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Ethical Photography: Black & Brown Bodies are Not Free Content

Photography is more powerful than people realise. Ever heard the saying- a photo is worth a thousand words? Well, those words can say a lot, they have the power to influence governments, sway public opinion, start wars, end conflicts and change the global perception of an entire people. 

The 'Afghan Girl'

You may be thinking it's a little dramatic–how can a photo have so much impact? Do you recall the photo called the 'Afghan Girl’ it was taken in a school in 1984 by Steve McCurry, the young girl's green eyes pierce through in a haunting stare–it captured the world's attention and became one of the most famous portraits in history. It also raised awareness about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But only later, it was revealed that she was coerced into revealing more of her face and posing in an unfamiliar way. The photographer went on to fame and fortune, while the girl whose name is Sharbat Gula, was left unnamed at the time, and a fake story about her life was made up to fit the narrative. She was also unpaid. 

She was recently tracked down living as a refugee in Pakistan and shared how the fame brought upon her endangered her life. With the Taliban takeover, this could be even more true today. 

Alan Kurdi–a Symbol of The Syrian Refugee Crisis 

When a photo of a three-year-old child washed up on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, after attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, was splashed across news outlets, it broke hearts and mobilised people for causes around the pending refugee crises. It shouldn’t take a photo of a deceased child to rouse empathy but in the digital age, we’re so desensitised to images of children in strife that it took something like the photo of Alan Kurdi for people to sit up and pay attention.  

Certain photos, the type that are undeniable can bring about empathy on a nationwide or even global level. They can rouse emotions in a way an article, a speech, or a campaign often can't. Photography, especially photojournalism, can change minds about ongoing issues, from climate change to wars. But what happens when photography is used in a way that skews the viewer's perception, or when it’s used to make some people rich at the expense of others?

The Power of The Photographer 

Photography can play into power dynamics, especially when the photographer is a white Western person using their lens to capture poverty and strife in Brown and Black countries and spaces. 

Many are witness to this phenomenon countless times while travelling, people taking pictures of local people without their permission or asking and then proceeding to snap a close-up with no context. It comes across as a fascination with people of colour, of the poor and the other. The pictures of shop owners, butchers and rural children without any names. 

Taking Photos of POC With No Context  

Daily life is the essence of a culture, but there are also myriad versions of each place. But taking close-ups of strangers' faces without consent or context is doing them an injustice. There are countless photos online, taken by novice photographers–of Black and Brown faces uploaded without any name, or reference besides things captions like, 'Takeaway owner in Dehli.' 

If the narrative is flipped, it's easy to understand how strange this is– imagine a tourist from Pakistan or Ghana, as an example, travelling to London and walking through local neighbourhoods, taking photos of English children, or close-ups of white people and then posting it to their Instagram. It would be considered strange, and in the U.K. there are laws to protect children from unethical photography. Even if these laws don't apply, it's an exercise of power and in some cases, perverse to take photos of children abroad without asking their parent's permission (as was the case for Sharbat Gula.)

Poverty Pictures for Instagram 

This behaviour happens when tourists go to places in South East Asia, India, East Africa and beyond. Pictures of naked street children, unclothed holy men and struggling elderly women, are often taken without consent. All indicators of a different world, the other and often, an overt expression of poverty. Would a tourist go up to a wealthy woman in Dubai and ask to take a close-up picture to reflect how people live in Dubai? Probably not. So why are tourists so fascinated by poverty? Why has it become a social norm to capture it, to share it with their friends and post about it like a stamp of proof of being in that country? 

The memories of that country become intertwined with images of poor people, which some perceive as the authentic localness of a place - but not everyone in Delhi is poor and not every child in Southeast Asia runs around in paddy fields. So when these pictures are exported to the world via social media, magazines and news platforms. The singular story of poverty seeps into the consciousness of people globally, diminishing the other elements of a country. They lead to common Western phrases such as, "Look how happy they look running around barefoot even though they have nothing."

The problem is that this shows only one side of the complete picture. A place is more than just its struggle. Just because the majority of countries aren't as economically prosperous as the West, it doesn't mean that people should turn the suffering of others into a kind of porn for fleeting viewing. 

Turning People into Spectacles

There isn't an advantage to an inexperienced photographer or voluntourist taking pictures of an impoverished child without consent and posting them to their audience. Photos like the one of Alan Kurdi were taken in a specific context, whereas taking images of children for the sake of a social media post generally does not garner any actionable change. Instead, the pictures often evoke gratitude for people living in Western countries for the lives they lead without reflecting on why we live in a world with such inequality. The poor simply become spectacles. 

The damage has been done when decades of photography of poor Black and Brown folk have cemented the idea that people of colour around the world are destitute, that sub-Saharan Africans are all starving, Southeast Asians are simple farmers, and most of India is an overflowing slum. Anyone who has travelled to these regions knows it’s not true, but the stereotypes live on. 

Countries are multifaceted, and photography has the power to uplift powerful stories and images of resilience as well as strife. The world would suddenly seem a little less dark if images of Brown and Black joy could be spread instead of limiting entire countries to images of pain and poverty. 



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