The Humanitarian Photographer

12 06 2010

There is a genre of photography known as “humanitarian photojournalism.” It seems a laudable practice and most of the photographers who do it are dedicated to the causes and organizations they photograph for. However, it is also a commercial practice, and where money changes hands expectations and obligations are present and they will shade the results.

I have recently been listening to podcast interviews (Depth of Field with Matt Brandon) with some of the most accomplished humanitarian photographers. They all tell compelling stories. They talk about what they pack for their trips and the difficulties and unexpected encounters in their travel. They tell about what gear works, what doesn’t and why. They give tips on lighting and how to work with the native populations and conditions—all of which is fascinating and useful to other photographers. Likewise, they all speak of the real needs and suffering of their subjects from around the world.

But missing in most of this discussion is a larger perspective—one in which bigger questions are raised and wrestled with.

Every one of these photographers claim it is a privilege for them to inform the rest of the world about what’s really going on in places like the Sudan, Haiti, Afghanistan and the Amazon rain forest. So they report on the work being done by the major Non Governmental Organizations and many relief agencies—their clients and employers. And they do it well because they are professionals.

The result is yet more images in a media saturated world—images targeted at people living far from the source of those images—affluent, well educated, socially committed readers of magazines and buyers of photo books and joiners of groups dedicated to helping causes—the pool from which the NGOs and relief organizations seek their support. So the humanitarian photograph must be compelling though not repellent. It must not tip the balance politically, culturally or aesthetically in any way that might offend the targeted potential donor.

It is this need for balance that pushes the humanitarian photojournalist more and more into the realms of marketing, advertising and public relations. And to the extent humanitarian photography is a business both the photographer and those who hire him or her have a vested interest in the continuation of their subject’s abject conditions.

It is notable that many of the humanitarian photojournalists routinely leave their own countries (mostly developed nations) to travel on paid assignment to remote locations, there to record and report on their subject’s pain, poverty and suffering. But surely pain, poverty and suffering exist in the photographer’s own home country and community? There is plenty of it here in the United States and it probably exists in places like France, Canada, Germany, Britain and Australia too! Surely it must be more environmentally, morally and economically defensible to address the problems of pain, poverty and suffering at home before trying to right the wrongs in places thousands and thousands of miles away.

Humanitarian photographers should ask themselves how much what they do is really done in service of humanity—really makes a difference—and how much of it is done to expiate guilt (theirs and that of their clients) for being able to live a life of privilege and choice not enjoyed by those they photograph.

The people devastated by the earthquake in Haiti, and those left impoverished if not homeless and demoralized by Katrina and more recently by the incompetence of British Petroleum in the Gulf are not now flying to Santa Fe, Palm Beach or Shaker Heights to photograph the plight of the wealthy—are they?

What are your thoughts?

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith




2 responses

3 04 2011

As a freelancer with a few clients in the humanitarian sector I can understand your concerns about professional humanitarian photographers. I work in development rather than relief, so can’t speak for those who deal with disasters, but I would be shocked if what I’m about to say is not sentiments shared by them.

It is of course true that we shoot what the client wants, and that will always call into question the honesty of the imagery. And admittedly we are paid for our services, though not the megabucks people seem to imagine. But both of those accusations can be levelled at most photographers- we are not all journalists, but I would trust the ethics of most shooters enough to hope that they would turn down assignments which were clearly perpetuating falsehoods.

However what really got me was your assertion that photographers “have a vested interest in the continuation of their subject’s abject conditions”. I can’t think of a single photographer or NGO I have worked with here (I’m based in Uganda, partly because there are not many NGOs well-funded enough to afford to fly photographers anywhere) who held any viewpoint even remotely resembling that. The world doesn’t have a shortage of humanitarian crises and, excepting those few embarrassing organizations which do exist for the betterment of their employees, the humanitarian industry deals with tough situations in challenging locations in the best way it can, and really, truly wants to see success. I am not motivated by guilt (there are other emotions in the human experience besides guilt and greed)- my work is seen by people who will never visit the places I go. People have ideas of what places are like, and the imagined reality is usually wrong and should be changed.

Your plea to humanitarian shooters (as though there is a single ‘pack’ of poverty paparazzi) to consider what they have ever done for humanity is a strange one. The very fact that most Westerners know what a Sudanese refugee camp or an Indian slum even looks like is due to those very photographers, and the insinuation that they should work for free in order to understand poverty is crazy. We do a job which requires not just professionalism but also a degree of sacrifice, and asking for a wage seems reasonable. I presume you ask employers for payment too.

There are, and always will be, ethical concerns surrounding humanitarian imagery. We do walk a thin line, but generally with honest intentions. I’d happily write a guest piece for you about what humanitarian work really entails if you’re interested.

3 04 2011

Thank you for your vey thoughtful reply and analysis.

While I agree that ethical and honorable humanitarian photographers do wish to make a difference–and often do, I still believe they have a “vested interest” in the suffering of others. However, this is not to say they want people to suffer. Rather, It is similar to lawyers having a vested interest in crime. Without criminals or violation of law they are largely out of a job–at least criminal law. Without human suffering, humanitarian photographers are largely without a principal subject, and that was my point.

I remain doubtful that ever more pictures of pain and suffering can do much to alleviate or eliminate the same. We, in the western world have become consumers of images and we mostly treat them as ephemera–yesterday’s news. Furthermore, it is often the shock value of an image that elicits immediate attention while many of the larger questions go unasked by the viewer/reader, such as what are the real causes (political, environmental, economic, educational, religious etc.) that lie behind the image. Just seeing a picture(s), or even reading a story or two about a humanitarian condition is not the same as understanding it or actually working to do something about it. Where there is a glut of such imagery and information the typical viewer/reader is overwhelmed and confused about what to do.

I also believe charity and clarity begins at home. I can tell you that places like Flint, Michigan and Gary, Indiana, are every bit as devastated and hurting as places thousands of miles around the globe. Any humanitarian photographer based in the United States can find plenty of subject matter here without ever leaving the United States (and some do).

I am not saying that humanitarian photography is unecessary or wholly ineffective. I am only saying that those who practice the genre (and it is a genre) should be honest with themselves about what they do and its effects and limitations. I am also saying that whenever money enters the equation the results will be skewed, and that goes for every profession.

I certainly do not expect a professional photographer to work for free. And yes, I expect to be paid for my work. However I am well aware that by doing so I must make compromises and sometimes self-censor. For any thinking and caring person there will always be personal questions of ethics and values–whether one is a photographer, landscape architect or trash hauler.

Thank you again for your very thoughtful comments.


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