encourage these beliefs, as the myths imbue the profession with power, mystery, and, perhaps most important, romance. Photographers themselves believe the myths because that’s what we’re taught, and because they make us feel good about our jobs. But many times pictures say more about who took them than they ever do about their subjects.”

One way in which pictures reflect their makers is in the information and context that accompany an image. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie has spoken eloquently about the danger of the single story, which permits us to reduce, in the case of Africa, a whole continent to a series of mainly negative stereotypes. While Adichie addresses oral or written stories, in the single-image story, all too often the aesthetics of a photograph are celebrated above content. Yet accuracy and context must be the most important elements if journalism is going to maintain credibility.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the most celebrated of photojournalism awards, the World Press Photo. I am a big fan of the World Press, which each year brings us visceral and arresting accounts of the major events of the previous year.

This year a winning photographer was disqualified for a removing a tiny element of an image. The photo was later revealed to have been massively cropped and de-saturated of color, although this was deemed acceptable to the judges. There is good account of this on Professor David Campbell’s blog, which encouraged me to dig a little deeper into the competition’s journalistic grounding.

I was surprised to find that the World Press has little to say about captions in its entry rules, which seems startling. Colin Jacobson, renowned photo editor, critic and founder of Reportage Magazine recently wrote on Foto8:

“As an ersatz educator, I spend much time and energy trying to persuade photojournalism students that context is all, that a photograph is incomplete without its supporting text.”

Colin is spot on, and his point is illustrated in The World Press awards. Stefano De Luigi’s thought-provoking picture of a dead giraffe came second in the contemporary issues, singles, category. You can buy this image on his agency’s Web site where the caption reads:

“A giraffe lies dead, killed by drought in Wajr (sic), North Eastern province, Kenya on Oct. 9, 2009. Kenya hasn’t seen a drop of rain for several years and is now facing a devastating drought …”

That’s about as accurate as providing a picture of the office of Lehman Brothers with an accompanying caption that says “due to the economic crisis all the banks in America have gone bust.” [See De Luigi’s response in comment #2 below. —Ed.]

In fact, according to the Kenyan MET office, heavy rains fell in Western Kenya during September 2009 and led to floods and loss of life. Even in some areas of Wajir, where a severe drought was taking place, there was a limited amount of rain. Images that accentuate the negative are all too common because few in the industry seem to care if you take a localized issue and then apply it to the rest of an African country, especially if you are giving “voice to the voiceless” by drawing attention to a problem. The result is the homogenization of Africa as a “country” of famine, tribal warfare and corruption. Fred Ritchin, author of the seminal work After Photography, believes that ultimately this loss of context will lead to the end of photojournalism as a relevant vehicle for storytelling,

“Until we agree that it is intolerable to continue witnessing horrific events without exploring their causes and putting them in context, to have one’s imagery selected by others to emphasize the sensational at the expense of the more nuanced and authentic, as well as having photographs miscaptioned to simplify and distort, photojournalism will become an increasingly self-referential and dead-end pursuit.”

Ritchin lays much of the blame for misrepresentation in the media on the shoulders of the photo editors who commission and publish much of what we see. Photographer Asim Rafiqui offers great insight into this process on his blog The Spinning Head:

“Editors (and not just photo editors, but the main editors) have significant influence in determining what kinds of pictures are made because they have a significant influence on what kinds of pictures are published. And the dirty little secret of photojournalism is that all photographers, particularly young and ambitious ones, learn quickly what editors want.”

At the end of last year I helped set up the Web site A Developing Story as a way to discuss some of the issues outlined above. It’s been informative and entertaining to watch esteemed photographers like Jan Grarup take the trouble to debate with Kenyan photographer Dolphine Emali about whether his work, as featured in The New York Times Lens blog, offered a fair representation of the refugee crisis on the border of Somalia. It’s the kind of dialogue that might lead to greater transparency and self awareness in the profession. Emali questioned Grarup’s representation of the refugee camps at Dadaab, where she had been a recent visitor:

“In the camps there is of course suffering but I would also have loved to see images of the children that were playing in the camp, images of the schools set up, images of the street with all the shops where refugees who’ve refused to be victims of circumstances are taking charge and rebuilding their lives. Where are the photos of the weddings that happen in the camp and where are the photos of people who despite their many tribulations, still observe prayers without fail? Where are the photos telling the other side of the story? … People in the camp, at least in Daadab (sic) are alive, not waiting around for death.”

To his great credit, Grarup offered a robust and thoughtful defense of his work, some of which mirrored the point Rafiqui made about which images are selected for publication.

A Developing Story also acts as a showcase for storytellers who reject the idea of the photojournalist as a messiah and who are genuinely looking for ways to give a platform to people we wouldn’t otherwise hear from. Joseph Rodriguez is one such storyteller, as demonstrated by his self-funded project, “Reentry,” about men and women preparing to leave the criminal justice system.

NGO’s like Human Rights Watch, OSI, Save the Children, and MSF are also building reputations for themselves with this kind of storytelling approach, using photography in some of the most thought-provoking and indeed journalistic ways found on the Web. Given the risk of confusing advocacy for their organization with advocacy for those they’re trying to help, it’s interesting, even challenging to a journalist like me, how often they get it right. This is something I would have found hard to believe until duckrabbit partnered with MSF last year on a project on the Congo.

What I hope comes across as important is not the photographs but the people in the photographs. And that’s the difference between the blindfolded speaking for the blind and the blind being allowed to speak for themselves.

Francoise’s Story from duckrabbit on Vimeo.

Benjamin Chesterton is creative director of duckrabbit, a multimedia production company. As part of a three-person team, he received a 2009 POYi Multimedia News Story award for “Praying for the Rain,” a project on Nakuru Camp in Kenya.

*For another take on James Nachtwey’s images, see today’s New York Times Lens blog.

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