When Photographing Others

Using photography is complicated. Perhaps, more so historically in the dawn of its initial moments of benefit to the news industry. Continuous streams of photographic printing and scrolling have desensitised once curious readers and viewers to interpret war and suffering as natural timelines of existence.

There is no doubt photography still has a big part to play in news and documentation. More so today in a world dominated by Netflix, YouTube and other Social Media. I often consider photography to be the written word of visual documentation over video. Reading forces one to summon emotion and imagine being present in the story just like the viewing and perusal of a photograph. Whereas, video delivers an already satisfiable burst of media. Social media, on the other hand, further demeans not only video but begins to pull apart the myofascial components of a photograph when its intended purpose is put to unintended or accidental audiences.

Social media’s congregational platform abets fragmenting documentary photography as it is often placed within an often-incompatible habitat. Although I cannot speak for everyone, it could be why some photographers remain absent from the boundaries of this alternate medium of exhibition. Must the suffering of others be placed within a mixed variety of platforms and themes? I guess the answer to this question is subjective. Some photographers remove certain assignments from this medium largely because it can be considered in bad taste. And rightly so. The identity of the photographer is also important because it allows the viewer to understand what and why particular subject matter is photographed.

“Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize” – Susan Sontag

Topic, situation, race, culture, belief all play a part and there are often clues in photographs hinting at a photographer’s psychology.

Working as a freelancer, you pen notes around your interests believing strengths take you to stories you can contribute best to. But this can overlook many things including your qualification for being in a particular place.

Working in documentary photography often leaves one feeling guilty of the narrative being recorded. It is in these moments I began to assess what I was doing and if I truly am of service.

My heritage partially qualified me to document Ukraine until I truly understood its DNA and history having found it initially recognisable only in part. I felt being Muslim permitted me to document predominantly Islamic countries due to my faith but if it were the opposite way around, I would have vehemently reflected upon what I had done with great regret. Even though I do not believe I crossed restricted boundaries, I continue to search my work with a fine-tooth comb with what feels like boundless criticism. This is the proper way to assess future choices and the usefulness of one’s own work.

Ongoing mental health difficulties led me to document Rwandan genocide survivors. Each day I criticise this body of work, though I am frequently persuaded to publicly maintain it, often wondering why did I not document myself. The reason to visit Rwanda was largely because it reflected a broader idea surrounding mental health and it was this I was exploring as a sufferer of depression, PTSD and OCD. But Rwanda wasn’t the only community I would be visiting.

Since then I have visited other communities including people in Bosnia and the UK. Is it part of a validation process? For me, most projects are inspired by experience, so I can say most probably, yes, considering we work best with what we know intimately. And what we know, our experiences, are what helps provide a better insight into others. Rarely does this work without, no matter how aesthetically pleasing a body of work may seem. Sometimes, the feeling in photography is better than the humanly accepted ideas of beautiful photographs. But as Susan Sontag said – “Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize”

The outside of a Rwandan excavation for victims of the genocide, 2018.

Maybe these are authentic intuitions, or maybe they’re tractional notional feelings built around new overtures of conviction that start remorseful sentences of unintelligible carousels of cognisance. But whichever way I look at it, I must always question my motives and never try to defend them.

On a prior trip to Pakistan, I stumbled upon a brick factory in the southern region of Jhang which piqued my interest, later learning the trade is steeped in slavery. I visited the country again to work on a personal project about climate change, only to come up empty-handed. I remembered my past happenstance and decided to visit a nearby brick kiln.

Speaking to the families who lived and worked there, I was informed videographers and photographers had visited in the past, promising inhabitants of the area, slaves to their trade, they had come to help and would be back to do so.

A few years passed and no one came. Progress is stagnant statistical publications of populations and demographical ramblings of all talk and no action. With their permission, I took photographs intending to pitch it to various news outlets to no avail. The unfortunate truth is, most publishers prefer something with new and updated information. An appalling yet revealing mirror of society.

Last year’s Taylor Wessing portrait prize spotlit winners who documented cultures and societies who were not invested genetically in them or through their beliefs. But nevertheless, this competition unearthed a year without people from or with origins from their documented nations. This year’s competition is interesting considering last year’s criticism deserved more coverage and was pin-dropping at best.

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