Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stereotypical Stigma

An image on the cover of National Geographic in a shop here in Minsk caught my eye today. It was of a young Masai woman, with her breast exposed. This in a town where soft porn is not on the shelves.

And another image, sent electronically by Reuters is really haunting me today. It’s of a black woman in Sao Paolo smoking crack. She’s hugely pregnant, surrounded by other users, sprawled on the ground, mouth open, belly out, legs akimbo.

Later in the series we see a pic of the photographer, secreted away in an overlooking building, working under a black cape that hides him and the camera.

The series of photos told me crack is a problem for black people, and if you want to film them you’d better make sure they don’t catch you.

But hang on. There’s no attempt to hide these people’s identity. They are committing a crime and their faces are revealed. They have not given any consent to be filmed. And their addiction is treated as grubby, filthy, scary.

They are portrayed as somehow sub-human. Slumped against the wall, eyes rolled back, crashed out on the manky pavement.

Sure, the life of a crack addict is a vile, miserable one. I think we know that. But I don’t think any young black Brazilians seeing this will say “that’s it. No crack for me thanks”. Worse, white Brazilian kids may  say “I can smoke a rock or two. It’s only the blacks that can’t handle it.” (Only stupid people get trafficked/AIDS/addicted).

Where’s the public good?

Where’s the photo series of Japanese businessmen falling out of karaoke bars, barfing on the street? The twenty-something alcoholic student nurse in Newcastle pissing in the gutter? The Russian comatose in the snow? The coked-up Wall Street investment banker driving his Merc through a shop window?

It seems its ok to portray black people as miserable, criminal, feral. Or as corpses. Starved in Somalia, mutilated in Rwanda, piled up on the streets in Port-au-Prince. Bloated and floating in New Orleans after Katrina.

What am I supposed to think, when I see this pregnant woman, crack-pipe in hand, feeding her unborn baby poison? Bringing a child into Cracolandia. Blame her? Forbid her to reproduce?

That’s this thinking that allows nice white people to go to Haiti and cherrypick “orphans” to export. That’s the thinking that says “oh, their life would be terrible. Their parents would jump at the chance to let them have an American education.”

That’s the logic that says “It’s not slavery. ALL African kids work on the farm during the holidays. Their parents can’t afford to keep them so they have to work on the cocoa plantations”. Here’s a song for anyone who believes that.

Aid agencies, led by the IFRC, came up with a code of conduct in the mid-90s which we still live by. Occasionally we sail close to the wind, but essentially our code is sacrosanct and it says: “In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects”.

The irony is, of course, that we have to show the picture before we can criticise it.

And, knowing many excellent people in Reuters, I know they don’t just wake up and say “let’s dump on the black Brazilians today.”

I am sure they agonize on the merits, artistic, journalistic, humanitarian. And maybe, maybe they’ve thrown a stone that hit home. The truth is there is no dignity in crack addiction. But all of us, you, me, President Obama, Lady Gaga, Prince William and the entire cast of Lost were born naked, scared, but with the same right to life and dignity. And without Fernando Donasci’s photo essay I might not have had that thought today, and you might not have read it. 

Photo rights - it was not possible to use the Reuters photos referred to but we did link to the slideshow provided by Reuters for potential purchase. The photo used in this post is from the infamous Cracolandia but this time from AP and another photographer called Mauricio Lima. Interestingly, this slideshow also features the pregnant woman spoken about here. 


  1. I didn't quite get it. Are you condemning these photographs? Or (as you do at the end of your post), explaining the rationale? Or can you really believe the rules are different for portrayal of black people?

    Last year I saw a fairly apocalyptic photo essay (by a humorless Polish photographer with whom I had an e-mail exchange) in the Daily Mail showing (nearly all white) people in Wales in various stages of alcoholic obliteration. There is no shortage in the U.S. of stories about poor white people. In the Indian media you can see innumerable stories about the lot of Indians of all descriptions. And the coked up Wall Street banker? He's been portrayed in numerous Hollywood movies.

    As you note, there is good in the photos of "undignified" crack addicts, and other victims. The good is in the attention drawn to the situation. If you asked a sampling of people in Cracolandia how dignified they felt, I bet you'd at best get a couple of bitter chuckles.

    But how many times have you reached into your pocket because of an image you'd seen, that touched you? How much money has the IFRC raised via images like that?

    I think you've grabbed the wrong end of the stick with this blog post: what's wrong is that the vast majority of people in need on planet earth are non-white (as, of course, are the vast majority of people).

    1. windows 7 pro key sale , windows 7 professional sp1 activation key , windows 10 product key bulk discount , vmware workstation 11 to buy , product key for windows 7 professional 64 bit , windows 10 product key not activated , windows 10 activation tool torrent , windows 10 product key cost , tSONDt

      office 2016 product serial free

      windows 10 enterprise key

      office 2016 product key

      Windows 10 product key code sale

  2. I agree with Roberto.

    I think you have grabbed the wrong end of the stick. Our organisation pushes images all around the world to raise funds, without the permission of the people we have unobrustively photographed.

  3. I was working with two IFRC photographers this week, both carried (and used) release forms.

  4. Bob, for the record, every photog we hire here from Geneva has the code of conduct included in their contract and is briefed fully on the visual policy (dignity being topmost message here) incl. requesting permission (not always easy or reasonable) for publication. I think Joe's post is provocative and though-provoking on an issue that we often explain away as 'nice to have' but not 'need to have' -- whereas the latter should be the ultimate standard. In my time at the helm here I have for instance taken out of circulation photographs of naked young asian girls frolicking around in water - my colleagues in the WatSan dept. were none too impressed but would they have found it so easy to plaster photos of naked kids on big posters if those kids had been Swiss I wonder? I was in a counterpart's office the other day and a photo of another naked child, this time a philippino -- for me it's not acceptable and shouldn't be passed off as advocacy or similar, it's exploitation (pure and simple) and not art and not aid. Joe's point can be debated well on both sides of the argument but the discussion is important and not as black and white as many think.

  5. I have no doubt the IFRC's photographers (and staff), as well as those of the major relief organizations obtain releases as often as possible and practicable (as I was asked to do when I shot my project in the Congo for MSF last summer), but as viewers, we can't know whether or not releases have been obtained, either for IFRC images or those such as you've mentioned and shown above.

    To my mind, a release is tangential to the question of the subject's dignity.

    And in the case of Reuters photographs, of course a release is ethically unnecessary (though of course that can be debated). Those are news photographs, and the story you led with, about crack addiction in Brazilian favelas, is a news story. The snapper under his cloak of invisibility is reporting a story that as you note, would be unreportable for a photographer working in the open (at least unless that photographer were willing to spend several weeks virtually living among his/her subjects).

    For me, anyway, the question of color (which was the theme of your post, I felt) never comes up. There is misery everywhere, and it's pretty much colorblind.

  6. Roberto, have you seen this? From one of my favourite photo journalists Finbar O Reilly -- it raised a lot of discussion on the blogosphere recently on whether it was right to ignore 'black' poverty for the more sellable 'white' poverty story -- personally I defended it -- as I say, there are good arguments all sides and at least O'Reilly got to know his subjects and didn't hide out in a dumpster like a NatGeo wildlife photog ...